Don’t Let School Lockdown Drills Become the New Normal

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I got an interesting phone call the other day from my daughter’s elementary school.

 

The counselor warned me that my little one’s class would conduct a lockdown drill – the first the kids had ever experienced.

 

With everything in the news about school shootings and the gun debate, the superintendent and principals thought they should prepare for the worst, even though they doubted anything like that would actually happen here.

 

The counselor just wanted me to be aware what was happening and to prepare my daughter for it so she wouldn’t be scared.

 

I thanked her for the call, and went in the other room to speak to my 9-year-old sweetie.

 

She was hunkered on the floor drawing pictures of her toys.

 

Mario and Luigi were chasing a purple Yoshi. Captain America was playing soccer with Wonder Woman. That kind of thing.

 

I opened my mouth — and my throat closed up.

 

I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.

 

What would I say? —-Hey, Honeybunches. You’re going to have a lockdown drill at school tomorrow. Your class is going to prepare in case a gunman breaks in and tries to murder you.

 

She was staring at me now, Mario’s hat half colored in.

 

So I put on my teacher’s cap and explained everything that would happen, but not why.

 

She was completely unfazed.

 

“That’s all? Can I go back to coloring now?” she asked.

 

I nodded.

 

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but I wondered how she’d react. This was a girl who in kindergarten had cried at the violence of a fire alarm.

 

So the next day came and went – no mention from her about what had happened at school.

 

She wasn’t traumatized. She was her usual self – frustrated at her homework, bargaining for a snack, writing an autobiography of her soccer career that would start next fall when she signs up.

 

I waited a week and then asked her about what had happened.

 

In the most matter of fact voice, she told me how her third grade class had stood away from the door, clustered in one corner of the room holding books.

 

“Why books?” I asked, thinking that maybe the drill had gone on too long so they had something to read.

 

She said they were to throw at a bad guy if he sneaked into the room.

 

I imagined a gunman in my daughter’s classroom trying to spray the children with bullets only to be met by a hail of tossed books – Dr. Seuss vs. Smith & Wesson.

 

Then I envisioned her teacher pulling out a revolver and returning fire through the swarm of terrified elementary school bodies darting back and forth.

 

The shock must have shown on my face.

 

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said. “No one broke in.”

 

As usual, children do better with this stuff than adults.

 

But the reason why is exceedingly troubling.

 

They are still forming their concept of normality.

 

When I went to school, we never had lockdown drills. We had monthly fire drills and the occasional severe weather drill. But we never prepared for crazed murderers and terrorists. That just wasn’t in our routine or even our conception of what a school should do.

 

Yet it is now routine for my daughter. It is typical for most children these days.

 

As a teacher in a neighboring district, I had to preside over my own first lockdown drill with my 7th graders a few weeks earlier.

 

We clustered in a corner on the floor – the door locked, the lights off.

 

My class of rambunctious teens who rarely seem able to do anything without a constant stream of words was nearly silent.

 

The worst part was how I felt trying to downplay what we were doing.

 

Nothing to see here, kids. Just an ordinary day pretending to hide in a corner so a killer would pass us by.

 

And now after the drill, I keep my classroom door locked at all times.

 

It’s a huge inconvenience having to stop what you’re doing and physically open the door anytime someone wants to come in. But it’s what we have to do to bolster our sense of security.

 

It’s our new normal.

 

And I don’t like it.

 

It just seems to me like another way my generation has failed our children.

 

We’ve always known our gun laws are insane. We knew there should be SOME sensible regulations on who can buy a gun and where and why. We knew there was no good reason to allow civilians to own automatic weapons.

 

But we did nothing.

 

Okay, a few of us spoke up now and again. It did no good. Our lawmakers just waited out our outrage and kept pocketing the money from the NRA and the gun lobby.

 

And now we’ve accepted that school shootings are just another part of getting an education.

 

It’s just something else to prepare for – like a grease fire in the cafeteria or a flooded gymnasium.

 

I’m sorry, but this is not normal.

 

I refuse to let this be just another possible disaster we feel compelled to add to our list of Might Happens.

 

Thankfully, protestors are still out there demanding action from our politicians. Thankfully, demonstrations and town halls are still in the works like the April 20th National School Walkout.

 

But our leaders still think they can wait us out. And these lockdown drills feel too much like an admission that they’re right.

 

What sense of urgency do we have if we’ve already incorporated shootings into the calendar?

 

I’ll accept that these drills are necessary. But I won’t accept them as permanent.

 

These are temporary measures at best.

 

However, that’s something that must be made explicit. Lockdown drills cannot become a tradition, common, conventional.

 

It shouldn’t be – “Time for the occasional lockdown drill.”

 

It should be – “Look what our cowardly politicians are forcing us to do because they haven’t enough spine to stand up to the NRA!”

 

We mustn’t lose our sense of outrage over this cultural shift. Because if we do, the necessary political change will not come.

 

We need sensible gun regulations – not another B.S. duck and cover exercise to engender a false sense of security and pop our civic resolve.

 

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Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

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

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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.