Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Arizona Re-Asserts Its Claim to Having the Nation's Stupidest Politicians

State legislators. From Arizona. Talking about education. Gold, these people, sheer gold. Alas, only for Curmudgeons who like to make snarky comments about the less adept amongst us.

Anyway, there’s an actual bill—HB 2467, to be precise—sponsored by a couple of the dimmer bulbs in a state legislature not exactly renowned for its luminosity, which (except for the window-dressing) consists exclusively of the following:
Beginning in the 2013‑2014 school year, in addition to fulfilling the course of study and assessment requirements prescribed in this chapter, before a pupil is allowed to graduate from a public high school in this state, the principal or head teacher of the school shall verify in writing that the pupil has recited the following oath:

“I, _________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; so help me God.”
Bob Thorpe: Not a genius.
The sponsors of this… uh… proposal, GOP (duh) Representatives Bob Thorpe, Sonny Borrelli, Carl Seel, T.J. Shope, and Steve Smith, seem to think that crafting inanities like this is a good use of their time and of taxpayer’s money. I beg to differ. Thorpe, apparently the principal progenitor of this balderdash, purports to “[promote] Constitutional freedoms.” The ones he believes in, at least: (2nd amendment: good; 9th amendment: usually good but sometimes scary; 1st amendment… there’s a 1st amendment?)

The oath itself, identical to that sworn by United States Senators, and a variation on the theme of the ones sworn by new citizens, political leaders, and members of the military, may be about the silliest thing I’ve seen in a while… and I spend a fair amount of time trying to ferret out nonsense like this.

A couple of left-leaning commentators have seized on this and want to concentrate on the insistence on invoking God in a public school. I’m not a 1st amendment lawyer, but I’m guessing this one is up for grabs. As a country, we purport to believe in the separation of church and state (well, all but the Tea Party ignoramuses do), but “In God We Trust” is still on our currency, “so help me God” still is recited by everyone from politicians to trial witnesses, and woe betide the President who doesn’t close every freaking speech by invoking God’s blessing on the nation. On the other hand, if school prayer is a no-no, then probably forcing an atheist student to swear by a God he doesn’t believe in strikes me as being a bit over the Constitutional line.

Secondly, there are likely to be a fair number of non-citizens who graduate from Arizona high schools, and I’m not talking (only) about illegals. I’ve had at least a few students—that I know of—who went to high school in the US, but are (or were, at the time) citizens of Canada, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom… you get the point. Demanding that non-citizens swear an oath of fealty to a country of which they’re not even citizens: more than a little creepy.

My particular favorite part of the bill, though, is about “[taking] this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” Let’s think about that for a minute. It makes sense if one has successfully run for office or volunteered for military service, but in the context of just trying to graduate from high school, it’s transcendently stupid. Look at it this way: the oath is unnecessary if the student is willing to swear it freely, and simply a coerced exclamation from those who aren’t. Claiming a declaration is offered “without any mental reservation” is, frankly, nothing more than an insistence on prevarication. Anyone with literally no reservations about what some idiot politician (there’s another kind?) might decide he’s sworn to do is, frankly, too stupid to be granted a diploma.

Because that is, indeed, the rub: I kinda get the feeling that the quintet of buffoons who sponsored the bill think that the fact that I voted for Obama makes me an enemy of the state. Good thing I got my high school diploma at a different place and time, or the Bozo Brothers would be showing up on my doorstep, revocation order clutched tightly in their sweaty little fists.

So the new bill is unconstitutional, restrictive, and ethically problematic. It is as unenforceable as it is ineffective. But the real problem: it’s just plain dumb.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Curmie Contenders: Post-Newtown Edition

One of the advantages of being the sole proprietor of this blog—and of the Curmie Awards—is that I get to set the rules. And so it is that although both of these stories actually date from December, I’m going to amend the Curmie guidelines to make them eligible for the 3rd Annual Curmie Award, to be awarded in early January, 2014.

What these two stories have in common—other than idiot administrators (which has, alas, become something of a given) is a link to the horror of Newtown. Something about that particular calamity seems to have sparked a response in our collective psyche—something about this one made it unlike the others… probably a combination of so many victims being so young and of the unquestioned heroism of the teachers. But the tardy and tone-deaf statement by the NRA was—miracle of miracles—read by virtually everyone as, well, tardy and tone-deaf, and we might, just might, get some real dialogue going about some gun control legislation that would uphold 2nd amendment rights while suggesting, ever-so-politely, that allowing felons and the mentally ill access to assault rifles with 100-round magazines might not be entirely in keeping with what the founders intended by “a well-regulated militia.”

As an academic who spends a fair amount of time considering things Irish, I have become quite familiar with the (largely inaccurate) description of Sinn Féin as the “political wing of the Irish Republican Army.” I think of that phrasing every time some NRA honcho advocates something transcendently stupid—like putting armed guards in every school, for example. Because the NRA really is the lobbying wing of the gun manufacturing industry, and it tolerates the presence of mere gun-owners only because those people will never really have any power in the organization, which will continue to press for bazookas with which to kill Bambi.

Not all the post-Newtown stupidity came from the NRA, of course, and it’s the response of alleged educators that is really the subject of this entry. We start in East Harlem, where school officials decided that less than a week after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary would be the ideal time to conduct a lockdown drill. In a school for kids with special needs. Without telling the teachers. Or the police. Genius, these people, genius. Naturally, the school website touts the motto, “Where Students Come First!” Uh huh.

According to the New York Times,
The lockdown drill began about 10 a.m. on Tuesday with a woman’s voice on the school’s loudspeaker saying, “‘Shooter,’ or ‘intruder,’ and ‘get out, get out, lockdown,’” said the staff member, who added that it seemed so realistic that it was hard to tell if the woman speaking was actually talking to a gunman or to teachers and students throughout the school.

