Amy, Skyline, Bomb Threats, Bus Issues, Fighting, Bullying, Inclusion, Zero Tolerance: How Do We Fix The Mess?

In the wake of what happened at Howard High School of Technology a week ago, many are questioning how to fix what is happening in our schools.  There are no easy answers.  I have not heard anyone defending the perpetrators of Amy’s murder.  But I have seen people describe students who exhibit behavior issues referred to as “animals” and “they should be sent to labor camps”.  While this is an extreme, I’ve heard these types of comments more than once, and I hear it more and more.  Once we go down that path we are essentially labeling these students as helpless and stating there is nothing we can do to help them.  And let’s face facts: when people say this there is a very racist undertone and they are referring to African-Americans.  I don’t agree with it on any level and every time I see it I want to ship the people who would say things like that out of our state.

Just this school year we have seen the following: a charter school that closed mid-year due to an uncontrollable environment, a change in feeder patterns resulting in many instances of bullying at a Red Clay middle school, a bizarre number of bomb threats resulting in many schools closing for the day, a child intimidated by a bus driver in Appoquinimink, a father suing Brandywine over what he alleges are due process violations and unsubstantiated searches, students sent to hospitals as a result of fighting that are never publicly acknowledged but whispered about on social media, inclusion practices that are not working, and a student who died from a brutal assault last week at Howard.

As our state grapples with these issues, we have not seen solutions put forth that look at the big picture.  Why are our students acting out?  Why are many of our schools attempting to hide many of these issues?  I have attended many State Board of Education meetings this year and I listen to their audio recordings.  We don’t hear them discussing these kinds of issues too much, if at all.  They seem to be more concerned with student outcomes based on standardized tests, Pathways programs, charter schools, accountability for schools, and celebrating the good things in our schools while giving short shrift to the issues that truly impact school climate.

It starts there.  To get to the heart of issues like this, you have to start at the top and have it trickle down to the Superintendents or Heads of School, to the building administrators, to the teachers, to the students and to the community.  If we have that massive disconnect at the top, the issues can never truly be addressed.  If our State Board and legislators can’t get these matters fixed, how can we expect our schools to do so?

To adequately blame one thing that started a lot of this, we can blame zero tolerance.  After the Columbine shootings in 1999, a massive wave of zero tolerance spread throughout America.  No school wanted to have a situation like that on their hands.  Students would be suspended for frivolous things.  It got to a point in Delaware where an African-American first grader was expelled in the Christina School District for having a cake knife.  As a result of that one bad judgment call, a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) resulted in the district entering an agreement with the OCR.  Because the OCR ruled too many minority student suspensions were happening, the district had to be very careful about how they were meting punishment to students.  Other districts saw what happened to Christina and didn’t want to suffer the same fate.

As a result, there was no consistency throughout the state on best practices.  For all the accountability and “standardization” of students based on very flawed state assessments, there has never been any definitive set of standards for school discipline and school climate.  There is no consistency with how schools report instances of bullying, offensive touching, and fighting.  Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn pointed this out many times but there has been no direct accountability to schools over these issues.  Part of the problem with discipline issues is the unique nature of them.  Because of student privacy and FERPA regulations, many situations can’t be discussed publicly.  There is no accurate tracking method to make sure our schools are recording these instances on the state reporting system, E-school, as required by state law within a set time period.  The result is very bad data in the one area we actually need it the most.  Add in special education issues and behaviors exhibited by students with disabilities.  Is it a result of their disability or is it everyday behavior?  Sometimes we just don’t know.

Some schools are very faithful with recording issues, but far too many aren’t.  How do we know which schools need help with issues if they aren’t being 100% honest about what is going on in their halls?  What shape would that help even be?  If it is a punitive measure from the state, is that going to solve the problem or persuade schools to hide things better?  Non-profits and corporations are lining up to get into our schools to offer what amounts to for-profit assistance.  Under the guise of the Every Student Succeeds Act, there is a call for companies to come into our schools like never before to offer after-school programs and to turn our schools into all-day community centers.  As well, we are seeing some states allowing companies to essentially bet on student outcomes in return for financial profit through social impact bonds.  Many of these ideas are concerning to parents.  Should schools be a place where medical and therapeutic treatment for students occur?  For neglected and abused children, this could be a life-saving measure for those children.  But it also opens up more of our public education system to less control at the local level.  Many feel government should not even be allowed to write something like this into any law.  The Elementary/Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was designed to make sure minority students were given equal footing in schools and were not disadvantaged.  Written in 1965, its goal was actually simple: equal rights for all.  Fifty years later, we are still tackling many of the original issues.  But now we want to turn our schools into more than what they should be.

