Saturday, May 26, 2012

Curmie Contenders: I... Can't... Keep... Up

It’s May, so I’m beginning to feel like Oprah: You get a Curmie nomination, and you get a Curmie nomination, and you get a Curmie nomination, and you get a Curmie nomination. Yes, four of them: all making news in the past week or so, each worthy, if that is the word, of serious consideration for the coveted award given to the educator who most embarrasses the profession.

I have my personal… erm… favorite of the quartet, but since I mean it that all four might get a Curmie nomination this December, I don’t want to prejudice the voting. So I’ll take them in the order I found out about them.

Leading off, then, is the story out of North Rowan High School in North Carolina. Social studies teacher Tanya Dixon-Neely was taped by student Hunter Rogers saying some pretty stupid things in the classroom.

Now, allow me to register a few caveats. First, Rogers is no hero for surreptitiously recording the class without permission and then posting the tape to YouTube instead of turning it over to school officials. (Curiously, I don’t see anything in the news reports about Rogers being suspended or even reprimanded for using a cell phone in class.) He’s an unethical little brat who thinks the ends justify the means: and the default position is that the means were sleazy if not illegal. Perhaps Dixon-Neely deserved it. His classmates didn’t… unless they were all in on the subterfuge, and Dixon-Neely was being set up to be ambushed. The fact that Dixon-Neely seems to have been prodded into her angry outburst doesn’t do much for the accusers’ credibility.

Second, the combination of poor sound quality and no video, coupled with a couple of pops and gaps, makes me wonder if the tape was edited. Andrew Breitbart might no longer be with us, but his legacy is. As I wrote a year ago, “I suspect that I’m not the only faculty member in the country who wonders whether today is the day that some student will show up in my class with a grudge, a recording device, and access to editing equipment.”

Third, some of what Dixon-Neely argues—and has been widely ridiculed for arguing—is indeed true, or at least could be argued to be true in general terms. I’d suggest, for example, that the behavior that Barack Obama admits to in one of his books doesn’t rise to the level of bullying, but the allegations about Mitt Romney do… of course, that’s not exactly what Dixon-Neely actually says, and she passes on an opportunity for a teaching moment. Moreover, the fact that we have a constitutional right to criticize the President doesn’t mean that people haven’t been arrested for doing so, as, say, the case of Nicole and Jeff Rank demonstrates. Oh, sure, the authorities called it something else, but yeah, they pretty much got arrested for criticizing then-President Bush.

Is this what Dixon-Neely was referencing? Given the incoherence of some of the rest of what she says, probably not, but we can’t know that for certain, and she deserves due process. That doesn’t mean that getting her out of the classroom was a bad idea; it means that there may be more to her side of the story than the deafening drum-beat of the rightist press will allow us to hear. It’s also saddening to see the specifically racist and sexist anger directed at Dixon-Neely. She deserves criticism for screwing up, for sure. But ”Ignorant Black Leftist SLUT Tanya Dixon-Neely Needs To Be Fired”? Really?

Still, the idea that you can disparage Romney because “he’s running for President; Obama is the President” is pretty bizarre, and describing President Bush as “shitty” may be an opinion with which I agree, but it is an opinion, vulgarly expressed. Opinions framed as opinions about non-political matters are fine. So is challenging a student’s assumptions. Using the excremental adjective to describe a POTUS while on the clock as a teacher, however: nope. It’s pretty clear that Ms. Dixon-Neely ceased to function as a teacher and began being an Obama campaigner not long into the tirade. I struggle in vain to imagine a scenario by which this would be appropriate behavior. Yeah, Hunter Rogers is a right little asshole, but Dixon-Neely is a Curmie contender.

