When Will It Happen Here?

 

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It could happen at anytime in my classroom.

 

The thing we’ve all been dreading.

 

A hasty announcement of lock down. An unexpected fire alarm. The sounds of shouting, running feet and… gunshots.

 

The lights could go out. The door could burst in.

 

There’s really very little we could do.

 

My room has no windows. No closets. Nowhere to hide.

 

These are the thoughts going through my head as my students sit at their desks during homeroom this morning.

 

Jayden is taking off his hoodie before the principal catches him out of dress code.

 

Alaina is pestering me for a pass to the library.

 

Darnell is surreptitiously munching on a pixie stick stashed in his book bag.

 

It’s all so mundane, so subdued, so quiet.

 

A few kids are on the computers in the back, others at their desks reading books, writing papers, or listening to music on their iPads.

 

But there’s very little conversation.

 

The class of middle schoolers is restrained, thoughtful – which is unusual for children of 12 or 13.

 

I sit slumped at my desk – exhausted though I haven’t even taught my first class yet.

 

The news from last night still plays in my head.

 

Seventeen people killed by an expelled student at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

 

Or was it two killed in Kentucky?

 

How long was it since the last one?

 

And now here we are – back in the line of fire.

 

I can’t help but think about my daughter somewhere across town. She’s probably just entering her third grade classroom maybe munching on the remains of a candy heart from Valentine’s Day. Just like me and my students, she’s in the cross hairs.

 

But what can we do about it?

 

I can’t hold her out of school forever. I can’t quit my job and work from home. Even if I could, there’s absolutely nothing I can do for the twenty children quietly sitting at their desks in the room with me, abiding the rules of a society too broken to protect us.

 

After last night, it feels like things have changed somehow.

 

There have been 18 school shootings so far this year. And it’s only February. Most have resulted in zero injuries.

 

Of those where people were hurt, the person most in danger was the shooter. But I can’t stop thinking about those cases where a hunter came to school to kill children and teachers.

 

As an educator, I’ve been taught how to handle just about every situation.

 

If one of my children acts out, or doesn’t hand in her homework, or even throws up – I know what to do.

 

But none of my training has prepared me to out teach a semiautomatic weapon.

 

I can’t differentiate past a bullet.

 

There is no paperwork that will invalidate the gunpowder or slow the endless rounds through whatever they come into contact.

 

If someone comes to school with a gun and a will to kill, I will be little more than a target.

 

But don’t get me wrong.

 

This doesn’t mean society should gift me a handgun to keep in my desk next to the chalk.

 

I am not a law enforcement officer or an action hero. I’m a teacher.

 

You don’t want me returning fire at every mindless bureaucratic hitch in the schedule. You want me assigning essays and chapter readings. You don’t want me keeping a gun out of reach of curious youngsters always at my desk and in my personal space. You want me safeguarding student assignments and – heck – my cell phone that kids keep trying to snatch and look through my camera roll.

 

What we need is real gun control legislation.

 

We need an assault weapons ban.

 

We need to close the gun show loophole.

 

We need buyback programs to get the mountains of firearms off the streets and out of the arsenals of a handful of paranoid “survivalists”.

 

In short, we need lawmakers willing to make laws.

 

We need legislators who will represent the overwhelming majority of the public and take sensible action to protect the people of this country.

 

What we don’t need are the trolls who hijack every conversation arguing the semantics of the term “assault rifle” or “terrorist.”

 

We don’t need weak politicians cautioning against “politicizing” mass shootings because the violence is too fresh.

 

We don’t need anyone’s thoughts and prayers.

 

We need action.

 

And we need it yesterday.

 

Some people are calling on teachers to take action to force our lawmakers to finally do something.

 

They suggest a national teachers strike on May 1st – May Day – if Congress refuses to act.

 

That sounds like a good idea to me.

 

I’m game.

 

But we need more than that.

 

We need everyone who feels the same way to join in the fight.

 

Parents, children, grandparents, principals, police, firefighters, soldiers and nurses – the multitudinous faces of America must come together to fight this monstrosity as one.

 

I may sit in that classroom.

 

My students and my daughter may be in danger.

 

But America must be the shield.

 

America must rise up and protect our future.

 

WE must take charge.

