Allowing Guns in Schools is a Bad Idea

guns-in-school

Guns were not allowed at Donald Trump’s inauguration.

 

They were not allowed at his speech to the National Rifle Association (NRA).

 

Nor were they allowed at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) or at most of his hotels, golf courses and other properties.

 

But he wants them to be allowed at our public schools.

 

He promised to eliminate gun free zones at schools around the country on day one of his presidency.

 

With all the tweeting about crowd size, he didn’t get around to it. But he may – soon.

 

Press Secretary Sean Spicer promised in February that the President has an executive order in the works to address the issue.

 

Before running for Chief Executive, Trump had been much more moderate on guns. But since then he has echoed the NRA’s official position several times, saying that there are fewer shootings in areas where guns are permitted and that killers target areas prohibiting them.

 

However, it’s not true. From 2000 to 2013, only one shooting was stopped by an armed civilian. However, during that time, 21 shootings were stopped by unarmed bystanders. Moreover, from January 2009 to July 2015, only 13 percent of mass shootings took place in gun-free zones.

 

The law prohibiting guns in schools (with the exception of mostly law enforcement officers) was signed by Republican President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The law was upheld in 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

So for now, it is illegal for unauthorized people to posses firearms inside or around a school.

 

Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may have given everyone a good laugh suggesting schools need guns to protect from bear attacks, but Republicans are working to make this a reality – with or without the President. In January, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) introduced a bill to repeal this legislation.

 

The question remains, are guns in school a good or bad idea? In a country of 350 million people and more than 310 million guns, would our schools really be safer if those firearms ended up in our classrooms?

 

F- NO!

 

Here are five reasons why:

 

1) Kids Will Get Ahold of Them

 

Kids get their hands on everything. As a parent, it’s exceedingly difficult to put anything down without your children ending up with it. And that’s only with one or two kids! Imagine it with a classroom of 20-30!

 

Look at how many times teachers’ cell phones unintentionally end up in student hands. It’s human nature. If kids know a teacher is packing, some of her students may go through her desk, her bag or otherwise find it.

 

Moreover, teachers often have to break up fights between students. Having a gun within reach of angry adolescents bent on doing each other harm is a recipe for disaster.

 

Unfortunately, children are not strangers to gun violence. According to FBI homicide data, of the 1,448 children who died as a result of gun violence in 2010, 165 of those deaths were at the hands of other children.

 

In most cases, trained teachers will keep firearms out of reach, but having them present in the classroom increases the chances of tragedy.

 

 

This is backed up by social science. The Journal of Pediatrics conducted a study in 2001 where twenty-nine groups of two to three boys, most of whom were around ten-years-old, had to wait for fifteen minutes in a room with a one-way mirror.  Two water pistols and a real handgun were partially hidden in various locations throughout the room.  If students found the handgun and pulled the trigger, it was rigged to make a firing sound and kickback realistically.

 

The result: 48 out the 64 boys found the handgun.  Of those, 30 handled the gun and 16 pulled the trigger. Approximately half of the boys who found the gun said they thought it was a toy or were unsure if it was real.  A full 90% of the boys who handled the gun or pulled the trigger had received some sort of gun safety education previously.

 

Make no mistake. Having guns within reach of children is an invitation for them to use them.

 

2) Schools Don’t Want Them

 

Most schools don’t want this responsibility.

 

 

Back in 2012, Michigan Republicans floated a bill to allow guns in schools. Superintendents throughout the state sent letters to Gov. Rick Snyder asking him to veto it (which he did). The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the largest labor unions in the country with more than 1.5 million members, also wrote to Snyder, saying, “We should be doing everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property.”

 

They know that guns in school will increase problems – not decrease them. Survivors of school shootings certainly aren’t coming forward demanding more guns. We should listen to them.

 

 

3) Teachers Will Misuse Them

 

Teachers are highly trained and have years of experience helping kids learn. They aren’t necessarily knowledgeable with how to safely use, store and operate firearms. Nor would some of them be suited to such training.

 

Everyone’s known those teachers who are lovably absentminded. Do you want them leaving their gun in an unlocked classroom? Just because you can help a student read and write, doesn’t mean you’re good in a gunfight.

 

I love teachers. I admire most of the educators in my building. I would not feel safe if they were all armed.

 

 

4) Kids Will Be Scared

 

Having a gun in class does not put people at ease. It does just the opposite. A gun is a threat of future violence. If students completely trust their teacher, they may be comforted, but students rarely feel that level of comfort with every teacher in the building.

 

Imagine the chilling effect a firearm can have on class discussion, on any sort of disagreement. Some students are victims of abuse at home and don’t fully trust adults. At present, the worst a teacher can do is just fail them. How would these children feel living with the threat of imminent death? In most states, teachers aren’t even allowed to paddle students anymore. Now we’re going to give them the power of life and death!?

 

How would parents feel? I love my daughter’s teachers, but I must admit I don’t want them strapped.

 

 

5) They Won’t Stop School Shootings

 

Most school shooters don’t pay much attention to whether they will survive their attack. In fact, they plan for just the opposite. The presence of guns will not deter them. It may even attract them.

 

Sometimes violence is a cry for help. Children act out not to achieve their aim but to be stopped by an adult. Having guns in school may make students feel safer about initiating a shooting because they think they’ll be apprehended.