Next up: the school nurse at Deltona High School in Florida who refused to give an asthmatic student his inhaler while he was having an attack. In fact, she locked herself in her office while he gasped for breath on her floor. And then, (you can see this coming, can’t you, Gentle Reader?) the school officials defended her actions. You see, they didn’t have a parental consent form signed this year. His mom had filled out the form in previous years and hadn’t revoked that permission. Not good enough. And, of course, they’d confiscated his inhaler—unopened, with his name and prescription clearly legible—from his locker. But, you see, there are rules.

What the hell is going on? It’s the rules to let a kid die? It’s the rules for someone whose profession is to heal the sick to refuse treatment? What kind of Ayn Randian nightmare is happening here? Yeah, I get it. The school could get sued if some other kid got the inhaler and had an allergic reaction or whatever. This is because some “victims” are greedy, because some lawyers are unethical, because some judges and juries are stupid. That’s where these odious “zero tolerance” policies come from. I proposed a solution to this problem on my old blog nearly seven years ago. Curiously enough, no one listened.

But this case raises the bar of callousness. Remember, the school seized the inhaler or there wouldn’t have been a problem. Even though knew the medication was his, that it had been prescribed, that there were release forms from previous years on record, they not only wouldn’t then administer potentially life-saving medication to young Michael Rudi, they wouldn’t let him do it himself, and they couldn’t be bothered to call 911. Frighteningly, this kind of depraved indifference is apparently not uncommon: I’ve heard of this happening at least twice in Texas, just in cases involving my students or former students. Ironically but absolutely appropriately, this inhuman treatment of a fellow traveler resulted in precisely what the stupid policy was intended to prevent: a lawsuit.

While part of me would like the nurse to be placed in an airtight room until she passes out, my better nature prevails. Just sue the shit out of her, the school, and every idiot administrator who sought to justify her indefensible actions. Maybe, just maybe, someone will get the message.

Next on the hit parade is the news from Walker, Michigan, where Kenowa Hills High School Principal Katie Pennington suspended 65 seniors for riding bicycles to school as a last-day-of-class senior activity. The students were escorted by a police cruiser, the city’s mayor “rode shotgun” and provided donuts for the group.

But, as is the tradition at Kenowa Hills, and probably at every other high school in the country, the students didn’t tell their administration about what they were going to do. (I’d call it a prank, but I yield to the linguistic distinction drawn by Zac Totten, the class president: “A prank is something that causes harm, funny for one side and not the other. I think she reacted the way she did because we kind of blind-sided her.”) Yes, that’s the problem: she wasn’t in on the gag, and that is an offense grievous enough to suspend over 20% of your imminent graduates, denying them their traditional “senior walk.”

What an idiot. Yes, one might point out that there were safety issues involved, that a little more advance warning would have provided a second police cruiser, that discretion is generally a good thing. But no one got hurt; there’s nothing illegal about riding a bicycle. People in town thought it was a great idea. I can understand the safety concerns, if indeed they were legitimate and not simply a convenient cover for what was in fact no more that administrative petulance.

After the case brought national notoriety, Pennington and Superintendent Gerald Hopkins, who (wait for it…) supported her actions, relented. Pennington even offered a public apology. That’s a step, I suppose. Reversing a silly decision before it makes national headlines would be better. Best of all would be a higher-fiber diet.

Finally, case #4, which I am rushing to write up lest there be a #5 on the horizon before I finish. This one concerns Jessica Barba, a student at Longwood High School in Middle Island, New York. For a class project, she created a video and a Facebook page, both clearly labeled as fictional, to demonstrate the real effects of bullying. “Hailey Bennett,” the adolescent heroine of the piece, is isolated when her best friend moves away, is subjected to constant bullying at school, and ultimately commits suicide.

It’s not the best project in history—not least because of the atrocious spelling employed throughout—but there is some creativity there, the video is well-edited, it shows the evidence of a lot more work than most high school kids will put into any assignment, and the project as a whole relates to a real issue in schools. Bullying happens, and too little is done to stop it. (No, Gentle Reader, I’m not going off on that screed.) Jessica can articulate a persuasive response (that was the assignment) to this situation far more effectively than she can to whether the elections in Egypt will lead to a new golden age, a return to military rule, or an increase in power for Islamic fundamentalists. She’s 15. Go figure.

