Saturday, December 28, 2013

Curmie Contenders: That Isn't a Weapon Edition (volume 2)

Sigh.

Curmie feels no need to reaffirm his commitment to safe schools and to reasonable gun control measures (background checks and bans on private ownership of assault weapons, for example). Still, what a lot of schools are doing with silly rules and idiotic “zero tolerance” policies is brain-meltingly stupid. We’ve already talked about this once this year, in a lengthy five-part post encapsulated here:
1). a hand with the forefinger and thumb extended is not a weapon, even if you say “bang” or “pow”; 2). a piece of paper with a quarter of it ripped off is not a weapon; 3). a Hello Kitty product, even one labeled a “bubble gun,” is not a weapon, and talking about “shooting it” does not equal shooting it; 4). a collection of Lego blocks, however configured, is not a weapon; 5). imaginary grenades thrown at equally imaginary boxes aren't weapons, either. These statements are obvious to you, Gentle Reader. They are obvious to me. They are obvious to primary school students. Not so much to school administrators, however. (Deep sigh…)
And now… four more.

Not a weapon.
We start in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, where 7-year-old Park Elementary School student Josh Welch was suspended for chewing a pop-tart into the shape of a gun and waving it around. Well, sort of the shape of a gun: the boy’s father hired a lawyer, who describes the offending pastry thus: “The chewed cereal bar looked no more like a gun than the puzzle pieces of the states of Idaho, Oklahoma, or Florida. ... There is no evidence that any other student was frightened by the pastry.” School administrators responded by wondering what those states look like. OK, I made that part up, but I didn’t make up the part about the school’s refusal to remove the incident from Josh’s record.

Of course no other students were frightened: they’re capable of distinguishing between reality and imagination. This is the only good news to come out of this story. There are ways in which stupidity is its own punishment, and there’s plenty of it at play here. But there’s a troubling aspect to this business, and not simply that the NRA has given the kid a lifetime membership at a fundraiser for area Republican pols. That’s a publicity stunt, nothing more, and even National Review blogger Charles C.W. Cooke believes that the “NRA would have spent its time and money far more profitably had it conducted a dogged campaign to hound out of public service whomever thought it appropriate to punish a small child for making pastry shapes.” When Curmie starts citing NR mouthpieces with approbation, things are bad.

Here’s a logic question for you, Gentle Reader.
1). No rational person believes that a pop-tart, even one bitten into a shape that more or less resembles a gun, is a weapon.
2). Administrators at Park Elementary School think a gun-shaped pop-tart wielded by a 2nd-grader is a weapon.
3). Therefore…?
Not a weapon.
Next stop: Simpsonville, South Carolina, where Rhett Parham, an autistic 13-year-old, was suspended by Hillcrest Middle School for bringing a crude drawing of a bomb to school. Yes, a drawing. A cartoon, actually. And the kid is autistic. Wow.

Rhett had modeled his drawing on an old Nintendo 64 video game and showed it to some older students at school. One of them, naturally, ran squealing to the administration, who promptly over-reacted, just like it says to do in How to Be an Idiot.

Rhett’s mom responds completely appropriately: “I’m angry. I’m upset and I’m incredulous, honestly, that a child could come in and bring a drawing and that’s somehow perceived as a threat -- especially someone with special needs who really doesn’t filter information the same way that typical children do.”

Contrast that with the mewling of the district:
It is important and necessary to thoroughly investigate any threat to student safety, including a student’s intent. This is one of the most difficult judgments a school official must make. This investigation began when threatening comments were made, resulting in the responsible removal of the student from the school to ensure everyone’s safety while the incident and intent were assessed.

The school’s administration responded appropriately to the severity of this incident, investigated it fully, and acted in accord with applicable laws, policies and procedures. The school administration has met and will continue to meet with the parents to resolve the matter.
There is, by the way, no evidence of “threatening comments”; the “responsible removal” was anything but; there was never the slightest threat to anyone’s safety; it would be difficult to imagine a less “appropriate” response. Indeed, if anyone deserves a suspension, it’s the obnoxious little nark who started the ball rolling.