As far as this insane filming of fights in our schools, it is a new environment with no oversight.  Students want to become social media famous because people come to their profile to look at it.  Something needs to happen immediately.  It is fostering an environment that is not healthy and desensitizes kids to violence.  Even community Facebook pages that have nothing but street fights on them exist unchecked and unmonitored.  In some of these videos, you actually see people telling others how to evade the police and they give warnings when the police are in the area.  For some reason, students are fascinated by this.  But the effect is chilling.  As well, the role of technology in our schools and homes is greater than ever.  But why are we allowing students to carry iPhones around school?  How much of the violence from gaming is warping young minds?  For that matter, what is all this screen time doing to all our brains?

If Amy’s tragic death has shown us anything it is that something is very broken.  We have to fix it, no matter what.  Amy’s situation is by far the worst thing that could happen to a student in school.  But many students bare physical and emotional scars from this broken system.  They are the survivors of fights and bullying that cause trauma to the soul, if not the physical.  On the flip side, we have students like Patrick Wahl’s son Joseph who many view as a victim of very bizarre due process circumstances for a district that still follows zero tolerance tendencies.  There are good things happening in our schools.  Don’t get me wrong on that.  We see students participating in charity events and giving back to their community on many levels.  But that can’t be all the public sees.  We have to look at the bad too.  We can’t put a blanket over the violence in our schools and pretend it isn’t there.  Amy’s death shattered that illusion in our state.

In the shadow of all this is the other illusion the state has cast on parents.  Many parents judge schools based on their performance without realizing the measurement of that performance is fundamentally flawed.  To get a basic breakdown of how this works, many years ago corporations decided they could make money off education.  They tailored reports to give the illusion that “the sky is falling” and all students were in danger of falling behind other countries.  Politicians jumped on the bandwagon through concerted lobbying efforts on the part of these companies, and soon enough new laws came down from a federal level based on student outcomes from standardized tests.  No Child Left Behind opened the door but Race To The Top opened the floodgates for this corporate invasion.  As schools were labeled and shamed under “school turnaround” laws, the US DOE started their ESEA flexibility waiver scheme.  They bribed schools with money to further these agendas.  Our schools and districts took the money with immense pressure from state governments during a recession.  A dramatic shift in school climate happened.  As more and more teachers took part in professional development to train them on the Common Core and other company initiatives, something happened to students.  They were not supervised the way they were prior to all of this and they found new ways to usurp authority, especially in schools with large populations of high-needs students.  Add in the situation with the OCR in Christina, and it was a recipe for disaster.  Diane Ravitch wrote today about the fifteen years of “fake” reform and how the impetus behind it all, NAEP scores, show students who are now seniors more behind than they were compared to their counterparts in 1992.  Common Core doesn’t work.

What if what we are seeing with student behavior and the reasons behind it are all wrong?  What if those who come from poverty, special needs, and low-income minority populations isn’t just misbehavior but something else altogether?  What if it is a direct result of a system designed for conformity?  The supposed goal of the Common Core was to make all students get the same set of standards across the country.  I hear many consistent things from parents in Delaware.  For smarter kids, Common Core isn’t so tough once they get it.  But for struggling students, basically the ones from sub-groups that perform poorly on state assessments, it is much more difficult.  Perhaps what we are seeing with this absolute disregard of authority in schools is a natural defense mechanism kicking in.  A fight or flight mechanism when their way of living, of being, is attacked.  The natural instinct for teenagers is to rebel.  Compound that with an entire education system designed to make students question authority less and use “critical thinking” based on standards that actually give children less choices, and something will give.  We are seeing this now.  And if we continue on the same track, it will get far worse.  If a “smart” student gets it faster, it would naturally put other students behind.  This is the impossible bar the Common Core puts on students.  For the intelligent who come from wealthier and more cohesive home environments, this isn’t a problem.  But for students with disabilities who cannot always control their actions and minority students who do not have the environmental stability their more advantaged peers have, it will take a great deal of effort to catch up with their peers.  Add in the stress and anxiety they have from their environment outside of school to the pressure to perform in school, and the pressure gage gets higher.  Then add the explosive need every teenager has, to belong and have friends, and the gage gets closer to the point of no return.  Throw in a fixation on violence mixed with wanting to be accepted and the Pompeii of public education is set.  Last week we saw the volcanic eruption of rage unchecked and bystanders filming it and doing nothing.

The biggest victims of the education reform movement are inner-city African-American students.  While civil rights groups demanded more equity for these students they fell into the trap the corporate education reformers methodically laid out for them with financial enticements.  The reformers echoed their complaints and pitted parents against teachers.  The reformers used standardized test scores to give a false impression of schools and invented a whole new language based on the word “gap”: the equity gap, the proficiency gap, the honesty gap, and on and on and on.  Add in school choice, a growing charter school movement, forced busing based on a horrible Neighborhood Schools Act in Delaware, and the rise of Jack Markell as Governor wrapped in a corporate bow and the perfect storm began in our schools.