At 10:01 a.m., a woman dialed 911 from her cellphone and said she had heard a message over the loudspeaker “that there was an intruder in the school, and that she was in the class with her students,” said a Police Department spokeswoman.

Officers from the 25th Precinct station house responded, she said. When they arrived a minute later, school officials told them that it was just a drill.
The contradictory instructions—“lock down” vs. “get out”—caused even greater panic. To top it off, according to a website called Horanwatch (to be fair, this is apparently not the most unbiased of sources), the school’s security team followed up the drill by “[walking] the hallways smirking and criticizing staff, … mockingly smiling and making light of people discussing their fear…” (emphasis in original).

The same venue reports that:
In classrooms without locks, teachers used their bodies to hold doors closed and cover students. Staff were witnessed falling to the ground in prayer. Students and staff were seen crying, shaking, and exhibiting all behaviors of those under extreme trauma. Some students and staff were seen after urinating on themselves.
The administration’s behavior—holding a drill without telling anyone it was a drill—would be unconscionable under the most neutral of circumstances. Inevitably, staff will get on their phones to call loved ones, who become justifiably upset, possibly to the extent of taking unreasonable chances to get to the school. Not notifying the police is reckless and inevitably the source of an absurd waste of resources… who knows what crimes could have been prevented or solved had the cops not been diverted to the school? More importantly, it’s just plain cruel.

But this outrage is triply problematic, as the utter idiocy of the Principal Greer Phillips and her merry band of sadistic drones is aggravated both by the chronological propinquity of Sandy Hook, making everyone a little more on edge, but also by the nature of the student body. It’s bad enough pulling this crap on a regular student population, but a disproportionate number of these students have significant cognitive and/or emotional issues. Remember, too, that this is East Harlem—not likely a lot of post-traumatic counseling available for these kids.

The School Board is “looking into how this drill was conducted.” Seriously? What’s to look at? I understand due process. I understand extenuating circumstances. But whereas I like to think of myself as having a reasonable imagination, I am at a loss to construct any set of circumstances whereby what happened last month in East Harlem could even be construed to be in the same galaxy as justifiable. Rather, Phillips and the rest of her co-conspirators should be fired, sued, probably charged with a litany of criminal offenses, and paraded through the streets of East Harlem in stocks, with the populace urged to throw rotten vegetables at them. Then, the real punishment should start.

Meanwhile, on the other coast, high schooler Courtni Webb was suspended and threatened with expulsion for writing a poem in a personal notebook, expressing some level of empathy for Newtown shooter Adam Lanza. The cretinous yahoos who run Life Learning Academy, however, take “a zero tolerance approach to violence, the threat of violence….” Zero tolerance policies are inherently problematic, as they both ignore circumstances and demand punishment of students or teachers who violate not a rational policy, but an interpretation of words like “threat,” made by administrators who would have to grow some brain cells to have the mental acuity of a pothole.

Valerie Stratham, Courtni’s mother, is being excessively kind in saying merely that she “[feels] like they’re over-reacting,” pointing out that Courtni “doesn’t have a history of violence; she didn’t threaten anybody; she didn’t threaten herself.” Oh, come on, Ms. Stratham, if you’re going to be logical and sensible and stuff, there’s simply no way any educationist will take you seriously.

There are two issues here, both of which show the school to be run by utter incompetents. First, there’s the fact that the poem was found in a personal notebook by a teacher, who cheerfully scurried off to the principal to narc on a student. Point #1: what’s written in that notebook, Teach, is none of your fucking business if it isn’t directly related to a class. Reason #2472 why Curmie would never make it as a high school administrator: here’s the conversation if I were on the job:
Teacher: I found this poem in a student’s notebook.

Me: Why were you looking in her notebook?

Teacher: Um…

Me: Congratulations. You violated a student’s privacy for no good reason. You’re fired.

Teacher: But it says she understands why Adam Lanza did it.

Me: And empathy is a bad thing because…?

Teacher: But it’s a threat.

Me: Actually, you babbling buffoon, you’re the threat. You’re a threat to the 1st Amendment, you’re a threat to the 4th amendment, you’re a threat to students’ ability to learn critical thinking, and you’re a threat to my sanity. Now, get out of my office. Don’t let the door hit you on the ass. On second thought, let it. That seems to be where your brain is located, and it might jar a little sense into it.
Point #2: If you’re going to suspend a student for making threats, there bloody well better be some threats. Empathy isn’t a threat. Attempting to understand motives isn’t a threat. Writing poetry not intended to be seen by anyone else isn’t a threat. If you really want to be concerned about something, how about a little introspective shudder at the idea that a senior in high school can’t spell “trigger”?

Don’t give me your hand-wringing claptrap about “threatening language.” There was none. And please, for the love of all things holy, do not pretend that you have the slightest interest in “both the safety of our school community and for Courtni herself.” You are interested in throwing your weight around, enforcing inane policies, and covering your ass in the one in ten million chance that Ms. Webb really is planning some sort of assault on your little citadel of pomposity.

Jonathan Katz, an attorney with a specialty in 1st amendment issues, says that “This is a bad civics lesson for students to see someone being suspended in school for her words, especially these kind of words, where she could not be sanctioned if she was outside the schoolhouse gates.” And that, coupled with the invasion of privacy that enabled school officials to learn of the very existence of the poem, is a pretty neat encapsulation of a very great deal that is wrong with the education system in this country. Maybe a Curmie nomination will ease their angst.

BTW, Jack Marshall commented on the New York story here and, more briefly, on the California story here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Let's Prosecute Rape Victims. Yes, Really.

Every once in a while someone mixes up a cocktail of such mind-melting stupidity, monumental inconsistency, and transcendent arrogance that there is little for the rest of us to do but drop everything and gaze in slack-jawed wonderment at the inanity before us. Behold, therefore, one Cathrynn Brown (right), a New Mexico legislator whose latest bill rockets off the scale, leaving “moronic” and “horrific” as feeble understatements of the idiocy involved.