 

Otherwise, it is not a case of can it happen here.

 

It is a case of when.

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Florida Looks to Hide Minority Students with Accountability Waiver

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What do you do with minority students?

 

The state of Florida is looking to hide them under the rug.

 

The state is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for certain provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – a move that has some civil rights groups alarmed.

 

The request goes something like this:

 

Federal Government: How are your English Language Learners doing?

 

Florida: Dunno. We lumped them in with everyone else.

 

Fed: Are there any big discrepancies between white students and poor, black or Latino students?

 

Florida: Dunno. We don’t look at that.

 

Fed: Do you at least allow English Language Learners to take tests in their native language?

 

Florida: Nope. They need to speak English or fail.

 

Aaaaand scene.

 

The waiver hasn’t even been fully drafted yet and submitted to the federal Department of Education.

 

However, civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and several local activists are asking that the state reconsider sending it and/or the federal government categorically deny it.

 

These organizations are worried that such measures, if approved, would allow Florida to ignore the needs of minority students.

 

In fact, lumping minority students’ test scores in with the majority white population would obscure whether they were struggling at all. So would explicitly ignoring any achievement gaps between the majority and minority populations.

 

And forcing students to take tests in a language with which they aren’t even proficient yet is just plain cruel.

 

But it highlights several conflicts at the forefront of the public education debate.

 

First, there’s the question of who controls our schools – the state, local or federal government.

 

Second, there’s the question of what is the best way to ensure every child is getting a quality education.

 

The first question is at the heart of a disagreement between many on the political left and right. Democrats generally favor more federal intervention, while Republicans favor more state control.

 

Which side will end up victorious is hard to say. In situations like this, it’s even hard to say who SHOULD be victorious.

 

In general, local control is better than administration from a far. But it’s kind of hard to stand up for a state legislature that has no problem segregating minorities, under funding their schools and then trying to hush it all up.

 

It’s kind of like parenting. It’s better that children stay with their parents, but if their mom and dad are abusive jerks, perhaps all bets are off.

 

Secondly, we have the question of accountability. What is the best measure of whether a school is providing a quality education?

 

Like the No Child Left Behind legislation before it, the ESSA specifically uses standardized test scores for this purpose.

 

However, test scores are terrible at determining accountability. They’re economically and culturally biased. Rich kids tend to pass and poor kids tend to fail. At best, they show which students have been the most economically privileged and which have not.

 

But we don’t need test scores to see that. We can simply look at students’ socio-economic status. We can look at whether they’re living below the poverty line or not. We can look at their nutrition and health. We can look at whether they belong to a group that has historically been selected against in this country or not.

 

And once we find that out, we shouldn’t punish the school for having the audacity to teach poor and minority children. We should give them extra funding and resources to meet those students’ needs. But the current test-based accountability system doesn’t do that. Instead it cuts off funding to schools that need it most while pushing public schools to be closed and replaced with charter and voucher institutions that have a worse record of success.

 

In short, accountability is vital in our public schools, but the way we determine who needs help and what we consider help are drastically out of step with student needs.

 

These are two issues that desperately need resolution, and we’re putting them on the desk of the one Education Secretary in our nation’s history least equipped to deal with them – Betsy DeVos.

 

Fed vs. states? She’s for whichever pushes school privatization.

 

Test scores? She loves them!

 

Civil rights? Her administration is infamous for expressing doubts that such things even exist.

 

But at the same time, some on the corporate left may use her dunderheaded opposition to justify test-based accountability.

 

“See?” They’ll say. “We need standardized tests to protect minority children!”

 

Um. No. You don’t.

 

Likewise, some on the right might try to characterize Florida’s attempted waiver as an act of defiance against test-based accountability.

 

It’s not. Officials in the Sunshine State aren’t concerned with undoing the testocracy. They’re perfectly fine with high stakes testing – so long as they don’t have to do anything special to help black and brown kids.

 

It’s a situation where blatant self-interest can easily be hidden under a fake concern for children.

 

On balance, civil rights groups’ concerns are justified in relation to Florida’s drafted ESSA waiver. But they’re wrong if they think test-based accountability is in the best interests of the minorities they serve.