To ignore the plight of African-Americans in Delaware would be a gross injustice.  It goes way beyond apologizing for slavery.  A friend of mine sent me an article about the 1968 Occupation of Wilmington.  The article written by Will Bunch with philly.com talked about the nine-month Occupation of Wilmington by the National Guard following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  For the African-American community in Wilmington at the time, this was a grave injustice:

On the other hand, in a sign of some of the deep divide and mistrust in Delaware that lingers to this day, the white Democratic governor down in Dover decided to send in the National Guard – and then kept troops on the streets of Wilmington for nine long months, the longest military occupation of a U.S. city since the Civil War.

And this quote from former Wilmington Mayor James Baker:

But the memory still burns for those who lived through the occupation. “It sent a shock wave through the social-service agencies . . . and the city as a whole,” Baker recalled. “People said, ‘What are we doing?’ “

Many African-American communities in Wilmington are very distrustful of the government, and for very good reasons.  This belief gets handed down from generation to generation.  But when drugs enter a city like Wilmington, followed by violence and murders, that distrust can get out of control.  How do we tackle this?  How do we lift a whole city out of a problem of this magnitude?  When my friend sent me this article, it was a response to my question about why we don’t just send in tons of cops and clean it all up, all the drugs and gangs.  She informed me the last time this happened it didn’t work out too well.  It astonishes me that we are still dealing with issues of race in the 21st Century, but we are and we need to face it and deal with it, all of us.  But at the same time, we cannot ignore what individuals are doing in individual circumstances.

We need to be very careful on how we plan to deal with the situations in far too many of our schools.  Far too much is tied into the very bad education reforms that show, time and time again, how it just doesn’t work.  But our current system has been infiltrated with far too many people tied to these efforts.  I expected to see a late rush of legislation coming forth at Legislative Hall in the final days of June.  With very little community input and transparency, we need to watch our legislators like a hawk and make sure what they put forth is best for students and not the broken system some of them are trying desperately to make permanent.  The funding mechanisms for our schools are under the microscope, but if we squeeze the property assessment orange too fast, it could cause many to leave the state they moved to because of low taxes.  As well, we need to be mindful of laws Delaware could pass in anticipation of the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The law is still being flushed out in a lot of areas and the DOE and Governor Markell WILL take full advantage of that to please the hedge funders and corporations.

If businesses want to come into our schools and turn them into community schools, they should pay rent to our schools.  If they want to turn education into a marketplace, like any other store they need to pay their rent.  Why are we giving them a free ride while they make millions and millions and our districts get less?  It makes no sense when you look at it like a business model.  But no, our state wants to give them tax discounts for doing business in our state.  We are giving them free reign to pump out the same products over and over again with no actual results.

While these aren’t the solutions we need to make our schools safer, it is a big start.  Our district administrators are far too distracted with all of the nonsense around Common Core, state assessments, personalized learning, and career pathways when they should be focused on the more important things.  The first steps to ending violence in our schools are actually quite simple.  A rebellion like none seen before in public education.  A collective and concerted effort to rid ourselves of the catalysts that are stroking the flames in our children’s lives.  End Common Core.  End state assessments.  End the testing accountability machine that destroys morale in students, teachers, and schools.  End the corporate interference in education that perpetuates the false ideals that if students have more “rigor” and “grit” they can become college and career ready.  We are indoctrinating children at a very young age to be something they are not meant to be.  The human mind won’t allow it.  Some will conform.  But for the growing poor and disabled in our country, they will not be what the reformers want them to be.  You can’t guide a four-year old towards a certain career path based on data and scores.  You can’t say they don’t qualify for special education if a disability has not manifested itself yet.  End the abhorrent amount of data collection on our students for “educational research”.

This is the start.  Let’s get back to more human education.  Why are we doing this to our future?  No child should be a victim of a padded resume or a fattened wallet.  The majority of teachers will tell you privately what we are doing is not working.  Administrators will as well if you catch them on a good day.  But they feel threatened that if they don’t comply their profession will disappear.  They will fight for certain things but when they need to openly rebel against the system, it doesn’t happen.  It is their self-defense mechanism.  The closest we have come to ending this era of education reform is opt out.  But even that is in danger of disappearing if the education tech invaders get their way and have the state assessment embedded in small chunks instead of a once a year test.  The personalized learning and competency-based education models are already calling for this.

When I hear people say “all you do is complain, what are your solutions?”, I cringe.  The problem is so epic in scope, so large in diameter, that it will take a great deal of effort by many well-meaning people to find all the answers.  And when I say well-meaning, I don’t mean the Rodel Foundation or the Governor.  I mean the people who are not affected by corporate greed and a lust for power.  I’m talking about the people who truly want to save our children.

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