It would (or would have, until it was changed under duress) criminalize abortions for rape and incest victims under the ingenious appellation of destruction of evidence. The language is clear: the strictures “shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.”

Yes, Gentle Reader, you read that correctly. Look, reasonable people can disagree about the prudence, ethics, and morality of abortion in general. The long-time equivocation of some “centrists,” allowing the procedure in cases of rape and incest, may or may not be logically consistent (it makes sense if and only if the rights of the unborn are extant but not absolute), is here turned on its head: now, such victims are the only group specifically forbidden from getting an abortion.

Aviva Shen of ThinkProgress also points out that:
While anti-choice advocates maintain that a fetus should be afforded the full rights of personhood, charging abortion as “tampering with evidence” effectively turns the fetus into an object. This isn’t the first time so-called pro-life supporters have dropped the fetal personhood crusade when it was convenient—last year, a Catholic hospital in Colorado reversed its stance on fetal personhood in a malpractice suit, arguing in court that the term “person” should only apply to individuals who have already been born.
And so it goes. The idea of abortion as destruction of evidence is also patently absurd on its face. It would make as much sense to tell the victim of a stabbing that he can’t remove the knife, or of a vandalism victim that she can’t clean up the side of the house… ever. If you want to make the penalties for rape more severe, sign me up. But do it; don’t equivocate with disingenuous arguments about destruction of evidence.

Now, to be fair, I don’t necessarily think Ms. Brown is truly as inept as her legislation makes it appear. One wonders if she’d able to feed herself if she were. And she does say that she didn’t intend for rape and incest victims to face felony charges for actions that would be legal for everyone else. She’s not really a monster. She’s just illiterate. Or sloppy. Maybe.

The point is that only the prospective mother can “procure” an abortion, and that “facilitate” is a very broad term indeed. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to assert that, as written, Brown’s bill would not only criminalize the actions of the woman, but of the doctors and nurses, the neighbor who drove her to the facility, and a fair number of other people whose actions are otherwise both legal and appropriate.

Yes, that tag about the “intent to destroy evidence” does mitigate the harm, but it doesn’t eliminate it. It would if it were not for the fact that the “procurer” of the abortion and those who “facilitate” it are specifically included. If Ms. Brown wants a bill to do what she says she wants it to do, it’s easily accomplished, thus: “shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.”

Here’s her revision: “a person who commits criminal sexual penetration or incest and who procures an abortion of a fetus resulting from the crime with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime is guilty of tampering with evidence.” Does this strike anyone else as weird? The fact that the references to compulsion and coercion have disappeared, for example? I have no idea what’s going on, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s still only the prospective mother who can “procure” an abortion, meaning that the only people who are covered by these restrictions are women who rape men or who are the aggressor (or adult) in cases of incest. Whereas such criminals might be tempted to abort a fetus for precisely the reason suggested, I doubt that Ms. Brown had that particular scenario in mind.

So what was going on in her mind? Who knows? It could be that she just doesn’t handle the language very well, or that she had a lapse that caused her to believe she was being clear when she wasn’t. That’s pretty much what she’s claiming… or admitting… or whatever. Her colleague Nate Gentry argues, for example, that the bill was intended to apply to, say, a step-father who impregnates his stepdaughter and then demands that she have an abortion. OK. Except that, as the ACLU’s Laura Schauer Ives points out, that is already covered under existing New Mexico law. And let’s be real: the only way you could get a conviction under Brown’s bill would be to have already proven the rape or incest allegation.

The best case scenario for Brown’s motives, then, is that this lawyer (no need for precision of language in that profession, right?) who serves on the board of a local Right to Life organization introduced utterly unnecessary legislation that completely accidentally demonized sexual assault victims who chose to end pregnancies. Forgive me if I raise an eyebrow of skepticism. I won’t claim anything with certainty, or even with great confidence, but it sure makes more sense to me that the bill was intended to do precisely what it said it was going to do, i.e. to criminalize any abortion Brown could figure out a way to criminalize; that she got busted; and that she’s now back-pedaling like a bad thing.

Ultimately, however, whether Brown is a prevaricating monster or simply a sloppy, grandstanding pol is not the question. The real issue is whether New Mexico House Bill 206, as originally written, was the Single Most Fucking Stupid Legislation Ever Introduced Anywhere.

Why, yes. Yes, it was.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Election Fraud That Wasn't

Curmie Award and eight consecutive education-related entries notwithstanding—this was never intended as an education blog. It was always intended to be wide-ranging, often political, and more of an excuse to keep up my writing skills than anything else. So, despite a couple education stories on the back burner, we return to politics… or a variation on the theme, at least.

There’s one of those crazy conspiracy theory e-mails currently making the rounds of late—this one claiming all manner of election fraud, because (subtext) real Americans wouldn’t vote for a black Kenyan Indonesian fascist socialist Muslim atheist like Barack Obama. Oh, and the media are engaged in some huge cover-up because they’re all Anti-American Commie pinko feminazi bi-sexuals. They’re probably left-handed, too, but some of them cover it up pretty well. Such inanities are neither new nor the exclusive purview of the lunatic right: there’s all kinds of stuff out there about how Anonymous prevented Karl Rove’s minions from stealing Ohio in 2012 (just like he did in 2004), and similar flights of fancy. But there’s a difference between this particular delusion and most of its predecessors on both the left and the right: there isn’t just a lack of evidence this time; the claims (well, most of them, anyway) are demonstrably false.

It is certainly possible that more Florida voters in 2000 intended to vote for Al Gore than intended to vote for George W. Bush, although, as I’ve said before, “people too stupid to figure out a ballot disproportionately supported our guy” kind of lacks pizzazz as a rallying cry. It’s even plausible—extremely unlikely but plausible—that Bush didn’t really get more votes in Ohio than John Kerry did in 2004. The key thing here is that we don’t know, so the more paranoid members of the losing side are granted a certain amount of free rein for their fantasies.

