Monthly Archives: February 2012

Another violent school tragedy

Third student dies from Ohio school shooting

In Chardin, Ohio the morning-after talk is all too familiar…

  • Out of nowhere the killer just gunned them down.
  • The students were sitting ducks.
  • We never saw this coming.
  •  He was a quiet kid. He never bothered anybody. He had friends.
  • No he was an outcast, bullied, troubled, into Goth.
  • The community is reeling, what can we do to help.
  • We don’t have a motive yet, but we’ll keep looking.
  • Hug your children, talk with them, tell them you love them.

Our hearts go out to the families, the students and teachers, and the entire Chardin community.

Columbine shook us out of our reverie and made us realize that such violence could happen anywhere, and yes, it could even happen in our town. Even so, it hasn’t gotten any easier to hear that innocent children were shot in their school. We want  a motive, an explanation, something we can point to that will explain away how T. J. Lane got to the point of slaughtering his classmates as they sat talking in the cafeteria.

Killings in a school attract widespread media attention. Yet the reality is that serious, physical, violent crime in schools has decreased over the past decade. School shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. When we only consider this school murder statistic, we get the distorted view that violence is very rare, involves a weapon, and is deadly.

So what about the other 179 days of the school year? Does this mean they violence-free? It all depends on your definition of violence.

Every day in every school, students are emotionally and physically victimized by other students and adults. With a broad view of violence, the statistics for taunting, bullying, harassment, gang activity, cyber-bullying, hazing, and hate crimes (especially toward students who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender), and discussions with students about what goes on in classrooms, on the bus, in the cafeteria and bathrooms, present a clearer view of reality. This is the violence they live with daily, that interferes with their learning and keeps them home from school out of fear. So to understand and prevent tragedies like this in the future and to create a healthy school climate, we need to look at behavior along the entire violence continuum, from subtle to obvious.

Violence that begins on the subtle end of the continuum escalates if we don’t intervene early and preemptively.  Something valuable can come from this tragic loss of life if it reminds us that our children deal with violence every day and that we spend our best efforts  in prevention by teaching students how to be good people of high character, and in early intervention by getting help for those who are struggling.

For more information, read my blogs about the McInerney murder trial, my web page about the violence continuum, and to learn why and how we can prevent violence every day of the school year, read my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

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Cyber-Baiting Teachers: A sign of broken relationships.

It’s never a good sign when teachers and students are at odds.

Students have found a new target to abuse. The social media that they use to hurt each other is now aimed at their teachers, creating a new reality in the classroom: Everything any teacher says or does has the potential to be recorded and made public, and when baited into losing their composure, teachers are just a YouTube or Facebook posting away from ruining their careers.

Cyber-baiting is when students intentionally provoke a teacher so she loses control and acts unprofessional. They record the outburst and then give it a permanent, public home on YouTube. This behavior is a form of bullying, bullying is a form of violence, and violence is: Intentional physical force, emotional torment, or abuse of power, designed to intimidate, dominate, or inflict pain on another person.

Cell phones with cameras, tablets, laptops, text messaging, and social websites give students this  emotionally distant, underhanded, and very public way to hurt others. Schools are finally becoming aware that in-person and online bullying are a part of school life for most students and that they are expected to, in many states by law, make sure this doesn’t happen on their watch.

The Norton Online Family Report – November 2011

The issue of students cyber-baiting teachers has gotten a great deal of attention since the Norton security firm’s Online Family Report was released in November. They found:

One in five of the 2379 teachers of students aged 8-17 from the 24 countries they surveyed have personally experienced or know a teacher who has been the victim of cyber-baiting.

Teachers were once able to close their doors, and then teach and manage the classroom however they wanted. Now everything they do and say can easily be made public. We all know that some teachers are unreasonable and verbally, even physically, abusive toward students. Schools must protect students from teacher bullying just as they must protect students from being bullied by classmates. More scrutiny of what goes on in classrooms and follow-up on student complaints of teacher bullying means bad teachers can no longer hide behind closed doors.

But this is different. When students provoke and intentionally embarrass a teacher in public, it tells us that there are seriously broken relationships between students and teachers. Students would not likely do this to a teacher they liked and respected, one who cared about and respected them.

YouTube videos showing students intentionally taunting their teachers until they lose control of themselves and of the class are painful to watch. Anyone who feels empathy and compassion finds it hard to witness another person–adult or child, stranger or someone they know–being victimized and humiliated. It is particularly disturbing to see students and their teachers acting this way toward each other.

We know the problem is not the communication technology itself, but how people use it. Young people are still experimenting and developing their moral and ethical code of right and wrong, and they do not always consider the possible effects of their behavior before they act. Immaturity and poor judgment are often the root of behavior problems.

But, unfortunately, there are also some students who are so disenfranchised from school or desperate for peer recognition that they seem to enjoy causing trouble and hurting others. And there are some teachers who don’t realize how dis-spirited and negative they have become toward students. These demoralized teachers and disenfranchised students fight for power and control of the classroom.

Why do students cyber-bait teachers? Their motives are sincere or suspect::

  • To stop a teacher’s inappropriate behavior.
  • Because they are frustrated and want to prove that their complaints about a teacher are true.
  • To get a bad teacher fired.
  • To make fun of a teacher they don’t like.
  • As payback for disciplining them or another student.
  • To intentionally entrap weak teachers just for the fun of it.
  • Or do they publish it on the Internet just to cause a stir and earn street cred?