 

If you’re going to use standardized tests to hold schools accountable for providing a quality education – and that’s a Big IF – it’s unfair to obscure data about minority students and possible achievement gaps. Moreover, it’s reprehensible that you wouldn’t even bother to test them fairly by letting them take these assessments in their native languages.

 

However, it would be even better to dispense with test-based accountability in the first place. It would be better to see student needs directly and not as a reflection of test scores. That would more easily allow help to reach the students and not the vulture industries circling above our public schools waiting to pick them apart in the name of accountability.

Witch Hunt Against Incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Escalates

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To be or not to be.

That is the question for incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

He is set to takeover the district on July 1, but a well financed public smear campaign is trying to stop him before he even begins.

Big money interests oppose him. The public supports him.

Meanwhile the media helps fuel corporate attacks on the 47-year-old African American because of criticisms leveled by a Political Action Committee (PAC) formed to disband the duly-elected school board.

It’s ironic.

Corporate school reformers criticize Hamlet for allegedly plagiarizing a single statement in his resume. Meanwhile they have plagiarized their entire educational platform!

Mayoral or state takeover of the district? Check!

Close struggling schools? Check!

Open new charter schools to gobble up public tax dollars as profit? Check!

Hamlet represents a new direction away from corporate education reforms. The new school board who hired him has soundly rejected these policies of the old guard. Many of the same members are still on the board who first changed course in 2013 by tearing up a contract with Teach for America.

But the Empire strikes back with allegations of plagiarism and resume padding.

Yes, Hamlet used some of the same words from a Washington Post editorial in his resume. He wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system while devoting resources to those who need them most.”

The Post wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system even while devoting resources to those who need them most.” (Emphasis added)

These aren’t exactly the same words used by the Post. They don’t rise to the level of plagiarism, but he certainly should have attributed them or reworded the ideas.
On the other hand, his critics want to use the same policies that have failed again-and-again in Philadelphia, Newark, Little Rock, Memphis and elsewhere. They want to steal control of the district and give it to bureaucrats who will do what THEY say. They want to take money set aside to help all students and use it to enrich their friends and associates.

Sure, Hamlet used someone else’s words to describe a good idea of leadership. But his critics are using their own words to describe someone else’s terrible, failing educational platform.

Hamlet made a small forgivable error. His critics are seizing upon it to turn the tide in their favor and take away the community’s right to representative democracy.

Make no mistake. This is a witch hunt.

Critics are splitting hairs, disputing statistics and calling it fact.

Hamlet has a proven record as a principal in Palm Beach, Fl.

He says the schools he administered improved academically for various reasons. Critics point to Florida state records that show those improvements to be less dramatic.

So both sides agree those schools did well under Hamlet. What’s in dispute is the degree.

Hamlet counters that state data is inaccurate. He was there on the ground. He lists several factors not accounted for by the state that fully justify his statements.

For example, when he talks about school improvements, he counts the total number of student suspensions – if a student is suspended twice, he counts that as two suspensions. The state, however, ignores multiple suspensions. In this and other ways, Hamlet shows his data is more accurate than the state’s.

National data backs up Hamlet. Florida is infamous for being backward, regressive and untrustworthy in education circles, often spearheading some of the worst abuses of policy in recent history.

“This has been a hoopla,” said Valerie Allman, a Troy Hill parent and activist interviewed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “And it’s taken the focus off what’s important: these kids. … We’re expecting him to climb this huge mountain at the same time we cut his legs out from under him.”

One of the reasons the board originally hired Hamlet is his background in “restorative justice.

Instead of simply punishing or suspending students who misbehave, the program calls for making students set things right.

At Palm Beach County Schools, Hamlet implemented this approach with help from Mara Schiff, a criminology professor from Florida Atlantic University. It’s “far tougher than sitting in detention,” Schiff said in the Post Gazette.

“You have to acknowledge what you’ve done … and take responsibility for the harm you’ve caused. It’s not a kumbaya approach.”

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

In fact, the district has already launched a restorative justice program at 20 schools.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Hamlet,” said Schiff. “He had a [restorative-justice] coordinator who was fabulous, and who Dr. Hamlet completely empowered.”