This time, however, there are specific claims that can be put to the test, and our friends at Snopes.com did precisely that. I’d actually seen a variation on this e-mail posted on Facebook by a conservative acquaintance (FB terminology to the contrary notwithstanding, I seriously doubt that I could call anyone who believes this crap a “friend”). There are a total of eight claims in the version of the e-mail examined by Snopes. Of these, Snopes finds precisely zero to have merit. Surprise!

To be fair, I’m a little skeptical myself that there are 59 Philadelphia-area voting districts in which Mitt Romney didn’t receive a single vote. The e-mail claims that’s “a mathematical and statistical impossibility.” Snopes, citing research from the Philadelphia Inquirer sees evidence only of “a general historical trend widely seen throughout the city.” And they literally couldn’t find a Republican voter in some of those precincts. So… maybe…

True, Philadelphia voted 85-14 for Obama, and no one expected (or should have expected) anything but a blowout. Interestingly, Obama won slightly less convincingly than most of the other Democrats did in that area. Still, no votes for Romney in 59 voting districts? Hmm…

OK, so Romney won only 7% of the African-American vote nationally. And let’s say that an urban black voter in the City of Brotherly Love is 100 times less likely to vote for Romney than the national average. That puts the GOP challenger at .07 percent likelihood of getting the vote of an individual, randomly selected, African-American Philadelphian. But the article says the areas in question often contain “between 200 and 500 voters,” and remember, there are 59 of them. If we go with the lowest number, that’s 11800 votes (200 times 59) with nary a Romney supporter. The chances of some one person voting against Romney, then, are 99.93%; the chances of every person voting against Romney are (.9993)^11800, or roughly 0.025%. That’s about 1 chance in 4000. No, that’s not quite on the scale of probability numbers for, say, global warming. And it’s not “a mathematical and statistical impossibility.” But do I think there was some manipulation or suppression or other chicanery? Yes. Yes, I do.

And the fact that the numbers this year mirror those of four years ago isn’t proof of a fair election, only of an equally fair election to a previous one that might well have been rigged in the same way.

Indeed, the strongest argument that all those people really did vote for Obama (or at least not for Romney) is the palpable desperation of the rest of the e-mail. (This is a repeat of the phenomenon I refer to as the Christine Vole effect, by which an essential truth is overlooked because it is surrounded by so many untruths.) My personal favorites are the next two on the list, both dealing specifically with Wood County (i.e., Bowling Green), Ohio. You see, “[in] 21 districts… Obama received 100% of the votes where GOP Inspectors were illegally removed from their polling locations—and not one single vote was recorded for Romney. (Another statistical impossibility.)” Moreover, “106,258 voted in a county with only 98,213 eligible voters.”

This is indeed damning evidence… or, rather, it would be if there were a grain of truth in it. Alas for the tin-foil hat brigade, there is not. All it takes, really, is a glance at the official numbers. Snopes did that; the creator of the viral e-mail either didn’t bother, can’t read, or didn’t think anyone else would check. Any way you slice it, s/he just made shit up. The precinct-by-precinct breakdown shows that, whether “GOP Inspectors were illegally removed” or not, and I’m skeptical at best of the claim, the fact is that President Obama didn’t get all the votes anywhere in Wood County, let alone in 21 different locations: Obama won the county fairly narrowly, 51-46; his widest margin was 76-23. And no, there weren’t more votes than eligible voters: in fact 64,342 votes were counted from 108,014 eligible voters. Where those other numbers came from is anybody’s guess, but they certainly bespeak a higher priority on proving a point than on telling the truth.

Ohio—this time Ohio County (state unknown) also figures into another of the e-mailer’s delusions: that “[in] Ohio County, Obama won by 108% of the total number of eligible voters.” The fact that this “sentence” is such a grammatical and syntactical nightmare that I’m not even sure what it’s intended to say is, in and of itself, a pretty fair indication of the intellectual rigor involved (a point I make repeatedly, and with little success, to my students). But, as Snopes points out, there are three Ohio Counties in the country (in Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia), and Romney won them all. Or was that supposed to be “in an (unnamed) Ohio County”? After all, the demonstrably false numbers for Wood County do show a 108% voter turnout. Who knows? But, again as I tell my students all the time, I’m going to grade your paper based on what you said, not on a best-case scenario of what I think you might have meant. And if the best case is that you’re repeating a point as if it were further evidence, and that point is founded on absurdly faulty data, well, your best course of action just might be to STFU.

Snopes debunks the rest of the allegations, too, but they fall at least within hailing distance of honest mistakes: a confusion between “cards” and “ballots” in Florida, and an overstatement about the relationship between voter ID laws and Obama’s success: it is (predictably) true that Governor Romney won every state that required a photo ID (photo ID being the GOP’s selected cause to pretend to care about fair elections), but he also won a lot of states that don’t have such a requirement, at least not yet.

It shouldn’t escape our notice that every allegation of impropriety was in FLOHPA. No one in over a half century has won the presidency without winning at least two of the three, all of which are nominally “battleground states,” although Pennsylvania is, as Nate Silver points out, “the only state in the nation that has been unfailingly Democratic-leaning relative to the national popular vote in every presidential election since 1950” (in other words, Republicans carry it not infrequently, but only by lesser margins than the national popular vote). To me, that’s another variation on the theme of why the Electoral College is an anachronism at best and an anti-democratic leviathan at worst, but that’s a rant for another day. And it shouldn’t surprise us that Ohio, where the loony left is convinced George W. Bush’s minions stole the 2004 election, and Florida, where even rational people of both parties were skeptical about the 2000 debacle, should not be the subject of ululation from the loony right.

