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Are big money experiments ruining our schools?

My thoughts on Robert Herbert’s October 6, 2014 essay:

The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.

What do the failed educational reform initiatives critiqued in this essay have in common?

  • A belief that the answers to the challenges we face were clear and simple.
  • They made promises to fix the ills of our schools.
  • That very large sums of money gave you the right to experiment.
  • Projects could proceed without much scrutiny or forethought.
  • Reformers could act with impunity and move on if things didn’t go well.
  • Our children and their education suffered.

Herbert first discusses the Small Schools Initiative.

From 2000 to 2009, well-intentioned Bill Gates underwrote the “notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.”

Two billion dollars and a host of disrupted schools and damaged students later, Gates concluded, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

Gates’ next idea was to define what makes an exemplary teacher and then set that as the standard for all schools. He dismissed the plan when he discovered, “Unfortunately,” he said, “it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”

Next he critiques the Charter School Movement:

Herbert says, “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.”

They didn’t. Academic success -test scores- in charter schools was on a par or worse than the public schools they replaced and the racial disparities they promised to reduce were instead heightened. He concludes, “Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes.”

Herbert’s essay is scathing and unfortunately on point. Frustrated non-educators often think they have the magic solution to fixing schools. Nowhere is this more evident than the rapid growth of charter schools, which turned out to be loose cannons with little financial or academic accountability, rather than the meccas of exemplary practice and inclusiveness as touted. If there were simple answers to reducing dropout rates and consensus on what and how we should teach so all kids achieve at a high level, no matter their circumstances, and if we had an easy to apply formula for what makes “a good teacher,” and surefire ways to create efficient schools with respectful, caring cultures, we’d have glommed on to these solutions long ago. End of discussion.

But teaching and learning isn’t that prescriptive and schools are the most challenging of institutions to run and reform. They are people motivators and life changers., and everyone has a stake in their success. They are accountable for students’ success and this is dependent on the quality of life afforded the families and children we welcome into our classrooms, and the excellent leadership and tireless work of each adult in a child’s life. The reason why we don’t always have the answers is that the needs of our children and the context of the society they live in are not static; so nor are the strategies, resources, and skills critical to meet these needs.

I say all this as both a pragmatist and an eternal optimist when it comes to the tremendous power and inherent goodness of public schools. Great things are already happening and we surely can improve, but not by the temptation of a notion, the stroke of a brush, or the clinking of coins.

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Part 1: An end to zero-tolerance policies and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

A Return to Common Sense and Reason

The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.

Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?

The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.

Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:

  • Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
  • Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
  • Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs. 
  • Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
  • Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
  • Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).

By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.

Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.

It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.

One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All

The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.

Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.

And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”

A Better Way

School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.

These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.

 

 

 

Take back your power. No more “please.”

I used to say please. I don’t anymore.

I have red hair.

I wear glasses.

I have freckles.

Please don’t call me names.

I am short.

I stutter.

I have learning problems.

Please don’t make fun of me.

I don’t speak English well.

I have dark skin.

I am quiet around others.

Please don’t laugh when others taunt me.

I wear wrinkled clothes.

I get free lunch.

I like reading more than sports.

Please don’t try to embarrass me.

I am gay.

I live with my father.

I have few friends.

Please don’t gang up on me.

I used to be your friend.

I like the same boy that you do.

I don’t want to drink or smoke with you.

Please don’t write mean things about me.

I shouldn’t have to say please.

I am a person, like you are. I have feelings, like you do. I have rights, like we all have. You are not better than me.

I shouldn’t have to say anything.

But until it stops, I won’t say please.

Public schools are for every child.

I cherish the concept of a free and public education for all children.

It intends, at least on paper, to provide each child with an opportunity to become a successful, self-sufficient adult and citizen. Theoretically, an educational system open to all is a way to ensure that life circumstances – who you are, where you were born, the educational level of your parents, and your social and economic standing – do not determine your future chances for a fulfilling life. This is the heart of a meritocracy, a system in which advancement in society is based on individual ability or achievement, not on wealth or birthright. The premise is a simple one: the choices you make, especially how hard you work in school, decide your future.

So on paper a meritocracy in the form of a public school sounds ideal. Most Americans believe we have such a system, and that it serves everyone equally and well. But considering the realities of American society, this was and still is naïve. The premise is fundamentally flawed because the playing field was not and is not level, and the opportunities were not and are not equal or equitable.