 

Moreover, it makes the job of police responding to a shooting that much more difficult. How can they tell the difference between an armed perpetrator and an armed victim? Plus there’s the issue of friendly fire. When you have two people shooting at each other, bystanders get caught in the crossfire. This is not a good environment for children.

 

Critics will say it’s better than just the perpetrator being armed, but that’s the point. It’s better that NO ONE be armed at school.

 

Instead of increasing firearms around children, we should decrease and control them. But that’s a policy driven by rationality and not the profits of gun manufacturers.

 

This entire debate has been driven by what’s economically beneficial for one industry over everything else. Money has trumped science, reason and empathy.

 

If Republicans think guns are so vital, maybe they should pass laws to allow them at their own gatherings before forcing them on our public schools.

 

Children deserve a safe environment in which to learn. Adding guns to our already overburdened public schools is throwing a match at an already explosive situation.

I’m a Public School teacher. Hands Off My Trans Students!

ct-transgender-students-met-20150425

I’m a public school teacher.

I have a lot of different girls and boys in my classes.

In fact, some of them are neither girls nor boys.

Does that mean they should be discriminated against? Does it mean we should judge them, tell them they’re somehow less valuable than the other kids? Tell them who they are by telling them where to pee?

Heck, No!

Some kids don’t feel comfortable with a traditional gender identity. And it’s more common than you’d think.

It’s certainly more widespread than I ever would have thought until a little girl taught me a lesson… well, not a little girl, really.

A few months ago, I would have said she’s the cutest little girl in the lunch line.

Bright, vivacious, always a friendly smile and a kind word.

But she’s not a little girl.

And I didn’t know until she told me.

As a teacher given the unenviable role of line monitor, I have to find the bright spots where I can.

Letting only two hungry 5th graders in to get their lunch at a time and making the rest wait does not make you popular.

“Aaaargh! Why you always stopping me!?” They often say.

“Because you were third,” I reply.

“But why?” They often insist.

“It’s not personal. It’s numerical.”

And I let them through to continue the game tomorrow.

It goes on like that for about a half hour with little variation – until she gets to the front of the line.

“Hey, Mr. Singer!” Big smile and a wave.

And we’d be off on a conversation. She’d ask me how my day was, what I was teaching my students, how my daughter was. I’d ask how her day was so far, about pets, homework.

She’s actually not in my class. I only see her at lunch, but she always brightens my day.

For months, it went like clockwork. Until a few weeks ago when she appeared at the front of the line with her long hair chopped off into a bob.

“Nice haircut,” I said encouragingly.

“Thanks,” she replied. “You want to know why I got it?”

“Sure. Why?”

“I’m agender.”

“Oh,” I responded cluelessly. “What’s that?”

And she proceeded to explain that she didn’t feel comfortable identifying as male or female.

I nodded and then it was time to let her get her lunch.

I’ll admit it was unsettling. Here was this cute little thing and I didn’t even know what to call her now.

But the next day things progressed as usual. Ze came through the line with the same big smile. We had the same innocuous conversation and ze went to eat.

It made me think.

I’ve been teaching for more than a decade. Ze was probably not the first transgender student I’ve met. And when I thought back to all the children who’ve come through my classes over the years, faces started to pop up and hit me.

Gender is not black and white. (Come to think of it, neither is race.) No one is 100% male or female. I mean, sure people have a fixed range of sexual parts, but gender identity is more than that.

We each feel comfortable acting and identifying certain ways, and if you think about it, some of those ways don’t always line up with our cultural gender designation.

For instance, I cry my eyes out at certain movies. My daughter – who’s 8 – heard the song “Boys Don’t Cry,” the other day and said, “Well that isn’t true. Daddy cries all the time.”

Moreover, my wife loves football, basketball and hockey. Me? I could take them or leave them. If she wants me to watch the game with her, she’s got to beg or promise or put out the right snacks.

Wouldn’t it just make sense that some people are much further to one side or other of the gender spectrum than others? Wouldn’t it just make sense that sometimes your identity and your physical parts don’t match? Or maybe you’re so in the middle that it makes no sense to take a side?

I say again, I teach in a public school. We don’t push any kids away. We take everyone. And that means taking those kids who aren’t so easy to label.

I teach middle school. Transgenderism doesn’t come up too often.

Last year when bathroom bills were all the rage, some of my 8th graders brought it up during our Socratic Seminar discussion groups. And I let them talk about it.

We talked about why some people might think this is a good idea, why some might oppose it, etc. There were some boys who were hysterically against trans students using the bathroom with them, but most of my kids had zero problem with it. In fact, they knew that it had already happened.

Trans students are everywhere. You just rarely hear about them.

I don’t know which bathroom my lunchline buddy uses. I wouldn’t presume to ask. But it hurts me that there are people out there who want to limit hir.

These children have rights. They are little sweethearts. They’re full of life and joy. We should respect their humanity.

And to those who say letting them use a bathroom that corresponds with their identity will lead to kids being molested, let me ask – has that ever really happened?

The way I see it, the problem is people – any people – molesting others, no matter what room they do it in, no matter if they’re transgender or not.