Another reason for Hamlet’s hire is his advocacy for community schools. Like many on the school board and in the district, he has pushed for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

“You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum, the best classrooms,” said Rev. Rodney Lyde, a Homewood pastor and president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. “But we need a place on-site that can comprehensively address the other impediments — like kids coming hungry, or from abusive situations.”

Despite community support, several well-financed organizations oppose Hamlet and the board’s authentic reforms.

Foremost among them is Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh, a new PAC formed recently to make city schools great again – by doing the same failed crap that didn’t work before.

Also on the side of corporate education reform are the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. Representatives for both organizations have offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district gives Hamlet his walking papers – a measure that probably would mean paying him at least a years salary without having him on the job.

This would also result in weakening the district’s ability to hire a new superintendent and increasing public mistrust of the electoral process. Such a move would pave the way for disbanding local control.

How generous of these philanthropies! I remember a time when giving meant providing the resources for organizations like public schools to fix themselves – not having the right to set public policy as a precondition for the donation. But in the age of Bill Gates and the philanthro-capitalists, this is what we’ve come to expect.

Even the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette has drunk the Kool-aid. In a June 10 editorial, the paper published the following statement:

“The (school) board’s failure at this essential task calls its leadership into question, and will renew calls for legislation to dissolve the elected school board and move to an appointed system.”

Finally, we have A+ Schools – an advocacy organization that at one time championed the same kinds of reforms school directors are trying to enact. However, after a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, the group has become a cheerleader for weakening teachers unions, privatization and standardized testing.

Against these special interests stands a public school board and a community at the crossroads. Will they give in to public pressure and big money? Or will they allow Hamlet to do the job he was hired for and attempt to improve an urban district suffering from crippling poverty and state disinvestment?

This particularly tragedy has yet to find an ending.

To be or not to be?

Florida Shooter’s Strongest Ally Was The American Gun Lobby

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“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”

-American-born al-Qaeda spokesmen Adam Yahiye Gadahn

 

Omar Mateen considered himself a terrorist.

 

He wanted to make that clear to posterity before ending a shooting rampage he initiated in Florida yesterday that left 50 dead and dozens more injured – the worst mass shooting in U.S. history (so far).

 

During the carnage at an Orlando gay nightclub, he allegedly called 911 to pledge his allegiance to ISIS. He just wanted us to know that.

 

Now that the shooter’s gone, just as he would have wished, pundits are making a lot of this phone call. Though his family claims he wasn’t particularly religious, media talking heads are seizing upon this one action by an unhinged young man in order to denigrate all American Muslims.

 

ISIS is a militant organization. Islam is a religion.

 

By contrast, the KKK is a militant organization. Christianity is a religion.

 

But never mind that. In Mateen’s case, an entire religion is somehow responsible for the actions of one man. If he had been a white Christian – as most mass shooters are – we probably wouldn’t be seizing on his race or creed. But even though Mateen was born in this country, his family is from Afghanistan, his skin is brown, he was one of THEM.

 

However, there is no evidence that anyone in the Islamic community helped Mateen conduct his reign of terror. He allegedly saw two men kissing several months earlier, became enraged and planned accordingly.

 

But we can pinpoint one American institution that gave the self-proclaimed terrorist much aide and comfort in his scheme – the American gun lobby.

 

In fact, firearm powerbrokers are helping terrorists kill civilians all over the country.

 

No. I don’t meant to say they are working hand-in-hand with international terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

 

But they might as well be.

 

Our lax gun laws are the direct result of the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other organizations closely associated with the gun industry. Those laws are being exploited by individuals like Mateen bent on murdering as many American civilians as possible.

 

Before Mateen opened fire, he had been on a terrorist watch list. In fact, the FBI had monitored his past activities.

 

You might think someone like that would not have been permitted to buy a gun in the first place. But you’d be wrong.

 

Just six months ago, the U.S. Senate had considered a law to restrict suspected terrorists from buying firearms and explosives, but it was defeated largely by Republican lawmakers accepting huge campaign contributions from the gun industry.

 

Mateen might have found it much more difficult to carry out this terrorist attack without the help he received from the NRA and so-called conservative lawmakers.

 

But don’t take my word for it.

 

Gadahn (quoted above) was killed in a drone strike in 2015, but he was not the only terrorist praising the efforts of the American gun lobby.