Was there actual fraud in Philadelphia? It isn’t certain, but I think the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” is operative. This isn’t, of course, a Democratic-specific phenomenon, although the first examples to come to mind—Albany, NY; Washington, DC; and of course Chicago—are notorious for their Democratic “machines.” One of the most memorable faculty meetings I ever attended featured a resolution by a friend in the Sociology Department that if local politicians insist on bribing our students to vote for them, at least they do so off campus. The proposal went nowhere, with one senior professor chastising his junior and (gasp) Yankee colleague for seeking to “change the local way of life.” (Much chuckling ensued.) That was the GOP in Kentucky, for those of you keeping score at home.

At the very least, such allegations are legitimate interpretations of available evidence. But while the ethics of voter fraud are the same regardless of the outcome, it is still relevant that President Obama would have won the election without Pennsylvania, and would have won Pennsylvania even if he took only 90% instead of 100% of the votes in those Philadelphia polling places.

But the whole point here is to de-legitimize President Obama’s re-election. And that is serious business: not merely unethical, but seditious. I don’t care what your politics are, undermining faith in the electoral process without something more compelling than made-up numbers is intensely damaging to the nation. Look, I think my current Congresscritter, Louie Gohmert, is one of the biggest buffoons ever to trod the planet. The district’s cumulative IQ goes up a couple of points every time he heads off to Washington. If there were anything I could do, legally and ethically, to get him replaced by someone chosen at random from the local phone book, I’d jump at the opportunity. But I have no doubt that he got more votes than his opponent in November. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll stop embarrassing us. Who knows? Maybe someday he’ll get too crazy to be re-elected even in this gerrymandered safe district. Until then, though, he’s what we’ve got, and we need to find a way to carry on.

This is a tactic I recommend to my colleagues on the right. Because, as the checking snopes.com before forwarding dumb e-mails Facebook page commented on their link to the Snopes article, “Sore losers or actually fraud? Looks more like the first.” Yep, sure does. And that hurts us all.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Announcing the Winner of the 2nd Annual Curmie Award

The votes are counted, and the winner of the 2nd Annual Curmie Award for the person or institution most embarrassing to the profession of education is… Lillian Gomez, the Florida teacher who decided that marinating Play-Doh and crayons in hot sauce and feeding the concoction to her autistic students would be a good way to teach them not to put things in their mouths.

Gomez collected 27 votes from the 50 voters (up from 32 last year), who, since they could vote for multiple candidates, generated some 103 individual votes. Certainly she is a worthy recipient, reminiscent of last year’s winner, the unnamed teacher who crammed an autistic student into a bag designed for gym balls. Voters were clearly appalled by Gomez’s actions, which of course were even more problematic given the fact that her victims were special needs kids.

This year’s Curmie runner-up, with 22 votes, is John Rosi, the Washington state teacher/coach who not only condoned the bullying of a student in his class, but actually participated. The pusillanimous administration that let him off with a slap on the wrist shares in his dubious honor.

Third place, with 19 votes, and the winner of the Institutional Subdivision, is Umatilla (FL) High School, which punished a high school student who defended a mentally challenged girl on her schoolbus against a gaggle of tormentors.

Other nominees, in descending order of their final finish: Northside ISD in San Antonio (16 votes) for demanding the use of “smart” IDs that can track the whereabouts of every student at all times… except, of course, the bad kids who take the damned thing off; and Geneva (IL) Middle School South (10), which demanded access to a student’s Facebook account to check rumors about her (they also asked a bunch of questions that suggested more prurient interest than concern for student well-being).

Rounding out the list, with three votes apiece, were the Griffith (IN) Public Schools for punishing students for private Facebook conversations, American University anthropology prof Adrienne Pine for breast-feeding her child during class and then going all feminazi on a (female) reporter for the school newspaper, and Highland (IN) Middle School for suspending a group of adolescent boys for inadvertently viewing a topless photograph of their teacher on a school-issued iPad.

A couple of rules changes may be in order for down the road: I’m thinking that the requirement that the events in question must have happened within the calendar year may be too restrictive—sometimes the events themselves barely make news; it’s the ensuing court case (for example) that brings an event to Curmie’s attention. Also, of course, anything that happens in the last couple of weeks of the year is likely to be overlooked while I’m hip deep in grading and then often (as this year) travelling for the holidays.

I think we need to divide the categories, too. For the second year in a row the Curmie has commemorated an egregious case of abuse by a teacher. Certainly such conduct is utterly unacceptable, and the perpetrators should never be allowed in a classroom again. But the Curmie isn’t for the most reprehensible conduct; it’s for the greatest embarrassment to the profession, and whereas I wouldn’t open up the award to a vote if I didn’t intend to abide by the outcome (hear that, PolitiFact?), I see far greater long-term damage done by other nominees, specifically administrators who had time to think about the consequences of their actions.

Umatilla High’s actions are outrageous because the victim of administrative cravenness and pomposity is not merely innocent, but in fact heroic. Stormy Rich, the girl at the center of the controversy, not only did the ethical thing by defending a fellow traveler (in more than one sense of the term) who was unable to defend herself, she made repeated attempts to get the administration to do their damned jobs and take appropriate action. It was only when they proved to be somewhere between negligent and slothful that she intervened.

The other cases all deal with schools’ over-reaching sense of authority: to demand access to a private Facebook account based on little more than caprice, to suspend students for (obviously) joking about “killing” a classmate in a private Facebook conversation that took place outside school hours and off campus, to track the whereabouts of every student at every moment, and to threaten dire consequences to those who will not willingly acquiesce. In short, there are a lot of school administrators out there who regard students as some sort of glorified lab rats whose every action, no matter how private, should be subject to their voyeuristic, Big Brotherly gaze.

