For Safer Schools, Let’s Look to Students’ Views, Not Parents’ Fears

Last week, I received notification from my kids’ school district that new security provisions were being put in place. Armed Class III police officers were being assigned to every school in the district, including lower elementary schools, with new patrol cars purchased for each officer. “Eyes on the door” visitor management processes were being enhanced, as the driver’s license of every visitor is to be scanned, run through sex offender databases and against child custody orders. Security “vestibules” are now being built at each of our 10 schools. School common areas, hallways, and identified exterior locations are being equipped with security cameras. Classroom phones are to be installed. Door swipes and strobe lights are receiving upgrades.

All of this is being done in a highly resourced school district. All being done in schools that have had no security issues (that the community has been made aware of). Much of this being done because a $115M schools referendum passed in the name of increased student enrollments and classroom needs now provides the financial means to strengthen security. And all done because school shootings in other parts of the country have local district leaders seeking to do something, anything, to demonstrate they are serious about school safety. It doesn’t matter if there is no direct threat, we will respond with our checkbook, buying peace of mind for those who ask, “but what about the children?”

Setting aside the failures of a school-located armed officer at a high school in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, we like to believe that embedded police are the answer to our school security concerns. But Samuel Sinyangwe, noted data scientist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, recently noted that more than 10,000 school police officers were hired (often with federal dollars) following the Columbine school shooting in 1999. According to Sinyangwe, “Two decades later, they haven’t stopped a single school shooting. Instead, they’ve arrested over 1 million kids, mostly students of color, for routine behavior violations.”

Responding to school shootings with armed officers and enhanced security measures shouldn’t surprise us, whether it is a response in a community directly in the line of fire of such violence or a community far removed from ever experiencing an active shooter. The fear of a worst-case scenario means we need to act, act now, and act in whatever possible way is available to us. We will ensure that Class III officers are well trained and have the temperaments to work in a public school. We will make assurances to the community that this about safety, and not about identifying and suspending students for behavior violations. And we will quietly note that we are successful as long as such officers and such security provisions never have to actually be relied on in an actual event.

Sure, parents like me can bemoan the fact that decisions were made to place armed officers in the schools or spend millions on security improvements without any real community input. Truth be told, it was one of the driving reasons I decided to jump into an ultimately unsuccessful race for school board this year. I quickly learned that most in the community didn’t want to discuss the data or didn’t want to answer the question about proof points demonstrating the efficacy (or lack there of) of guns in the schools. No, we want to trust our leaders will ensure our babies are safe. Do whatever it takes to ensure we aren’t the next school gun headline on the evening news.

The true missing piece in the discussion and the decision, though, is the perceptions of the very students we are trying to protect. In October, students from across the nation gathered to develop a “Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety.” In that Bill of Rights, young people articulated 15 key provisions they want and need to see from their local schools. They asked that qualified counselors be provided in the schools. They called for cultural competency and de-escalation trainings. They sought federal legislation allowing for firearm restraining orders. They sought to reduce the stigma of mental heath/illness issues. They demanded greater regulation of the gun industry and greater focus on responsible gun ownership. And they called for additional CDC research specifically focused on reducing gun violence.

Nowhere in the Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety is there a call to place armed officers in school buildings. Nowhere in the Bill of Rights do they seek security vestibules or brighter strobe lights. Nowhere are they seeking reactive actions that assume the worst. Instead, students see the enormous value of proactively addressing the root issues while advocating for a safer, healthier school community.

I was the parent of a Connecticut kindergartner when Sandy Hook happened, and watched as my son engaged in active shooter drills without him knowing why. I sought a seat on my local school board after the district quickly budgeted $1 million annually for Class III officers, and my sixth grade daughter insisted I “had to win to keep guns out of her school.” Now I’m watching as millions of dollars a year are being spent on officers, equipment, facilities, and infrastructure enhancements in our school district of 10,000 kids, money that could have far greater impact if were being spent on guidance counselors, school nurses, community partnerships, and actual instruction.

For the past year, I have pressed far too many people to present the research on the efficacy of armed police officers in the schools. In response, I’ve received decade-old marketing PowerPoints and educated guesses. I’ve had the question deflected, as I was told Class III officers improve student-police relations (which I do agree with) and can be an effective instrument in addressing drug and vaping issues in the schools (which was never the intended goal). But no one can adequately answer the root question.

In my local community, the course has been set and there is no likely diversion from the intended destination. Millions will be spent on armed officers and enhanced security, with proponent and opponent alike hoping beyond hope they will never be needed. It’s a cryin’ shame that my town isn’t using those available resources to address the concerns and reasonable recommendations found in the Student Bill of Rights. But it is my hope that other communities like ours will see the light, and will direct their attentions to what the students need, and not what makes the adults in the room feel a little bit better.