Frankly, it doesn’t happen a lot at school, nor is it more pronounced with trans kids.

This has nothing to do with children. It has to do with old men and women who refuse to broaden their views about the world. It’s about the ancient making the young do as they say regardless of how doing so may trample on their right to be themselves.

Well, I won’t be a part of it.

You want to attack my trans students? You’ll have to do it through me.

I’m a guardian of kid’s rights. I’m a defender of children from whoever wants to do them harm.

I’m a public school teacher. That’s just what we do.

Trump says our schools are “Flush with Cash!?” They’re Falling Apart!

img_6296

Donald Trump lies.

If you haven’t learned that yet, America, you’ve got four more cringe-inducing years to do so.

Even in his inaugural address, he couldn’t help but let loose a whooper about US public schools.

“Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves,” he said. “But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. … An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

To which nearly every poor, nonwhite public school parent, student and teacher in the country replied, “What’s that heck did he just say now!?”

Los Angeles Unified School district routinely has broken desks and chairs, missing ceiling tiles, damaged flooring, broken sprinklers, damaged lunch tables and broken toilet paper dispensers.

They’re flush with cash!?

New York City public schools removed more than 160 toxic light fixtures containing polychlorinated biphenyls, a cancer causing agent that also hinders cognitive and neurological development. Yet many schools are still waiting on a fix, especially those serving minority students.

They’re flush with cash!?

At Charles L. Spain school in Detroit, the air vents are so warped and moldy, turning on the heat brings a rancid stench. Water drips from a leaky roof into the gym, warping the floor tiles. Cockroaches literally scurry around some children’s classrooms until they are squashed by student volunteers.

They’re flush with freakin cash!?

Are you serious, Donald Trump!?

And this same picture is repeated at thousands of public schools across the nation especially in impoverished neighborhoods. Especially in communities serving a disproportionate number of black, Latino or other minority students.

In predominantly white, upper class neighborhoods, the schools often ARE “flush with cash.” Olympic size swimming pools, pristine bathrooms – heck – air conditioning! But in another America across the tracks, schools are defunded, ignored and left to rot.

A full 35 states provide less overall state funding for education today than they did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on reducing poverty and inequality. Most states still haven’t recovered from George W. Bush’s Great Recession and the subsequent state and local budget cuts it caused. In fact, over the same period, per pupil funding fell in 27 states and still hasn’t recovered.

And the federal government has done little to help alleviate the situation. Since 2011, spending on major K-12 programs – including Title I grants for underprivileged students and special education – has been basically flat.

The problem is further exacerbated by the incredibly backward way we allocate funding at the local level which bears the majority of the cost of education.

While most advanced countries divide their school dollars evenly between students, the United States does not. Some students get more, some get less. It all depends on local wealth.

The average per pupil expenditure for U.S. secondary students is $12,731. But that figure is deceiving. It is an average. Some kids get much more. Many get much less. It all depends on where you live. If your home is in a rich neighborhood, more money is spent on your education than if you live in a poor neighborhood.

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

So, no. Our schools are not “flush with cash.” Just the opposite in many cases.
But what about Trump’s other claim – the much touted narrative of failing schools?

Trump says our schools “leave… our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

Not true.

Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent. Moreover, for the first time minority students are catching up with their white counterparts.

It’s only international comparisons of standardized test scores that support this popular myth of academic failure. And, frankly, even that is based on a warped and unfair reading of those results.

It depends on how you interpret the data.

Raw data shows US children far from the top of the scale. It puts us somewhere in the middle – where we’ve always been for all the decades since they’ve been making these comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

However, this ignores a critical factor – poverty. We’ve known for decades that standardized tests are poor measures of academic success. Bubble tests can assess simple things but nothing complex. After all, they’re scored based on answers to multiple choice questions. In fact, the only thing they seem to measure with any degree of accuracy is the parental income of the test-taker. Kids from rich families score well, and poor kids score badly.

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking these exams have much less child poverty than the U.S. If they had the same percentage of poor students that we do, their scores would be lower than ours. Likewise, if we had the same percentage of poor students that they do, our scores would go through the roof! We would have the best scores in the world!

Moreover, the U.S. education system does something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME of theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

This suggests that the majority of problems with our public schools aren’t bad teachers, or a lack of charter schools and school choice. It’s money, pure and simple.

We invest the majority of our education funding in rich white kids. The poor and minorities are left to fend for themselves.

This won’t be solved by Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and her school choice schemes. In fact, that’s exactly what’s weakened public schools across the country by leaching away what meager funding these districts have left. Nor will it be solved by a demagogue telling fairy tales to Washington’s credulous and ignorant.

We need to make a real investment in our public schools. We need to make a commitment to funding poor black kids as fairly as we do rich white kids.

Otherwise, the only thing flushed will be children’s future.

The Child Predator We Invite into Our Schools

th

There is a good chance a predator is in the classroom with your child right now.

He is reading her homework assignments, quizzes and emails. He is timing how long it takes her to answer questions, noting her right and wrong answers. He’s even watching her body language to determine if she’s engaged in the lesson.

He has given her a full battery of psychological assessments, and she doesn’t even notice. He knows her academic strengths and weaknesses, when she’ll give up, when she’ll preserver, how she thinks.