But no matter the problem or motivation, they need to know that it is never all right to post a video of someone without his permission or to do it to hurt them. Broadcasting videos of teachers acting badly–either because they were intentionally baited or because it is their typical behavior–is an extreme action for a student to take, and a red flag that there is a serious problem in that classroom. The problem is the breakdown of mutual respect and care, which is the core of a positive classroom climate and critical to a teacher’s smooth management of a classroom and of a child’s academic and social success.

What do students need to make better choices?

Communication technology is a powerful tool, readily available and tempting. To make good choices, students need a positive, respectful, secure classroom climate, caring adult support and guidance, problem-solving skills, policies for the use of the Internet, cell phones, and tablets in school. They also must understand and learn to believe that hurting another person emotionally or physically is not okay. This takes a strong sense of empathy and compassion, an understanding of cause and effect, and for them to self-monitor what they say and do, both in person and on social media. These positive social and thinking skills and attitudes are taught and reinforced at every grade level.

Technology is here and ever-changing. The constants are clear expectations for behavior and trustworthy adults students can talk to if they have a problem. This includes someone they can tell if there is a problem with a teacher who is harming them or other students, and they need a promise that their concerns will be taken seriously and investigated.

New Hampshire, what were you thinking?

New Hampshire, what did you do?

You have managed to shock the education world with this new law.

The state legislature passed a new law, effective January 1, 2012, which requires public school districts to write and implement a policy to allow  parents to object to any lesson taught to their children, for any reason. In addition, the school must offer the child an alternative lesson that is acceptable to the parents and the district. The intent and undefined scope of the law is astounding; it makes everything a teacher does, in any content area, subject to second-guessing and outright opposition. And if parents opt to exercise their new rights to object in any numbers, the law is also logistically unworkable. Even one objection by a parent can consume a chunk of a teacher’s precious instructional and preparation time.

Why did this issue come up now?

The curriculum is more standardized and scrutinized than ever before.

It comes at a time when a teacher’s curriculum has likely passed many levels of  scrutiny, revision, and approval, and is expected of all children within the state. Gone are the days when teachers decided what to teach by the textbooks found on the classroom shelves, or on what interested them or their students. States now expect every teacher, in every classroom, to use the state-defined learning standards to drive their curriculum and to assess student progress. Deciding what is taught and when it is taught is an involved, time intensive process.  These state standards serve as the overarching expectations for all students, and are typically well-thought out and logical. School districts then use the standards and performance indicators to develop a spiraling K-12 curriculum, with learning objectives, materials, and assessments that teach the approved content, attitudes, and skills at each grade level until graduation.

The result is a standard curriculum in grade level classrooms within a building, in all schools in a district, and from district to district throughout the state, one that builds on what was taught and hopefully mastered the previous year. How the standards are actually taught  in the classroom is not dictated by the state. This is where teachers are able to apply their professional knowledge and teaching  skills to create daily lesson plans that include specific concepts and learner objectives, teaching materials, instructional methods, and learning activities. They are answerable to the state education department and the public for the progress their students make toward mastering the standards.

The logistics are a nightmare!

Did you consider how this would actually work in the real world?

If a lesson must be substituted for one a parent feels is objectionable for some reason, who writes the lesson and who determines whether the content of any substitute lesson is appropriate for teaching in a public school?  Who screens the lesson for bias or proselytizing? Who makes sure the content is factual and enables the student to meet the learning standards set for him by the state and district? And what  happens if parents want to insert lessons or materials that condone or demonize a particular religion, that preach intolerance of certain groups, or that misrepresent the facts? How will this testy situation be handled?

Was this legislation even necessary in the first place?

What a can of contentious  worms your unnecessary law opens up within a school community!

Public school parents already have the prerogative to object to something  happening in the school or classroom. But this law sends the message that parents may now determine what their child is taught specifically, down to approving individual lessons and materials. Wise principals and teachers have always listened to parents’  concerns, and accommodated their requests when possible. But they were not obligated to change the curriculum to fit a parent’s views. As long as what they were teaching was age appropriate and followed the district and state curriculum, the school was on solid ground to respectfully decline the request. The message that the school will provide alternative lessons to meet a parent’s beliefs, biases, religion, etc is unworkable and an unwise broadening of control by factions within a community.

Did you think this through on a conceptual level before you approved it?

You seem to have forgotten why a free, democratic society depends on a public educational system.

Schools are a powerful force for the common good yet, that  educator Horace Mann called the “great equalizer” of the condition of humankind. We live in a society of many cultures and subcultures that are rich with differences and that share common goals. Students represent the diversity seen in society. Public education in a democracy is predicated on a philosophy of  tolerance and understanding of differing opinions and cultures. All children are welcome regardless of their and their parents’ beliefs, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status and educational level, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and special learning needs. The more students are exposed to, learn about, understand, and respect that which is different from them, the more harmonious a society we create. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

So not only is this law a logistical quagmire, it is a fundamental misreading of the purpose of public education in this country. It undermines the concept of school as a place where teachers and students share ideas freely in a climate of respect, where children learn to judge new ideas against what they already know, and to evaluate the ideas on their merits. We build solidarity based on empathy and compassion.  It is the place where students practice the pro-social skills needed to make good personal decisions and to treat others well. What is taught is fit for a pluralist society where public schools do the job of preparing our children to be citizens of good character, who are analytical and creative thinkers and problem solvers.

New Hampshire, it is telling that the legislator who introduced the bill was surprised by the furor it caused across the country. His surprise reveals a profound lack of understanding of what public education means in a diverse, democratic society, how curriculum is developed, and the way schools operate on a daily basis.

My Violence Continuum book is now available!

My latest book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, was released a few weeks ago and is the featured title on the publisher’s home page.

It is now available online at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Rowman and Littlefield Education