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.

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