 

Building an Edu-Brand

Earlier this year, Eduflack was honored to be named the winner of the SPOKEie in non-profit education, recognizing the top spokespeople in key industry sectors. As part of the award, I was fortunate to do an video segment with the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, the winner in the non-profit youth category.

In our show, we talk about the importance of branding, particularly in the non-profit arena. You can watch the full segment here.

For those that prefer the written word, the full transcript can be found here.

Happy watching!

 

Why I’m Running for School Board … Again

Nearly a decade ago, I decided to run to serve on my local school board. With two young children not yet in the local schools, I wanted to use my day job focusing on school improvement to ensure that my children had the best possible public education.

That year, the voters of Falls Church, Virginia elected me to serve on the board overseeing one of the the top school districts in the nation. The work was substantial. We had to restore funding to a school system that was hit hard by the recession. We had to improve school quality, particularly with regard to online courses, in a high-achieving school district. We had to continue to ensure that every student in our community was able to take AP and IB classes — and exams — without needing to pay for it themselves. We had to increase teacher salaries during tough budgetary times. And if that wasn’t enough, we needed to launch a major capital effort — including securing federal funding to expand our middle school — while hiring a new superintendent in the middle of it all.

I was honored to work alongside the teachers, administrators, community leaders, families, and board members who made our little city the success story it was. I was fortunate to be able to serve as both vice chair and chairman of our school board. Despite all of the countless hours, the tough political battles, and the continual searches for hard-to-find educational dollars, the hardest part of the work for me was when I had to leave the board after relocating out of state for a new job opportunity.

Since my service, I have been fond of saying how serving on a local board of education was one of the toughest challenges I’ve every faced. When asked about future service, I’ve regularly said I had no intention of ever returning to such a position. After all, these days I take great pride in my work as an assistant coach on my daughter’s competitive cheer squad. That’s how I enjoy spending my fall nights now.

A few weeks ago, I began reflecting on the state of my current school community, a high-achieving school district in New Jersey. The challenges and opportunities before the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District are not unique. It’s about balancing the needs of academic achievement with those of the whole child. It is about rewarding and empowering educators when more and more demands are placed on them. It’s about properly involving parents in educational decisions. And its about ensuring all students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their careers and lives.

So it is with renewed enthusiasm that I decided to run for a seat on our local board of education, filing my candidacy papers yesterday afternoon. Like most of the families in my community, mine moved to WW-P because of the quality of the public schools. I believe that our schools are very good … and can be even better. And I believe that my skill sets and past experiences provide me a unique position to lead that push for improvement.

As a former school board chairman for a district similar to my current community, I understand how to deal with a growing student population in smartly, ensuring that building construction and expansion is done in a financially sound way, meeting the needs without saddling the community for decades to come. I also recognize the importance of setting clear goals that are shared with the community, while holding the superintendent and all school district officials accountable for achieving those goals.

As a voice for school improvement, I understand the importance of strong inputs in our schools, and equally understand how outcomes are the ultimate measure of a school, a district, and a community.

As someone who has worked in education policy for two decades, I understand the importance of scientifically based research in school decision making, of understanding the value of assessments and the student data they derive, of how to select the best literacy programs for an ever-changing student population, and of how to ensure that technology in the classroom is used in the most effective way possible.

As a special education parent, I understand the importance of educators and parents working together, forming a team of individuals with the best interests of the student at heart.

This year, I will be the father of two middle schoolers — a seventh grader and a sixth grader. It would be far easier for me, both personally and professionally, to sit on the local schools’ sidelines, offering my thoughts via Facebook debates and the occasional blog post. It would be easier for me to focus on my professional life, my family, and my extremely limited cheer coaching abilities. But life isn’t always easy.

My children are now in the second half of their k-12 experiences. It can’t be about what is easy for me, and instead needs to be about what is best for my kids and for the many like them in the classroom. If I can help improve our schools and the pathways available to my children and their friends, then I need to take the opportunity. I cannot simply hope or wish or complain that things should be done differently. I have to step up and try to do them.

I do so recognizing that I am largely an unknown newbie in our community. Most know nothing about my work leading the National Reading Panel or the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative. They don’t know I have helped build two new graduate schools of education to better prepare teachers. They are unaware that I’ve worked to improve teacher education in five states — including New Jersey — or helped lead the most substantial education reform initiative in Connecticut’s history. They don’t know that this son of a high school teacher and a college president has spent the past 20 years fighting each and every day to improve educational access, quality, and outcomes. And that’s OK.

Over the next three months, I will spend much of my time talking to my neighbors about my background and my vision for our local schools. I will hopefully spend far more time listening than I will talking. And I will try and emphasize the importance of transparency, accountability, and community in our local schools.