Throughout our history, different levels of government and powerful people were able to control who went to a certain school, who went to school at all, and even to make it illegal to teach slave children how to read and write. Classmates were selected and rejected by gender, race, ethnicity, mental ability, and behavior. With groups separated into somewhat homogenous groups, the need to learn tolerance and acceptance of those we saw as different or of a lesser status or ability was minimized. This segregation maintained a status quo of separate classes – the privileged and under-privileged, the powerful and powerless – and undermined the concept that schools and society were meritocracies.

Public education policies and laws did evolve over time as people spoke out forcefully about human rights issues and wrongs were corrected. Yet the system is still not perfect: education funded according to the tax base of each district results in widely disparate per pupil expenditures that favor the well-to-do and economically healthy areas, and bias and discrimination against certain groups influence the assessment of individual potential, academic expectations, opportunities available, discipline used, and hopes for the future.

But people and governments may no longer intentionally segregate schools or classrooms by race or social status and children with special learning and behavioral needs now have the right to a placement in the least restrictive learning environment. Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And they all have our promise that they will be treated respectfully by the adults and students in their school.

There are competing cultural forces at work that again challenge the basic premise of schools as a meritocracy, where all are welcome and offered the same opportunities. The influence of religion in politics and on social issues and public policy has grown at the same time the federal government, individual states, and local school boards and communities have made a moral and legal commitment to build public schools that are safe havens. In these schools, discrimination and violence of any kind, including exclusion, bullying, and harassment, are not tolerated by anyone, against anyone, or for any reason.

This raises the question of the role of religious beliefs in an institution that by law and mandate must welcome, teach, and protect every child who comes to the schoolhouse door. May students deny basic human rights to those who do not share or reflect their religious beliefs, especially in the case of sexual identity? Are students whose religion teaches that homosexuality is immoral excused from showing respect and tolerance toward their gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual peers? Can they discriminate against, refuse to work with, or bully students they do not approve of?

I believe the answer is no, they may not, the same way a student may not let his personal or his parents’ beliefs about race, ethnicity, political leanings, etc. affect how he treats his classmates. The code of conduct for proper behavior applies to everyone.

The strength of the public school system of the 21st century is that it more clearly guarantees that every child can expect the school to protect his rights regardless of perceived or real differences, or religious or social beliefs held by others. This is how we keep the public separate from the private, the secular separate from the sectarian, and public schools open and welcoming to the everyone.

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.

“Justice for Larry” – “Save Brandon”

No trial, no jury, no witnesses. Just a sentencing hearing.

In earlier posts I discussed the issues and controversies surrounding the shooting death of 14 year-old Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney, and the subsequent trial and hung jury. Larry was openly gay and it bothered Brandon, especially when Larry teased him. It bothered Brandon so much that he brought a gun to their middle school and calmly shot Larry in the back of the head twice, as he sat unaware in the computer lab. It was clearly the premeditated murder of one student because he was gay and dressed in feminine clothing, by another student accused of acting on an intolerance of homosexuality. It was an extremely violent and fatal way to settle differences.

No one wanted the anguish of living through another trial and facing the possibility of a second jury unable to reach a verdict. Brandon was, once again, going to be charged with first-degree murder as an adult, the issue that caused the divide in the first jury. By accepting a guilty plea of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and use of a firearm, McInerney was sentenced yesterday to 21 years in prison instead of the life in prison sentence carried by a conviction of first-degree (premeditated) murder. Brandon is ineligible for parole and will be 38 when released.

Those at the sentencing hearing represented the multiple perspectives and human rights questions that plagued the trial. A handful of jurors from the mistrial wore “Save Brandon” bracelets and scarves while across the aisle Larry’s friends and family wore “Justice for Larry” buttons.

Yet, everyone can take away some essential understandings from the tragedy:

  • Yes, school really is a tough place for gay students, and they may need extra adult support.
  • No one-gay or straight-likes being teased or harassed, and they shouldn’t have to put up with it.
  • Parents, teachers, and administrators need to be on the lookout for tensions brewing between students. They need to intervene early and decisively before the situation escalates. They are the adults and they should know what to do.
  • Students, K-12, need to be intentionally taught and expected to show respect for others, regardless of whether they approve of or like the person’s beliefs, color, ethnicity, religion, learning needs, appearance, or sexuality.

We don’t need anymore Larrys and Brandons. And as you can see from the list, it is the adults that set the school climate and define what can and cannot happen in their school.

