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.

 

It’s Historic!

Apologies for this site being relatively silent recently. Dear ol’ Eduflack has been hard at work on a major effort focused on the teaching and learning of American history. The full announcement from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation can be found here.

The headline is that, why many of us say history and social studies were our favorite subjects while in school, we don’t seem to be retaining what we’ve learned. In a national survey of 1,000 Americans, conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies, the WW Foundation discovered that only about a third of Americans could pass an American history test based on questions found on the actual U.S. Citizenship Test. A whopping 64 percent of those surveyed could not get a 60 percent on the test, failing to answer at least 12 of the 20 questions correctly.

What is more sad is that we don’t seem to know who the United States fought during World War II, when the U.S. Constitution was written, or even why we broke from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. Despite our addiction to the musical Hamilton, we believe that Thomas Jefferson was an author of the Federalist Papers. Far too many thought Ike was a U.S. general during the Civil War.

And while it was a Woodrow Wilson Foundation study, most didn’t know what dear ol’ Woodrow was president during World War I.

The story on our collective lack of historical perspective has taken off like wildfire.

The Oregonian has an interesting take here.

The Washington Examiner got the party started here.

The Miami Herald began the drumbeat for McClatchy newspapers here.

The Wall Street Journal took to its editorial pages on the topic. It was joined today by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Washington Times this morning.

All of this points to one important fact. We need to do a far better job when it comes to the learning of American history. We need to make history more interesting, more relevant, and more engaging for the learner. Hopefully, we will see such efforts coming in 2019. These survey results show it is clearly needed.

 

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.

Let’s Not Bully #BeBest

Earlier this month, First Lady Melania Trump fulfilled a promise she made during the 2016 presidential campaign. In announcing Be Best, FLOTUS committed her bully pulpit to looking issues like cyber bullying and social-emotional learning for children.

On cue, the education community largely mocked her. But maybe, just maybe, we should give Melania a chance … particularly as we we have been looking for federal leadership on issues like SEL for quite some time.

So we explore this topic on the latest edition of TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen. Maybe we can be best by giving #BeBest a chance.

What About Special Ed Parents, Mr. President?

Last month, the Trump Administration dismissed, en masse, hundreds of special education complaints filed with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

In doing so, the EdSec said they were charges without merit, as the hundreds were filed by just a handful of individuals. But in doing so, the Trump Administration demonstrates a lack of understanding of advocates in special education, while dissing the sped family community across the nation.

On the latest episode of TrumpED, we explore the topic and the chilling affect it can have on a sped community believing President Trump may have meant more, not less, respect in the public schools. Give it a listen!

Bringing Student Voice to the Ballot Box

Across the nation, folks are rightfully applauding young people for stepping forward and ensuring their voice is heard on the issue of guns. But haven’t we seen this dance before? Haven’t we seen younger generations speak loudly in the community, but then fail to turn out when it comes to voting?

The numbers of the percentage of young people voting — particularly in 2012 and 2016 — is disturbing. As valuable as marches and turnout in the streets may be, nothing is more powerful that that vote at the polling place.

Over on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the topic, hoping that activism moves beyond the number of Twitter followers. Give it a listen.