 

A six-page recruiting pamphlet found in terrorist safe houses in Kabul, Afghanistan, called “How Can I Train Myself for Jihad” instructs would-be terrorists “on the advantages the United States offers for firearms training and advises readers on how to exploit them.”

 

Maybe that’s why a measure like that recently defeated in the Senate to stop suspected terrorists from accessing guns was strongly supported by the George W. Bush administration.

 

It’s strange. Bush pushed the PATRIOT Act as an invaluable tool to keep America safe from terrorism despite the concerns that it trampled civil liberties. If lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are willing to weaken the 4th amendment’s provisions against unreasonable search and seizures in order to stop terrorism, then why do they oppose much more reasonable restrictions on the 2nd? What makes the right to bear arms so much more important than other privileges enumerated in the Bill of Rights?

 

In truth, it’s not a philosophical debate. It’s an economic one.

 

There is simply too much money being made by gun manufacturers – and thus being funneled into political campaigns – to allow for sane firearm policy.

 

Take the AR-15, one of two firearms used by Mateen yesterday. The same semi-automatic model he used was illegally modified and used to kill 14 and wound 21 in the San Bernardino shootings in late 2015. In 2012, it was also used in the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

 

It’s the most popular rifle in the country, and the weapon of choice for mass shooters.

 

As such, there have been calls to reinstitute the federal assault weapons ban from 1994 – 2004. Some claim that the ban was ineffective, allowing too many loopholes. Others say despite weaknesses it resulted in less people being killed by these types of weapons during the time of the ban.

 

Though several attempts have been made to reinstitute the ban, it has been stalled by the gun industry largely because of wordplay and minutiae.

 

They claim the term “assault weapons” is inaccurate at best and propaganda at worst. (Never mind that it was coined by the gun manufacturers, themselves, to increase sales.)

 
Rifles designated as “assault weapons” are not easily distinguishable from other kinds of rifles, they say, so banning them would lead to a slippery slope of banning all guns.

 

The most basic difference is the firearm’s ability to expel multiple rounds quickly. Because of this, the rifles included under assault weapons bans are usually semiautomatic – a new round is automatically reloaded into the chamber but is not fired until the trigger is squeezed again. The weapons also have detachable magazines, allowing them to fire 10, 20, 30 rounds or more without the need to reload.

 

However, bans often include “military style” rifles that are not necessarily semiautomatic. Gun advocates claim these rifles are similar to firearms excluded from bans except for cosmetic features to make them appear more militaristic.

 

Those could include features like a pistol grip, designed to allow a weapon to be fired from the hip; a collapsible or folding stock, which allows the weapon to be shortened and concealed; a flash suppressor, which keeps the shooter from being blinded by muzzle flashes; a muzzle brake, which helps decrease recoil; and a threaded barrel, which can accept a silencer or a suppressor. Bayonet lugs or grenade launchers are also sometimes included.

 

But are these features truly just cosmetic? Or do they actually make these rifles much more dangerous? No one needs a grenade launcher to hunt for game or protect their home.

 

When people call for gun regulations, they aren’t necessarily calling for a ban on all guns.

 

People want a degree of safety in public spaces. They don’t want to be cut down by one or two gunmen causing exponential carnage in seconds.

 

That seems a reasonable expectation.

 

Gun industry surrogates claim safety is best assured if everyone is packing heat – an endless stalemate.

 

In point of fact, there was an armed police officer working security yesterday at the gay club when Mateen sprayed the crowd with bullets. Though he traded fire with Mateen, he was unable to stop the carnage.

 

It’s absurd. The people who initiate mass shootings rarely survive them. They don’t care about being killed. They only care about spreading death and terror.

 

Moreover, adding more guns to public spaces only increases the chances of more shootings, many of which would probably be accidental.

 

The rest of the world has figured this out. There really is no argument to be made here. Polls show that most of the public wants some kind of gun control.

 

But it won’t happen so long as the gun industry is allowed to buy our lawmakers.

 

It won’t happen so long as we allow gun industry trolls to drown out all reasonable discussion with their circular zombie arguments.

 

Mateen couldn’t stand the sight of two men publically expressing their love for each other.

 

The gun lobby can’t stand the idea of reduced profits.

 

And together those two aims make up the twin pillars sheltering American terrorists everywhere.