McInerney murder retrial avoided

 Calif. teen pleads guilty to 2nd-degree murder in killing of gay classmate, faces 21-year term

Last summer the jury was unable to agree on a conviction of first degree murder or  involuntary manslaughter in the case of Brandon McInerney’s killing of classmate Larry King. Both were Oxnard, CA middle school students at the time of the shooting and of contention was the decision to try Brandon as an adult. Brandon was ready to be retried, again as an adult, when today the Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney announced Brandon had agreed to a plea bargain that will avoid the ordeal of a second trial. I could hear the collective sigh of relief from the people of Ventura County.

If there is any good to come from this tragedy it is that minds are more open to the realities of school life, that harassment of gay students is all too common, and that school staff and students are better prepared to intervene to stop the emotional violence of teasing, taunting, and name-calling before it escalates into overt physical violence.

For more information on this case, read my 8/28/10, 8/30/10 , 9/2/10, and 10/11/10 posts and search the McInerney murder case.

Part Three: Building on the good idea

Part three of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

So how do we build on the good idea?

  • The KIPP school was on the right track when they asked teachers to embed concepts and the language of character strengths into lessons in all disciplines, to encourage self-awareness and personal skills, and to replace inappropriate learned behavior with positive thinking and constructive action. They then took a wrong turn and defeated their efforts by instituting a character report card.
  • The Riverdale school headmaster had “a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” and wisely chose to forgo a formal evaluation of each student’s character development. He also had concerns that “nice guy values” such as respect, tolerance, and honesty were too general and abstract to teach. He chose to personally lead a publicity campaign that stressed the moral and behavioral traits linked to success in life. Vocal, visible, passionate leadership is a critical part of a safe school climate plan that builds character.

But awareness isn’t enough to help all students develop into thinking, compassionate, self-directed, morally responsible members of our school, family, and civic communities. Between the rigidness of a character report card and the randomness of an awareness effort lies the intentional commitment to teach, model, and expect pro-social skills, character traits, attitudes, and behavior. This approach acknowledges that character development is a process, not merely a product, and that violence prevention and character education are the same thing. They are a way of being, not a program to implement. Without an artificial label or the constraint of a report card, learning to be non-violent people of good character…never goes out of style, is never is too time-consuming, and is never optional.

This is true because it is:

  • a belief system.
  • the heart of a holistic education.
  • the driving force behind the climate and culture of the school.
  • embedded in everything that happens from instruction to classroom management to formal discipline policies.
  • clearly visible in positive actions and healthy relationships.

How do we make sure schools are violence-free safe havens where students achieve academically and develop a social conscience?

By being proactive. The way to teach moral and performance character that creates a safe school climate is to focus our efforts on prevention, and then intervene early if a child is not making good progress. We treat it as a K-12 goal, get everyone involved – including parents – and take it seriously. These prevention and early intervention stages, followed by late intervention and post-incident responses when necessary, can do the most good for the most children.

Prevention centers around a psychology of success that creates respectful adult-student, student-student, and adult-adult relationships. It is founded on the premise that you can actively teach students to have and show empathy and compassion, to show consideration and tolerance of others, to be trustworthy and guided by integrity, and all those other nice guy qualities. A focus on prevention provides a school experience rich with challenges and supports that build the positive personal assets needed for a successful adulthood.

What does prevention look like?

  • A community where protecting each child’s dignity and basic human rights is a top priority.
  • An exciting, nurturing environment that provides personally motivating learning experiences and expects students to work hard.
  • A positive discipline approach that develops an intrinsic motivation to make good choices, by having students identify and take responsibility for their mistakes, and fix the messes they make.
  • A climate where students and adults are not allowed to be mean, use putdowns, bully, threaten, discriminate or show intolerance.
  • Efforts tailored to meet the unique needs of the school, grade level, individuals, and groups.
  • Children who are consistently and actively taught positive social skills and held to high, developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior.
  • Children skilled in the language of cooperation and conflict resolution, who have the self-control necessary to express themselves peacefully, and know how to get their needs met without resorting to hurtful behavior.
  • Effective teaching strategies that stress collaboration in place of competition such as working with a partner and cooperative learning, and being grouped with those you would not normally choose.
  • Regular class meetings that teach and offer practice for pro-social and language skills development including listening to and considering other people’s the perspectives, offering possible solutions to problems, and recognizing and expressing appreciation for the efforts of others.
  • A curriculum that stresses high-level thinking skills such as consideration of  historical and cultural context, cause and effect, points of view, personal choice and decision-making, and applies this thinking to real life situations.
  • A school staff of adults that believe in, consistently model, and expect non-violent, constructive behavior.

The pro-social skills learned in prevention efforts lead students to ethical behavior and rewarding relationships. This is the opposite of a psychology of failure that stresses comparison and competition, uses public shaming and punishments as consequences, that emphasizes extrinsic rewards, and damages relationships.