And that situation is going to get worse as schools increasingly rely on daft zero tolerance policies and are desperately chasing after increased numbers—numbers on standardized tests that do nothing to demonstrate real learning but make big money for corporations who contribute a lot of money to political campaigns; numbers of student butts in seats so attendance-based financial allocations can be sucked up; numbers of students “counseled,” thereby justifying pulling resources out of actual classroom instruction and channeling them into the rabbit warren of administration.

I detest “teachers” like Gomez and Rosi, and I respect the decision of the voters who put them at the top of the list of Curmie candidates. Still, they are aberrations, and no objective observer would think otherwise. They shock us because they are so palpably outside the mainstream. The folks at Northside, Griffith, and Highland shock us because we sense they’re a portent of things to come. There’s this gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that there will be more and more school districts who think it’s their job to control every aspect of their students’ lives: anything to avoid actually teaching them.

But I digress. This post is to celebrate Lillian Gomez and her well-deserved Curmie Award. I suggest the trophy be dipped in hot sauce and crammed down her throat.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

No Burning Love for the Jordan, Utah School Board

There’s still time to vote for the 2012 Curmie Award (go here for descriptions of the nominees; voting continues until Tuesday morning), but we’ve already got our first 2013 contender. Since the concept of offensiveness figures prominently in the story, I shall endeavor to refrain from overly colorful language in describing the school board in the Jordan, Utah district. Suffice it to say I would suggest they perform actions recently recommended to Harry Reid by John Boehner.

It is, alas, a depressingly familiar tale. Just in the relatively short time I’ve been writing this blog, there was the pusillanimous idiot in Pennsylvania who shut down a production of Kismet (yes, Kismet) because—get this—the central characters are Muslims. More recently, it was the hypocritical and lazy administrators in Ohio who fired the director/choreographer of Legally Blonde, which had been vetted (or was supposed to have been vetted, at least) by the powers-that-be before the contract was signed with Music Theatre International. And there have been others I heard about but didn’t have a chance to write about, and no doubt many others that escaped my notice.

The details hardly matter, but here’s an overview. Last year, a different school in the district did a production of Dead Man Walking, which upset the Utah Eagle Forum—N.B., not students, or parents, or anyone the current jargon refers to as “stakeholders,” but a radical political group—who argued that the play “was filled with profanity, sexual language, racial slurs, political bias and ‘inappropriate use of biblical teachings.’” These last two are especially ironic epithets coming from that lot, one of the crazier collections of strident and narrow-minded politicos and pseudo-Christian zealots ever to be gathered anywhere outside the Tea Party caucus. But let’s move on.

As has become the wont of school boards across the country, the folks in Jordan showed all the moral courage of limp lettuce, and capitulated to the loonies. They instituted a new policy this summer, requiring consent forms to be signed by parents, and “more parents will serve on the school and district committees that select which plays to produce.” The first part of this new strategy is silly but innocuous; the second part is idiotic, at least if the news article accurately portrays the process.

It is not a good idea to have parents as much as sign off on choices. It is stupid to have them actually making those choices, which involve all manner of considerations about which the average parent is profoundly ignorant: they won’t be concerned with the available talent pool (which varies enormously year to year); with the balance of leads to chorus roles; with staging considerations regarding sets, costumes, lights, etc.; with the difficulty of the music for both singers and instrumentalists; with directorial preferences (there are musicals I’d be happy to do—it’s not out the realm of possibility that I’ll be doing one of them this summer—and others for which I’d choose the poke in the eye with a sharp stick); with balance for the rest of the season and over a student’s career; even with the ratio of male to female roles.

No, what parents want is a good role for their kid. Oh, and a title they’ve heard of. Carousel is one of the creepiest plays ever; Henry Higgins—our hero—is a condescending, sexist, erm… sphincter in My Fair Lady (far more so than his Shavian predecessor in Pygmalion); Godspell requires a conflation of John the Baptist and Judas; all the heroes of West Side Story are gang members; the best songs in Jesus Christ, Superstar go to Mary Magdalene and Herod; the title character in Sweet Charity never strays far from her origins as a prostitute in the Fellini film on which the musical is based; “Hernando’s Hideaway” from The Pajama Game (done right, at least) drips with sexuality; Luther Billis cross-dresses in South Pacific, and extra-marital sex is taken as a given (albeit never made explicit). Need I go on? Does anyone doubt that every one of these titles would be approved without as much as a whimper of dissent?

Whatever the wisdom of creating a parental review board, however, there’s one objective fact at play here: the new standards were established after the district had signed a contract with Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW), who controls the rights to All Shook Up, a musical that ran for six months on Broadway a few years ago. I don’t know the play, but I’ll trust blogger Adult Onset Atheist that it:
has a thin but popular plotline revolving around teen angst and an authority’s disapproval of “entertainment.” Some people trace this plot to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but the myriad of derivatives has cemented it as a well-worn plot device whose ties to any source earlier than the 20th century is accidental. It is more likely that the authors of All Shook Up owe more to the 1980’s movie “Footloose” than the play written in 1601.
(Read his entire post and the follow-up, by the way.) Anyway, you get the idea.

Ah, there’s the rub. To you and me, Gentle Reader, this sounds like entertaining, if perhaps relatively mindless, fun. But to a gaggle of censorious buffoons who no doubt swooned to the actual Elvis the Pelvis in their own youth, ah, well, we can’t suggest that… you know… today’s teen-agers are intrigued by (whisper) sex, or something, or that the choreography to accompany Elvis songs might involve a little butt-waggling. Remember that consummate hypocrite Ed Sullivan was happy to attract the audience Elvis would bring, but wouldn’t allow him to be photographed below the waist… in 1957! Even in Utah, however, most people have escaped the ‘50s.