And he’s not a teacher, counselor or even another student. In fact, your child can’t even see him – he’s on her computer or hand-held device.

It’s called data mining, and it’s one of the major revenue sources of ed-tech companies. These are for-profit business ventures that produce education software: programs to organize student information and help them learn. They make databases and classroom management tools as well as educational video games and test prep software.

As schools have relied more heavily on technology to enhance lessons, they’ve invited big business into a space that is supposed to be private.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student privacy, but it also gives school districts the right to share students’ personal information with private companies for educational reasons.

Companies are supposed to keep test scores, disciplinary history and other official records confidential. They’re not supposed to use them for their own ends. But the law was written in 1974 before the Internet went mainstream or many of these technologies were even conceived.

It’s unclear exactly who owns this data or whether FERPA protects it.

For every child utilizing these programs, there’s a good chance their data has been put into a portfolio with their name on it. That portfolio could be sold to advertisers and other business interests so they can better market their products to young consumers. With this information, these companies are turning children into guinea pigs so they can improve the profitability of their products.

Let me be clear. It’s not that technology is essentially evil. There are many ways in which it can be used to enhance student learning when provided under the supervision of a trained educator. But the current laws offer little protection for children and parents from rampant abuse by the ed-tech industry.

In most cases no one explicitly gives permission for student data to be shared. No one knew it was even happening.

This is an area that is almost completely unregulated. Hardly anyone is investigating it. After all, why should they? It’s just harmless big business. It’s just corporations we invited to the party; we may even have paid them to be there.

Individual school districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with ed-tech corporations, but few do.

According to a nationwide study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University, just 7 percent of the contracts between districts and ed-tech corporations barred the companies from selling student data for profit.

Few contracts require companies to delete sensitive data when they are done with it. And just a quarter of companies clearly explain why they need personal student information in the first place, according to the same study.

To make matters worse, the publicly stated privacy policies of these corporations can be extremely dense and full of provisos. You may need a lawyer specializing in this field to truly understand what they’re promising to keep private and what might fall under a loophole.

For instance, even if a company promises not to share student information for nonacademic reasons, it can farm out some of its services to third party companies that have no such compunction about student privacy. These third party vendors or even the primary ed-tech company can put cookies on your child’s computer or device that continue to gather data on her and report back on it indefinitely. Moreover, even if the ed-tech company is diligent about protecting student privacy, that policy can change without notice and without parents being notified. For instance, many of these ed-tech companies are rag tag start-ups that are just hoping to be purchased by a bigger organization. In that case the privacy policy will almost certainly alter, possibly without notice.

Data mining isn’t exclusive to education software applications. If you’ve ever passed up a product on-line and then immediately saw an advertisement for that product on a different Website – congratulations – You’ve been data mined. Many of the applications adults use every day in their virtual lives practice this to some extent – Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. However, there’s a difference between an adult user who enters into virtual relationships with eyes wide open and a child just completing the classwork her teacher assigned in school.

But even beyond the philosophical difference is the extent to which our children are being data mined. No where is it more pervasive than in our schools.

A really efficient ed-tech firm can collect as much as 10 million unique data points on each child, every day. That’s exponentially more than Facebook, Google or Netflix collect on their users.

Moreover, the ed-tech industry hungers for even more data on our children.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $1.4 million research project to provide middle-school students with biometric sensors designed to detect how kids responded on a subconscious level to each minute of each lesson. Like Common Core State Standards – Gates’ attempt to force uniform academic standards on the nation’s public schools – data mining is all about turning real children into information. Intelligence and knowledge are reduced to numbers. Biological functions, heat indexes, even eye movements are tabulated as a function of a salable commodity – your child.

In the not too distant future, ed-tech companies could sell information about which prospective job applicants or college students have the proper aptitude to be successful. In some ways, this is just an extension of the ways standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are used to unfairly label students worthy or not of a post-secondary education. However, those tests are taken by high school juniors and seniors. The coming data mining boom would judge children based on their performance all the way back to kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.

As usual the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is already planning for this dystopian nightmare. The conservative lobbying organization has drafted a model bill to make this a reality.  If picked up and offered in any state legislature, the bill would set up a central database for student records and allow colleges or businesses to browse them in search of potential recruits.

In addition, these student portfolios could allow corporate vultures to prey on customers vulnerable to particular sales pitches. For instance, young adults who had struggled at math in high school would make dandy targets for high-priced payday loans.

In the meantime, hedge fund managers and other investors are pouring money into the ed-tech market. More than $650 million flowed into technology firms serving K-12 and higher education each year for the past three years. That’s nearly double the $331 million invested in these markets in 2009. The national market for education software and digital content is nearly $8 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

Yet there is little evidence these applications are truly helpful in educating children. Even the technology-loving Gates Foundation, found in a national survey that only 54 percent of teachers thought the digital tools used most frequently by their students were effective.

Let’s get something straight: the reason most of these firms exist is not education. It is spying on children. It is stealing their valuable data for corporations’ own ends.

The ed-tech market is intimately entwined with the latest fad in education policy – Competency Based Education (CBE).

This has come to mean teaching and assessment conducted online, where students’ learning is continuously monitored, measured, and analyzed.