What does early intervention look like?

With effective violence prevention efforts in place, the next part of the safe school climate plan addresses those children who are, for some reason, not internalizing and applying the prevention messages to their lives. The staff of a safe school does not ignore negative behavior, nor does it give up on helping these children no matter how challenging.

  • A team approach that includes teachers, specialists, and their parents or guardians that creates a strong student support system.
  • Trusted adults that students can talk to and who check in on them regularly.
  • Anger-management and conflict resolution training.
  • In school and out of school mentoring and counseling services.
  • Support groups designed to teach coping skills.
  • Positive social norms efforts that can sway children who have one foot on the side of trouble to step back and join the majority of their well-behaved peers.
  • Students’ concerns are taken seriously and addressed.
  • Students, including those who are the source of misbehavior, feel safe and not alone.

So we build on the good ideas by…

  • Intentionally embedding them in all aspects of school life.
  • Believing that it is possible to teach positive social skills and strength of character.
  • Realizing it is as important to do this as it is to teach academics.
  • Keeping the promise we make to students, their families, and society, that schools are safe havens where all children are treated well and taught to treat others the same way.

McInerney Murder Trial #2

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office has decided to retry Brandon McInerney for the 2008 murder of his classmate, Larry King.  Both Larry and Brandon were middle school students at the time of the incident.

The jury in the nine-week trial that ended in September 2011 could not come to an agreement about Brandon McInerney’s guilt. While there was no question that Brandon brought a gun to school and then carried out his plan to shoot Larry King, the jurors had a difficult time convicting him of  the first degree murder charge – with a special circumstance of lying in wait and a hate crime enhancement – and accepting the mandatory 50-year minimum sentence the charges carried.*

The District Attorney is again applying the lying in wait charge, which means Brandon will be tried as an adult in his second trial this November. His attorney and family, a few jurors from his first trial, and some community members are pressing for a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a charge which would allow him to be tried in juvenile court with the possibility of getting out of prison in 14 years.

Many factors complicate what would seem like a straightforward case: Larry King was openly gay and may have shown Brandon unwanted attention; Brandon expressed a dislike for gays and had an interest in White supremacy; the school administrators knew of and failed to act to prevent further escalation of the tension between the two boys; and the question of whether a cold-blooded, premeditated murder committed by a 14-year-old is the act of an adult or of a child.

With some compromising between the District Attorney’s Office and the McInerney’s, a plea deal may be reached making a second trial unnecessary. But regardless of what happens, each of us still has to address the issues of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in our schools, and implement thoughtful, yet definitive, violence prevention and early intervention strategies and policies.

*For background on the case and perspectives on the first trial, check out my earlier posts.

Time to add another “protected class”?

Lady Gaga wants to speak with the President about students’ civil rights.

One week ago today, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, committed suicide. Jamey was harassed in school and through social media for being gay. In one online video he tells us, “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I’d never escape it.” For strength Jamey embraced the message of Lady Gaga’s song,  “Born this Way. ” It became his personal anthem and she became his idol. His death hit her hard and she’s now calling for a movement to make gay bullying a crime.

Do we really need a new law?

Legislation seems to be the only way to curtail – we never completely stop – discrimination and acts of hate. For schools, federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination and harassment against certain groups in programs or activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. The law makes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and age against the law in every state, in every educational institution.

These groups are members of a protected class of Americans. It’s clear who is missing from this list. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, 90% of whom report being bullied in school, have not yet been identified as needing legal protection. Yet research continues to confirm that gay-bashing of students is a widespread and common occurence.

What have we done so far? 

In October 2010, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This expanded the 1964 Hate Crimes Act to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.

But is bullying in our schools a crime? Not unless it escalates into physical violence and threats of bodily harm that break the law. This leaves schools free to treat  acts such as taunting, name-calling, rumor spreading, stalking, and cyber-bullying, which lie toward the middle of the violence continuum, however they see fit.

Publicity about suicides has increased our understanding that school staff are responsible for keeping the climate of their schools free from hostility and harassment. Schools are now advised, and in some cases required by state law, to treat such incidents seriously and to respond quickly and definitively.

But as history teaches us, without the authority of a federal law that identifies those who are LGBT as a protected class, the way students are treated will be hit or miss, helpful or harmful, and too often left to cause emotional and psychological damage.

If Lady Gaga and the rest of us continue to bring attention to the issue, we might just pass a new civil rights law that protects gay students.