If I can use the coming months to help focus on these issues and raise the level of educational discourse in our community, then I will consider it a big win. The bigger win is having my kids see me campaign hard, learning the same lessons that my educator parents instilled in me. That nothing is more important than a good education.

Federal Subsidies for Teacher Salaries?

If the recent run on teacher work stoppages has taught us anything, it is that there is a growing public commitment to ensure that our educators are better paid for the work they do in the classroom. And as the job of teaching gets more complex, it becomes more and more necessary.

So it is no surprise that Democrats in DC are looking to move legislation to put billions of federal dollars into the pool to boost teacher salaries. It makes great politics, but do we really want the federal government involved in how localities decide salaries and pay scales?

We explore the topic on the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen!

For Schools, Spelling is Serious Business

As many students were coming back to school after the winter break, communities on the East Coast experienced their first real winter weather of the year. Ice and snow forecasts had students flushing ice cubes down the toilet, parents worried about childcare coverage, and school districts watching weather patterns like tornado hunters.

In Maryland, one student even went to social media to ask for time away from the little red schoolhouse, tweeting the Frederick County Public Schools to “close school tammarow PLEASE.”

Responding with the type of levity we expect to see on Twitter (at least when we aren’t experiencing vitriol), the school district’s social media coordinator tweeted back at the student, ““but then how would you learn how to spell ‘tomorrow’?” So that no one would mistake her humor for snark, she closed the message with a smiley face emoji.

Now, according to The Washington Post, that social media coordinator has been fired. The termination came after the district demanded that she delete all that the district deemed as “inappropriate” tweets and after the system’s communications director issued a public apology to the FCPS student who can’t spell tomorrow.

Overreact much, Frederick County Public Schools?

Now Eduflack gets that the school system as worried about potential backlash. As a former school board chairman, I get that the district feared parents concerned students were being called stupid or were being mocked on social media and that is could become a “thing” at the next school board meeting. But this is Twitter, folks. It is designed for interaction and give and take. A student tweeting at his or her school district is expecting a response.

One has to only look at the tweets from the school district since the incident to understand that, while the system may think it has built a “model for the state” when it comes to social media, it just isn’t the case.

  • “Schedule reminder: schools are closed on Monday, January 23rd.”
  • “All FCPS activities are canceled for Saturday, Jan 14 due to weather forecasts.”
  • “Academic Tournament continues with ‘Human Diseases’ as the special topic.”
  • “Reminder: schools are closed on Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Day.” (one has to wonder if someone is getting suspended for leaving the “Jr.” off that tweet)

Model Twitter feeds are those that happen in real time and generate discussion and sharing. They aren’t automated, nor are they approved weeks in advance on a schedule. If anything, the now former social media coordinator for FCPS provided a little personality to the site, and in doing so, ensured that students across the district were actually checking it out (if only for a little bit). She showed how school district social media feeds can actually interact with the very students they are supposed to be serving.

Unfortunately, the actions in Frederick County will have more districts pulling back that getting into the scrum. Instead of using Twitter to engage and build community, they will use Twitter as a bulletin board, thinking that a single line they post on scheduling will stay top of mind to their entire community for perpetuity. And that’s a crying shame.

If school districts are going to use Twitter, they need to use it for all it is worth. Otherwise, they may just take their messages and chalk them up on the old slate and hang it outside the little red school house. It’ll be just as effective communicating with families.

 

School Board Elections Shouldn’t be MMA

Over at Hechinger Report, I have a new commentary on how our local school board races can often reflect the worst of our national political discourse … and how that can do a true disservice to the kids and communities our school boards are seeking to serve.

While the job of a school board member isn’t necessarily to serve as a rubber stamp for a superintendent, it is a job that requires working with a disparate electorate. It requires finding common ground with everyone from a headstrong superintendent to the most vocal of activist parents.

One simply cannot begin that service through a political campaign of blame, scare tactics, or fear. And it cannot be done by pitting one part of the community against the other in the hopes of cobbling together enough of the community to secure the necessary votes to win.

I hope you’ll give it a read. It becomes an important topic of discussion as more control is returned to the localities.

 

 

BAM! Listen Up!

Over at BAM Education Radio, I’m the guest on two recent shows that look at the intersection between politics, rhetoric, and the classroom.

Most recently, I guested on Jon Harper’s show, My Bad, where we talked about being biased and judgmental, and how we can move beyond that to actually achieve some real progress. I reflected on my time serving on a local school board, and entering discussions with some preconceived notions about some of the constituencies I represented.

I also joined Brad Gustafson and Ben Gilpin on TweetED, where we spoke specifically about how to deal with politics in the classroom, whether that politics is brought in by the teacher, the student, or the parent.

Both are great shows (and are great because of their respective hosts, not because of their poor choice in guests). But give them a listen and a like. You won’t be disappointed.