However, the goal seems to be replacing big end of the year standardized tests with daily stealth assessments. In this way, it would be more difficult for parents to refuse testing for their children. It would hide the ways in which a standardized curriculum narrowed student learning to the very basics. It would hide how children’s every tiniest action is being used to judge and evaluate their schools and teachers. And this information of dubious validity could be used to close public schools and replace them with shoddy but more profitable charter schools.

Education historian Diane Ravitch talks about a meeting in August of 2015 with The State Commissioner of Education in New York, Mary Ellen Elia, and several board members of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a highly successful state opt out organization.

She says:

 

“At one point, Commissioner Elia said that the annual tests would eventually be phased out and replaced by embedded assessment. When asked to explain, she said that students would do their school work online, and they would be continuously assessed. The computer could tell teachers what the students were able to do, minute by minute.”

The plan has been laid bare. Our students privacy has been compromised and is being used against them. If big business has its say, our children will be forever pawns in a system that reduces them to data and profit.

That’s not what public school should be about.

It should be a place centered on learning not earning.

It should be a place that values the student and not her data.

It should be a place of creativity, imagination and wonder.

But as long as we allow ed-tech companies to run unregulated in the shadows, it will always be susceptible to these dangers.

The only one who can stop these predators in your child’s classroom is you.

What My Black Student Taught Me, His White Teacher, About Black Lives

student_081910-thumb-640xauto-704

I can’t tell you how many times Darnell was in detention.

After a while, it didn’t feel right if he wasn’t staying at least an hour after school.

Darnell was late to class.

Darnell swore at another student.

Darnell copied someone’s paper.

Darnell did just about everything and anything that came to his mind. And it earned him time after school with me, his newly-minted 8th grade language arts teacher.

In a class full of mostly brown and black students, many living in an impoverished high crime Pittsburgh suburb, Darnell was the standout. Or at least his misbehavior was.

At first, he complained, but I had his mom on speed dial, and she fully supported my holding him accountable.

He wanted to do his homework during this time, but I made him do busy work instead. The way I looked at it as a young teacher just starting out, if I gave him time to do his school work, it would be a reward, not a punishment.

So I made him copy down dictionary definitions, clean the tables or put up the chairs.

And once he realized there was no way out, he did it all uncomplainingly.

But an hour is a long time, so after a while I let him work on his homework, too.

I had an awful lot of work to do, myself, during these times – piles of papers to grade and lessons to plan – so whatever would keep him quiet would be okay with me.

Unfortunately, Darnell didn’t work that way. He had questions. So many questions.

I had no time, but what else was I gonna’ do?

I answered him. With frustration at first while sitting at my desk.

Then I found myself walking over to him and standing at his table. Then I sat down next to him. And pretty soon we were doing the homework together.

But an hour is a long time, so sometimes he’d finish early. I offered to let him go.

He didn’t want to.

He’d stay and talk: “Did you see the football game, Mr. Singer?”

Or “Did you hear the new Beyoncé album, Mr. Singer?”

Or “How many kids do you have at home, Mr. Singer?”

One day I remember the last bell ringing and looking up to see Darnell at his desk doing homework. I looked back at my stack of papers before I realized – Darnell didn’t have detention today.

I laughed. “You can go home, Buddy,” I said.

“I know,” he replied. “Is it okay if I stay and get this done?”

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But I was.

I nodded, and he stayed.

I won’t say Darnell ever became a perfect student. He just didn’t have the patience for detailed work. He was more of a big picture guy.

But after months of never turning in homework – years, really – he began to turn all of it in. And I mean all of it!

He wasn’t a great speller, but he started ending all of his sentences with punctuation. And he started all of his sentences with a capitalized word.

He wasn’t a great reader, but he did crack open a few books. Nothing too difficult or complex, but it was more than any teacher I talked to had ever seen him read previously.

At the end of the year, I remember pausing by his desk and praising him.

“Darnell, that’s some mighty fine work you did in here this year,” I said.

And he got this big ol’ grin on his face like he used to get before he was about to engage in some random act of mischief.

“Thanks, Mr. Singer. You’re a really good teacher.”

I smiled and said, “No, Darnell. You’re a good student.”

I remember looking him in the eye to emphasize it. This was a kid with a reputation. I’ll bet few teachers had ever commended him on his school work before.

Then the year ended, and he was gone.

He went on to 9th grade and did even better than in my class. The same in 10th, 11th and 12th.

Oh, sure. He was still a handful and got himself in trouble lots of times. But he did his work and didn’t fail his classes.

I kept an eye on him like I do all my students when they leave me. I try to keep tabs, but there’s always a new bunch just waiting for you at the beginning of the year.

You remember anytime you think about it, which isn’t much.

So it was years later when I heard the news.

Teachers were shaking their heads in the faculty room. The principal held a meeting to tell us about it in case any of our current students were upset, in case any of us had Darnell’s cousins, brothers, sisters, or friends.

He was only 18 when he was murdered.

Shot down in the streets from a passing car.

Police still don’t know whether he was the shooter’s target or if he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The high school teachers, who knew Darnell best, said he had really straightened up his act. He had gotten into community college, wanted to be an engineer.

And they shook their heads. What else was there to say?

I walked back to my classroom and opened a file cabinet.