Anyway, the play was allowed to head into rehearsal, during which time no one from the administration bothered to read the script, attend a rehearsal, or otherwise check out a play that was based on the appeal of biggest sex god of his generation. And, remember, this was a play that had already been approved. It apparently occurred to no one in authority that the new regulations might make a show that was acceptable under the old standards to be problematic under the new ones. Moreover, a subsequent news article suggests that “district officials said they failed to give All Shook Up careful scrutiny.” This, apparently, was the fault of the production staff and the students instead of the people charged with providing that scrutiny, as they were the ones punished for district officials’ incompetence.

Everything was fine until a single parent (apparently) complained. It is unclear—because the school board prefers to do the bidding of anonymous whiners—whether this was the parent of a student involved with the production, i.e. someone who had signed a consent form (!), or the parent of another child at the school. In the former case, it might, might, be reasonable to pull your own kid from the show. In the latter case, the obvious solution is… wait for it… don’t go.

But that’s not how angry moralistic zealots behave. Nope. If I, in my infinite, ignorant, arrogance decide that something is offensive, then nobody gets to enjoy it. And the single protest worked. The school board did their best doggie obedience school riff: they rolled over and played dead: morally, ethically, pedagogically, and probably legally dead. Because, as school board mouthpiece Sandy Riesgraf intoned, “We don’t want to offend anyone.”

I’m not sure that I can improve on the commentary of a very wise young woman named Jennifer Fortson (a former student of Curmie’s, I’m proud to say), who responded to that inanity on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page,
ANYONE? That seems a lofty (read: unattainable) goal. Know what offends LOTS of people? Schools who are so concerned with being PC that they have no problem screwing over dozens of students, directors, and volunteers who did their due diligence a year ago and have done nothing wrong since...
My only tweak would be that I’m not sure it’s a PC issue: more of having no core values, no respect for free expression, and no moral courage. But we end up at the same place: what is offensive to any real educator isn’t that someone might say a naughty word, or shake a bottom a little suggestively, or challenge cultural norms: it’s that they’d be forbidden from doing so by an organization whose primary charge is (or… erm… sanguinarily well ought to be) to instill in students those very principles of intellectual and aesthetic curiosity.

Of course, the board also proclaimed—without checking—that “the musical could not be changed to be less offensive because of copyright laws,” thereby necessitating cancellation of the show. (At least they kind of get the concept that you can’t just arbitrarily change an artwork without permission.)

The board also decided they could get their money back from TRW. It is indeed possible that there might be a partial refund for the royalty (and part of the payment might be based on ticket sales, which of course would be zero), but the hundreds of dollars for script and score rentals: not a chance.

Anyway, it was apparently in the attempt to get the refund that they actually took the ridiculously obvious step of… you know… calling TRW. They did this, of course, after announcing the show’s cancellation. Because if you’re stupider than snake spit, that’s how you do things. And they found out that the rights-holders might be amenable to some modest changes. So, after incurring the wrath of all and sundry in the community, and the fecal matter started to interface the whirling rotors on the Interwebs, the board brought the show back in a Bowdlerized version. (They won’t even make public what changes they requested and were permitted to make.) Whoopee!

This is a mixed blessing, but at least an instructive one. I kind of wish TRW had told school officials to perform an act most readily accomplished by contortionist hermaphrodites. As it is, every idiot administrator (as always, apologies for the redundancy) will want to carve out his or her own special brand of censorship, not just for this show, and not just for TRW-owned properties. Every moralistic yahoo who doesn’t think it’s right that Emile DeBecque had had children with a Polynesian woman will now be on the horn to Rodgers and Hammerstein (the company, not the guys) to whinge about “community standards.”

But the whole scenario does bring certain truths into greater focus, and there may be lessons for sane people in all this. Just assume, in other words, that school boards will always take the more craven alternative. Given a choice between standing up for real education and capitulating to a loud-mouthed boor, for example, they’ll always opt for the latter. But that also means that they’ll cave again if we get louder than the opposition. Because school boards in general can be counted on for two things: they’re dumber than dirt, and they have no core values.

This is an important, even if not positive, lesson for our students as well as ourselves. Because these people really are stupid… erm… Oedipally-inclined personnel. It’s good to know. Small solace, to be sure, but good to know.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Nominations for the 2012 Curmie Award

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the announcement of the nominees for the 2012 Curmie Award, awarded to the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education.

As I wrote last year, “the transgressions in question must be directly related to the profession, to someone acting in an official capacity: junior high teachers who sleep with their students are abhorrent, but there’s nothing about that act that links directly to education. That there are unethical teachers is not news, and the same person might initiate a similar relationship with a child s/he knows through church, Little League, or the neighborhood.”

I’ve also decided that the Florida school nurse who denied an asthmatic student access to his inhaler because of a paperwork snafu wasn’t acting in the capacity of educator at the time: she’s a heinous bitch who should be sued and fired, but not a Curmie nominee. And I think I’m going to eliminate the colossally stupid decision by the Florida State Board of Education. Boards of Education are generally more political than pedagogical, and are comprised almost exclusively of non-educators; you don’t really embarrass a profession to which you don’t belong.

The only further stipulations are that the events in question must have occurred within the 2012 calendar year, and that I must have written about the story, also in 2012. I realize that the former requirement means eliminating stories like the ones about jock-protecting at the University of Montana and at Southern Columbia Area High School in Catawissa, PA, as well as a depressingly similar story I haven’t yet written about at Trotwood-Madison (OH) High School. It also takes out the story of handcuffing students to banisters in Jackson, MS.

Perspicacious readers will notice, too, that there are no nominees this year from the wide world of standardized testing cheats: those who help students with answers, those who misreport scores, and so on. It’s not that these people are unworthy Curmie-winners; I just didn’t happen to write about any of them this year (unlike last). Also, two trends seem to emerge: this year’s list is more weighted towards public schools than towards universities, and towards the tendency for schools to pry into the private affairs of students without either the legitimate authority to do so or real exigent circumstances. Curmie the civil libertarian seems to be ascendant. Make of that what you will.