Not a weapon.
And so we move on… to Coventry, Rhode Island, where 12-year-old Joseph Lyssikatos was suspended from Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School for carrying a gun-shaped keychain, perhaps an inch and a half or two inches in length, that he’d won at an amusement park. Rules are rules, you see. Oy vey.

It’s difficult to argue with Joseph’s father, Keith Bonanno, when he says, “It was clearly a toy you would get in a bubble at a gumball machine. This is bordering on insanity over here,” except, perhaps to suggest that the border was a few miles back. We’re out of the suburbs and all the way into downtown Looneyville.

To aggravate the situation, school officials told his parents that they’re “lucky he didn’t get suspended for ten days, or, even worse, expelled.” The radio interviewer asks the obvious follow-up question, “Expelled for what?” And… guess what… “gun replica” and “zero tolerance” are part of the answer. The boy is a good student, taking advanced math, has no record of behavioral problems… all of which mean nothing, of course, because… Zero Tolerance.

Curmie is reminded of one of the most famous (not to be confused with “best”) episodes of the classic TV series “Star Trek.” Entitled “The Apple,” it depicts a society in which the natives (including a pre-“Starsky and Hutch” David Soul) wander around in somnambulant daze, intoning “we must feed Vaal,” referring to the ostensibly dragon-headed idol who simultaneously provides them with food and shelter on the one hand and controls everything about their lives on the other. It is, in other words, a relationship that is both symbiotic and pernicious. Substitute “zero tolerance” for “Vaal” and school administrators for the natives, and the parallel seems pretty accurate.

Not a weapon.
Finally (please, God, let it be “finally”), there’s a case in Arizona, where parents have pulled their 3rd-grade son out of Scottsdale Country Day School when he was threatened with expulsion for what the “headmaster” described as “highly disturbing” drawings—that’s them at left. Here, Gentle Reader, is when you wonder what the hell is so disturbing about them, and I say “I don’t know; my IQ is above room temperature. Sorry.”

The three drawings depict a ninja, a soldier, and a Star Wars character: possibilities for the 8-year-old’s Hallowe’en costume. Ah, but… they’re armed (!), and there’s a rule against that. Of course there is: it’s grounds for suspension to display “any behavior that is deemed threatening such as violent behavior, drawings depicting weapons, blood, or aggression…” The boy’s father muses, “I think we really send our children the wrong message when we show that, as adults, we're so afraid of our shadow that an innocent picture - that any 8-year-old might've drawn - is cause for this kind of concern.” To which Curmie responds: “yep.”

Meanwhile, headmaster Steve Prahcharov claims that he can’t guarantee the safety of the other kids if such a loathsome creature as this is allowed to roam the hallways. After all, mixed in with passages about saving the earth and protecting humanity are plans for escaping a killer zombie at school. One wonders which part so terrifies Prahcharov. Perhaps the real problem is that the kid pointed out the school’s lack of an effective zombie defense plan.

Seriously, there’s something very wrong in all these stories. I’m not going to try to guess at the motives of those involved—post-Newtown over-sensitivity to gun violence is insufficient to explain such inanity, but I’m not ready to come to the same conclusions as Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall, over at Ethics Alarms:
this is a deliberate and relentless process of state indoctrination. The schools, teachers and administrators are determined to make future generations of Americans just as fearful and negatively disposed toward guns, and thus toward self-sufficiency and the Second Amendment, while pushing them to embrace complete dependence on a government that cannot be depended upon, and trust in a government that has proven progressively more untrustworthy.
I’m not sure Jack’s wrong, either, by the way, although I kind of suspect that it’s once again time to invoke Hanlon’s Razor.

What I can say is that we are well on our way to a potentially devastating “crying wolf” scenario. A drawing of a bomb isn’t a weapon. A 2”-long keychain “gun” isn’t a weapon. A breakfast pastry in the hands of a little boy, regardless of what shape it is, isn’t a weapon. Drawings of potential Hallowe’en costumes aren’t weapons. We’re not talking here about anything, anything, that could reasonably be construed as dangerous—not by a child, not from a distance, nothing. Someday, some kid is going to bring a real gun to school—not with any malice, necessarily—and when we hear about it, we’re all going to say, “what, again?” because we figure it’s another drawing… or foodstuff… or tiny toy. And someday, that real gun is going to hurt someone because, inured by episode after episode of unprovoked hysteria, no one will know what to do when there’s a real threat.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Bully Coach and the Principal Enabler