Inside was a bunch of dusty manila folders – one for each child I had ever made serve a detention.

It didn’t take long to spot Darnell’s. It was one of the thickest.

I opened it up and took out the stack of papers inside.

There were doodles of monsters and basketball players. There were lists of badly spelled vocabulary words in his adolescent handwriting. And there were these halting paragraphs about what he’d done to get detention and how he’d never do it again.

“I’m sorry I wuz late 2 class. I will ask to use bathrom before going.”

“i will not copy LaRonns paper. i will do it myself.”

I read through them all. Every one. I read them again and again until long after everyone else but the janitors had left the building.

I had spent so much time with Darnell.

I had poured my soul into that kid.

But what had it truly accomplished?

He is dead. A victim of his environment. Nothing but a number, a statistic, a footnote.

Just not to me.

By all accounts he had been trying to do good, trying to make something of himself. But it wasn’t enough. Bullets don’t discriminate between the hardworking and the lazy. They just do what they do.

In my mind I tried to see him walking home, a stack of books weighing him down, making him slow. I saw him walking past those ramshackle apartments and slums, that shady park with the broken benches, the street corners where you could buy heroin or pills or weed.

If he was white, would it have been different? If he was white and didn’t live in the “bad neighborhood,” would it have mattered?

If his mom didn’t have to work two or three jobs, would it have helped? If he had someone at home to watch him instead of a bunch of younger siblings and cousins to watch, would things be different?

I don’t know.

But I DO know that there is a list of dead children in my community – some of them my former students – and almost all of them are black.

Darnell wasn’t killed by a policeman, but I’m sure they knew his name. He used to tell me how the cops would often follow him and his friends into the grocery store. “Why they always be doin’ that?” he’d ask me. And I’d just shrug thinking about all the times he’d wait until I wasn’t looking before slapping another child on the neck.

But if Darnell had been white, would we have had different expectations of him? Would we have given him the benefit of the doubt to begin with – like we do white kids?

I wasn’t a very good teacher to Darnell. Every scrap of respect I gave him he had to earn. Why didn’t I give him that respect at the start? Why didn’t I expect the best and then change my expectations as the situation dictated? Why did I instead expect the worst and alter my expectations from there?

I never questioned if or why Darnell was seeking my attention. I just thought of his bad behavior. It was something I wanted to change, so here’s a punishment.

I never offered Darnell my help. I offered help to the class as a whole but not to Darnell individually. Not until he wore me down. Not until helping him was easier than arguing with him.

I never thought about Darnell’s needs. I thought about MY needs of Darnell. I need him to behave so I can teach. Never Darnell’s needs to behave so he can learn.

And there are so many other kids out there like him. I’ve taught so many other little Darnells.

I approach them differently now. It’s a lesson he taught me.

I may have bestowed upon him some spelling and grammar. He taught me humanity. Who is the better teacher?

He taught me to look at black children in a different way.

He taught me to come to them on their terms. To begin anew with an expectation that they will do well no matter what they’ve done in the past. He taught me to look beyond their behaviors and see them as little people. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and it informs my teaching to this day.

As I sat there with that stack of dusty folders, I realized it doesn’t end at the classroom door.

I used to think being a parent, myself, I had an interest in the future. But that’s not entirely true. Being a parent is one of the most rewarding things you can do, but it isn’t selfless. It only means you care about your child. Not all children.

And that’s where being a teacher is different. After a while, you can’t be selfish anymore. You can’t care for only some people’s futures. You are essentially invested in a future for all, for everyone.

You can try to draw a line in the sand and say “I only care about THESE kids,” but it doesn’t work. You find yourself caring about all of them, all of the children who will become our world when we crumble to dust.

That’s how it should be for everyone.

As a human being, it is my responsibility to fight to make this world a better place for people like Darnell. It’s my responsibility to make sure they all have a future.

But it goes beyond even that. I’m not just any person. I’m a white person.

All the things stacked against a kid like Darnell were stacked in my favor. I lived in a good neighborhood. Police never followed me anywhere. No matter how much I misbehaved, it was always expected I wouldn’t cause any trouble – unless I did.

So it’s my responsibility as a white person to fight my privileged place in society. It’s my responsibility to ensure that black people aren’t held back by entitlements I have not earned and handicaps they do not deserve.

As a white teacher, it is my responsibility to see the best in my children – in ALL of my children. It is my responsibility to meet them where they are and give them support and nurturing and love.

To do so I must see beyond the walls of invisible prejudice. I must see the hurdles, the traps, the maze so I can help them overcome it.

Because Darnell never got to go to college. He never got to become an engineer.

But his life mattered.

Gov. Rick Snyder Should Be Forced to Drink Nothing But Contaminated Flint Water for the Rest of His Life

Screen shot 2016-01-22 at 12.02.36 AM

As I write this, I have a fresh glass of ice cold water sitting next to me.

It is so clear I can see the wood grain of the the table through it. When I put it to my mouth, my lips almost go numb from the cold.

I gulp down way more than I should. In moments, it seems, the glass is empty.

Nothing satisfies like a crisp simple glass of water.

But in Flint, Michigan, that straightforward, easy pleasure can kill you.

And-or poison your children, cause learning disabilities, hearing loss, vomiting, high blood pressure, pain or numbness in the extremities, infertility or miscarriage. Among a host of other equally terrible maladies.