But some parent apparently saw the Facebook page (why? how?), didn’t notice that it was clearly marked as fictional, and called the cops, who in turn over-reacted, as did the school, which promptly suspended the girl for… erm… “[creating] a substantial disruption to the school.” Those are the words of the Superintendent, unidentified in the article by Meghan Neal in the New York Daily News, but apparently one Allan Gerstenlauer, assuming the website is kept up to date. Of course, winning the big game in basketball would also cause substantial disruption, but I guess we’re not supposed to notice that.

As often happens in cases like these, it was the national press attention that really turned the tide. Let’s face it, whether this is a good thing or not, if Matt Lauer calls you out, you’d better be ready. There was also an on-line petition that gathered nearly 15,000 signatures. Caving more to public pressure than to any real beliefs, school officials rescinded the suspension and wiped Jessica’s record clean.

Three further observations:
First, whatever else may be true here, it’s clear that once again school officials think they have the right to control every aspect of their students’ lives. I don’t care that kids at school were talking about the video. If there was a disruption, maybe that’s a good thing. And, once again, we’ve got a school demanding a student’s Facebook password to delete the offending page. Maybe, maybe the account should have been taken down because it violated Facebook’s TOS agreement. But that’s Facebook’s call. Dammit, we’ve just been here. This kind of intrusion is stupid, unprofessional and unethical in Geneva, IL. What makes these bozos think it’s any different on Long Island?

Second, not every kid can drop by the “Today Show” studios with her parents. This, too, raises a familiar issue, a variation on the theme of one I discussed a few months ago. The internet helps, but you can be sure that somewhere in the country there’s some idiot administrator over-reaching just as much as the clowns in charge of this high school did… and getting away with it because there’s no Neil Gaiman or Clint Dempsey or Matt Lauer to take up the cause. (Side note here: my first post on the situation at UW-Stout has had more views than any other two articles I’ve written, combined, and about 10 times as often as the median. Wanna bet having the link tweeted by Adam Baldwin had something to do with that?)

Third, there was a snarky piece by Judith Warner in Time about this case. Warner is right to wonder,
shouldn’t a 15-year-old, ostensibly advanced enough in English to be taking a “persuasive speech” class (as opposed to, say, an old-fashioned class focused on reading and writing) know that “bestfriend” isn’t a word? That a “whole in her heart” makes no sense and that there’s no such thing as a “branned name shirt”?
What comes next is problematic, however:
And while we’re on the subject of academics, is allowing a kid to do something for a homework assignment that she’d probably love to do anyway – make a video, post on Facebook – really such a great idea? In an era of panic over the shrinking skills of our future workforce, and of “results-oriented” education reform, can we afford to waste students’ time on feel-good assignments rather than push them to master the basics of grammar, spelling and punctuation?
Rubbish. Warner would have us believe that students who actually enjoy an assignment are somehow doing something wrong. Look, I’m a grammar Nazi (ask any of my students), but correct spelling is only one component of education. Yes, I wish I didn’t cringe every time I look at a stack of papers from university juniors and seniors, let alone high school sophomores: I know that there will be some colossally stupid constructions in half or more of those essays. But any reasonable view of education seeks a balance between left-brain and right-brain activity. Jessica Barba deserves to lose points for her orthographic sloppiness. Neither Warner nor I know whether she did. But she’s got a good heart, a creative flair, and a fair amount of technical skill. There’s the potential for a promising adult in there. Still, she wasn’t completely successful. Her message about the perils of bullying and humiliation clearly didn’t resonate with the pompous Ms. Warner. Otherwise, this 15-year-old girl wouldn’t have been held up to ridicule in a national publication.

So there you have it… four more contenders for the Curmie. By my rough count, that brings the total for 2012 to about 16. It’s only May. Jolly.

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