The rules are simple. From over 40 contenders, I decide on the eight finalists (there are no write-ins); you (collectively) decide on the winner. In determining the finalists, I have tried to weigh a variety of factors: the egregiousness of the offense on its face, the extent to which it might be portentous of further bad things to come, any sense of particular injustice (punishment of the innocent or even of the heroic, for example), the degree to which the Curmie-worthy outrage might have been a spur-of-the-moment outburst rather than a deliberate act, any mitigating circumstances, whether the problem seems to have been appropriately addressed, whether the case looks a lot like a different nominee, etc.

You, of course, Gentle Reader, are free to place whatever weight you choose on any of these factors. Remember, however, that the award is for the greatest embarrassment to the profession, not for the most heinous individual act, nor the one that pisses you off the most, which might well be different.

If you wish to comment, please do so here rather than at the Facebook page. Remember that your comments should be in addition to, not instead of, voting in the poll in the upper right corner of the page. You may vote for as many nominees as you choose, although I ask that you not vote for the same candidate more than once: no ballot-stuffing, please. The poll will be up for a week (until 10:00 a.m. CST on January 8), with a winner to be announced as soon as possible after that. So: there are the rules. Don’t like ’em? Fine. Write your own damned blog.

So… honorable mentions first. These are the candidates who came in 9th through 15th on my list. If one of your favorites is here (or if it didn’t even make this cut), I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is: not everything fits. Trust me, there’s some really Curmie-worthy stuff that didn’t even crack the Top 20. In the order I wrote about them, then, the honorable mentions.
--Administrators at Lanier Middle School in Sugar Hill, GA, for punishing a student who self-reported that he’d unknowingly brought a small pocket knife to school.
--The powers-that-be at Jack Robey Junior High in Pine Bluff, AR, for defending a “school resource officer” who had used military grade pepper spray to clear a congested hallway.
--Aurora (CO) Public Schools, for charging a 6-year-old with sexual harassment for quoting the lyrics of a popular song to a classmate.
--Tanya Dixon-Neely of North Rowan (NC) High School, for a protracted pro-Obama screed featuring more than a few objectively untrue statements.
--The good folks at Wagoner (OK) High School, who forced a number of classes at the public high school to watch an anti-abortion propaganda film that compares abortion to the Holocaust… complete with film of Adolf Hitler.
--Principal David Smith and the rest of the merry band at Prague (OK) High School, who sought to deny the class valedictorian her diploma because she’d said “hell” in her commencement speech.
--Wilson Elementary School in Oklahoma City, for making a kindergartener turn his University of Michigan shirt inside out because of a policy put in place to curtail gang activity. A University of Oklahoma shirt would have been fine, by the way.

Yes, those are just the honorable mentions… pretty impressive list, huh? And now… (drum roll)… the finalists for the 2012 Curmie.

School administrators at Geneva (IL) Middle School South, for asking intensely personal questions about a 13-year-old student’s sex life (without even notifying the girl’s parents), and demanding that she open her Facebook account for their inspection… all based on a rumor. In aggravation: the image of school administrators as voyeuristic bullies. In mitigation: the fact that the overwhelming majority of what we know comes from the girl’s mother, who might not be the most objective source.

Authorities at Umatilla (FL) High School who punished a high school girl for protecting a mentally challenged student who was being bullied by a gaggle of mean girls on the school bus. Naturally, the actual bullies were unaffected. In aggravation: the girl did everything right. She appealed to the bus driver and to school authorities, and only intervened when they failed to do so. In mitigation: there are harsher punishments than not allowing a student to ride the bus to a different school than she attends.

Griffith (IN) Public Schools for suspending a trio of 8th-grade girls for joking in a private Facebook conversation about which of their classmates they want to “kill.” In aggravation: the conversation was private, off-campus, unrelated to school, and obviously in jest (as an ACLU lawyer pointed out, “if you make a legitimate threat against someone, you don’t follow it up with an emoticon”). In mitigation: what if this was that one in a trillion moment when a joking threat was a disguise for a real one (the TSA excuse)?

American University anthropologist Adrienne Pine, for breast-feeding a sickly infant in class, then going ballistic when asked about the episode by a student journalist. In aggravation: publishing the journalist’s name, failing to understand the basics of how reporting and editing works, generally being an asshat. In mitigation: at least an argument regarding some exigency to the breast-feeding per se.

The euphemistically-termed brain trust at Northside ISD in San Antonio, for requiring Smart IDs that track student whereabouts at all times. The chip-implanted cards are required for everything from using the library to voting for Homecoming royalty. In aggravation: the IDs intrude into the privacy of good students while doing nothing to solve the problem they were intended to address. In mitigation: nothing but desperate whorishness... I’m not sure that counts.

Authorities at Highland Middle School in Anderson, IN, for suspending and threatening to expel a quartet of 13-year-old boys who completely inadvertently stumbled upon a topless photograph of their teacher on a school-issued iPad. In aggravation: these are pubescent boys, handed a picture of a topless woman. Of course, they’re going to look. And it was a school iPad. In mitigation: it’s unlikely the boys were given permission to look through photo files; they’re still innocent of what they’re charged with, but perhaps not quite the victims they pretend to be.

Kopachuk (WA) Middle School teacher John Rosi, for not only tolerating the bullying of a smaller boy by a dozen other kids, but actually joining in, and to the school administrators who gave him only a slap on the wrist. In aggravation: an apology letter that drips with sanctimony. In mitigation: the outside possibility that he really didn’t understand that this kind of “horseplay” isn’t really horseplay.

Lillian Gomez, a teacher at Sunrise Elementary School in Kissimmee, Florida, for force-feeding crayons and Play-Doh soaked in hot sauce to autistic students to teach them not to put things in their mouths. In aggravation: Duh? You need aggravation? In mitigation: too much like last year’s winner?
There you have them, ladies and gentlemen... the Curmie nominees. Have at them.