From the water.

Nine months ago the state officials who took over running Flint because the city was just too darn poor for self government, they shut off the flow of already treated Lake Huron water from Detroit. They replaced it with untreated raw water from the Flint River. The plan was to save money by treating this water, themselves, from a source that had been continually polluted for decades by the disappearing auto industry.

However, this noxious brew corroded the pipes, stripped out the lead and put it right into the water glasses Flint parents were using to hydrate their children.

More than 8,500 children. With high amounts of lead in their blood. Suffering untold injuries. For life.

Oh and the overwhelming majority of them are African American and/or impoverished. Whoops!

Gov. Rick Snyder has been defensively apologizing for this disaster. He knew all about it long before the taps were shut off. He even released a slew of inter-office emails about the situation where officials play pass-the-buck as Flint residents gulp down this filth from their faucets. As citizens complained about the water’s color and odor. As physicians protested it wasn’t safe for human consumption.

Even now Snyder STILL says people can safely bathe their children in this dirty, smelly, poisoned water. Just make sure the kiddos don’t drink it. In fact, he says he wouldn’t mind bathing his own grandchildren in this mess.

Yeah. Kinda takes away any sincerity from his “apology” and his statement that he’s responsible, doesn’t it?

Why isn’t this man in jail? Why is he still in the Governor’s mansion?

If we lived in a just country, this poor excuse for a human being would AT VERY LEAST be locked away in a dungeon somewhere never to sting our eyes at the sight of his repulsive face. A more appropriate punishment would be making him drink nothing but his own contaminated Flint tap water for the rest of his life as he suffers from the effects of lead poisoning – like all those thousands of children he helped poison to save a few bucks.

But no. In the America where we live, his only mistake was getting caught. And now he’s losing political points having to apologize without really doing much. Yeah, he’s called in the National Guard to help deliver bottled water. Yeah, he’s turned back on the Lake Huron water, but Flint’s pipes are already ruined so lead is still leaking into the water. Why are these poor people still being charged with a water bill for something they can’t use? No one except for Grandpa Rick Snyder would use this foul stuff for anything!

Meanwhile, Darnell Earley, the emergency manager appointed by Snyder who actually switched Flint’s water in the first place is at a new government job. He’s emergency manager of another Michigan public service – Detroit Public Schools! Dilapidated buildings, fungus growing on the walls, slime leaking from the ceiling, broken toilets – a state-provided learning environment overseen by this functionary who’s doing a heckuva job! Teachers trying to raise awareness of the situation have staged a series of “sickouts.” But Snyder’s administration still doesn’t have any money to waste on Detroit school kids – just like it didn’t have any money to provide potable water to Flint residents.

And the cycle continues. Crap gets flushed from one source to another – and I’m not talking about the Flint water system!

You can try to make justifications and excuses, but the lie gets awfully thin in Michigan. And if you think this is the only place where business trumps public welfare, you must be drinking from Snyder’s water cooler. Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, the entire island of Puerto Rico! Terrorists with government jobs are slowly dismantling our metropolitan areas, our public goods, everything that made America great!

And what the heck is being done about it? A lot of news stories, talking heads shaking their noggins and pointing their fingers everywhere except where the blame really lies.

It’s enough to drive one to drink.

Speaking of which, excuse me while I take another swig from my water glass.

Ah!

No, I don’t live in Flint. But this sure isn’t tap water. Are you kidding me?

In Pennsylvania we’ve had too many scares with Giardiasis and other bacteria in our municipal water occasionally making us sick.

I pay extra to bring this water to the house in huge jugs and put it on a machine that keeps it ice cold and refreshing anytime of the day or night.

Some people can’t afford it.

What are they to do?

Can anyone really feel safe drinking from the tap ever again?

What kind of a world is it where we can’t even trust the water?

What kind of world are we leaving for our children?

We are all a few months from becoming Flint.

It could already be happening.

Will we let it?

Whistleblower Fights New York Officials to Enforce Their Own Child Safety Laws

Cole-Kathy-Steven
Stephen and Cathy Cole with their device for safe use of gym partitions. Photo: Long Island Business Times.

 

Are New York city and state officials doing enough to protect public school students?

Kathy Cole says no.

The co-owner of a gymnasium equipment company has been battling with city and state officials to comply with their own child safety laws for over a decade.

Her crusade stems from the crushing deaths of three students in New York and New Jersey over several years.

The problem is motorized partitions meant to close off sections of larger gymnasium spaces. Once set in motion, if safeguards aren’t put in place, and/or the devices aren’t properly monitored, they can shut on children causing fatal injuries.

In 1976 a boy in New Jersey was crushed and killed in the school gym electric partition. James Pesca, 12, was found lifeless, trapped between the cement gym wall and the partition.

In 1991, Deanna Moon met a similar end in her Long Island school. The nine-year-old got caught between the partition when she tried to slip through. Staff could not retract the wall off of Deanna’s neck so fire fighters had to use the jaws of life. It took 27 minutes to free her. Deanna’s mother was called to the scene but was restrained from coming inside and seeing what was happening. The elementary school student lingered in a coma and died nine days later from her injuries.

In 2001, twelve-year-old Rashad Richardson was looking for a teacher to give him a hall pass when he was crushed between a wall and a motorized room divider in his Ithaca, N.Y., school. The gym teacher had started the motorized door, defeated a spring-loaded safety switch, then walked away.

The first two incidents prompted the New York state legislature to require school staff be trained in the usage of these devices. However, it wasn’t until Rashad’s death that safety mechanisms were required to be installed in these partitions. New York is the only state with these provisions.

Since 2001 New York schools have been required to install Life Safety Detection Systems on these partitions to stop them from operating if a child is sensed in their path. Districts are also required to train staff in proper usage of these devices and to ensure staff observe the partitions until they are fully closed.

However, Cole, who owns Gym Door Repairs with her husband, Stephen, says many schools are not buying these mandated devices, correctly installing them or properly training staff. Her company invented and distributes these safety mechanisms.

When she brought this noncompliance to the attention of city and state education officials, she claims she was silenced.

“I was told not to bring it up publicly by high level education officials or I would be put out of business,” she says.

“I was told that compliance with the law was a financial decision and that if another child is killed their family will be compensated for their loss.”

The cost for implementation for these devices is about $37 million, most of which would be paid by New York State Building Aid. Cole’s safety mechanisms were installed in 5,000 facilities – the majority of state and city schools. But many still don’t have them.

Cole estimates there are hundreds of schools missing these devices. They were funded just not installed, she says. Still other schools have devices in place but they have fallen into disrepair and instead of being fixed are simply bypassed putting thousands of children at risk of death or injury.

“You can walk into any 10 New York City schools and 9 would have no training and no maintenance,” she says.

When Cole persisted in bringing these issues to various New York government officials, city and state public schools stopped using her company. The business, founded in 1976, specializes in safety inspection and preventative maintenance service, supplies and repairs to help keep school facilities in compliance with building and life safety codes.

“I was a vendor for over thirty years without incident until I reported this noncompliance,” she says.

“I was told they had had enough of my writing and complaining to the elected officials and that I was now considered a rat…That I would be out of business in New York State and that I had poked my nose where it did not belong.”

The battle has gone to federal court where Cole is suing for violation of her First Amendment rights to free speech.

Her suit implicates both Andrew Cuomo and John King. Cuomo was state Attorney General at the time and is now the state’s Governor. King was state Commissioner of Education and has risen to U.S. Secretary of Education.

The problem is one of accountability. In New York, the state Inspector General has no jurisdiction over the Department of Education. In fact, the Department of Education is the only branch of state government without an inspector general. So the Attorney General is responsible for both investigating and defending the Department of Education. When Cole first brought this issue up, that was Cuomo.

“It’s a conflict of interest,” she says. “There really is no where to go to report fraud and abuse at the highest levels. They investigate themselves.”

Cole condemns Cuomo in both his role as Attorney General and Governor for taking no action to fix the problem. She first brought the matter to his attention in early 2009 and has met with him several times since.

“He let the children of this state be intentionally  endangered and did nothing to protect them.”

King, too, was aware of the issue but did nothing as Commissioner of Education to help enforce the law protecting children, according to Cole.

“King has been there overseeing this,” she says. “He let this noncompliance continue.”

Cole has numerous suits in the courts alleging civil conspiracy, intellectual property theft and tortious interference with her business.

Since the first suit was filed, Cole has watched as long-standing contracts that had been awarded to her company were instead given to a competitor – Young Equipment Sales. As a result, her business has gone from 14 employees to two.

“My business has been devastated,” she says. “It’s disgraceful what’s been done. I’m not looking for sympathy, but I want justice.”

The financial loss to the Great River business owner caused her to further investigate state and city education practices. She implemented numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. In doing so, she discovered further startling school purchasing practices.

Many Long Island districts use cooperative bidding programs called the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to find competitive prices for school supplies. However, Cole found that using this system has resulted in paying much more for goods and services than necessary.

For instance, her data shows that districts using Nassau BOCES are paying $996 for a whiteboard available online for just $740. Also, a security card for charging laptop computers costs $1,910 through Eastern Suffolk BOCES, while it is listed online for just $1,560. Meanwhile, a 12-foot cafeteria table that you or I can buy online for $1,623.99 costs schools $2,275.99 through Nassau BOCES.

Cole’s findings are consistent with a 2012 state comptroller’s report on the cost-effectiveness of BOCES. The report audited four central New York BOCES and found that their costs for services were roughly 56 percent higher than costs for the exact same services being paid by districts not using the service. The availability of BOCES aid does not encourage BOCES to minimize costs or persuade schools to demand cheaper choices, the report concluded.

Eastern Suffolk BOCES responded to the allegations by releasing a statement saying in part, “At times, it may be possible to find a lower price for a product from an alternative source that does not meet the above criteria.” That criteria includes being able to “comply with all specifications, pay prevailing wages, be insured and be able to provide products and services to the large pool of participants in the Eastern Suffolk BOCES bidding program.”

And so it goes.

Meanwhile, Cole continues to fight this battle in the courts and is optimistic she’ll eventually receive justice for herself and the state’s children.

No young person should have to worry about being killed in school equipment and their parents shouldn’t have to worry about the state wasting their tax dollars.