Don McLean: A little too prescient.
There are a few songs in everyone’s life that speak to us in a particularly significant way. One such song for me was the Don McLean classic, “American Pie.” It was released at the perfect time for me—junior year of high school—and contained an intoxicating blend of catchy melodies and intriguing lyrics just begging to be deciphered. I remember sending away (there was no Internet, of course) for one critic’s interpretation, and being enraptured that pop culture could be used to critique pop culture (not the terms I’d have used at the time, of course). McLean himself wisely avoided commenting on what the song meant, supposedly quipping something along the lines of “it means I’ll never have to work again if I don’t want to.”

Anyway, when I read this story from Annandale, Virginia, about a football coach literally trying to throw the marching band off the field in the middle of their halftime show, part of the third verse of “American Pie” swarmed into my mind:
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield…
I’m sure there’s a name for the linguistic phenomenon at play here: a literalizing of an expression meant to be figurative. I remember using this device, whatever it’s called, when I lit a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood many years ago. There’s a song near the end of that musical that starts “I have read the writing on the wall”; we provided some actual writing on an actual wall for the title character to reference.

But I digress. What happened here was, at one level, simply the normal tensions between the jocks and the band, exacerbated by two things: 1). the football team finished the season at 1-9 (0-6 in conference) and the band is good (national award-winning good), and 2). the football coach is a moron of the first order. Of course, in one sense I could easily have included this story in yesterday’s piece about the real problem being administrators who don’t do their jobs. But there’s something about this business that makes me think it’s worth its own article.

I turn to someone who was there, Megan Ryan and James Barker, who wrote an editorial in the school newspaper. One or both of them seem to be band members, so that should be taken into account, but whereas some commentators have suggested that band members should “know their place,” I find no one who actually disputes the facts as enumerated here:
“GET THE DAMN BAND OFF THE FIELD,” a parent of one of the football players said at the AHS Marching Atoms “mid show” of their Senior Night performance on Nov. 8.

The Annandale Atoms faced South County in their last game of the season. The night began as a typical Friday night football game in the fall would; cold and under the lights in Bolding Stadium but then turned sour for the marching atoms. In the beginning of the game, the band stood out in the cold weather, making a tunnel for all the seniors in the football team, dance team and cheerleading squad to walk through for their senior night. At halftime, all of the seniors were announced, the band started performing their show, “Music of the Night” with 7:36 left in the halftime period. As they played their first song, the football coaches brought their football teams back on the field to start to warm up for second half. At first, the teams stayed in the end zone, however, that changed when the band began performing their second piece, when both football teams entered the field by going past the goal line in the direction of the performing band students….

Then the unspeakable happened. Coach Mike Scott and a few other coaches as well as some players began yelling at the band and Band Director Adam Hilkert to “get the band off the field.” According to the game clock, we had about 4:30 left and halftime wasn’t over.

The screams from the fans and coaches became more intense, and Coach Scott resorted to his own measures by shaking the podium of junior Assistant Drum Major Douglas Nguyen, and then yelling at the other Assistant Drum Major, senior Noah Wolfenstein, to stop conducting and get off the field. Yells came from the stands and the coaches to the press box and the field.
If there’s any good that comes out of this story, it’s that high schoolers are learning research skills. Hence this:
Before the game, Principal [Vincent] Randazzo discussed with the referees that due to it being Annandale’s Senior Night, halftime might run over and that we needed extra time, and fortunately South County agreed to the time allotment during halftime.
And, more importantly, this:
According to the National Federation of Schools Football Rule Book, on page 19, rule number three says “As the teams leave the field [at the end of the first half], the timer places 20 minutes on the clock and upon reaching 0:00, places three additional minutes on the clock” to allow the football team to warm up for the second half.
The students muddy the waters by suggesting that the unsportsmanlike penalty if the band really did play too long would be “only 15 yards,” and, frankly, the reminders of the qualitative superiority of the band to the football team come off as a little smug.

But if, in fact, there were still four and a half minutes left on the halftime clock when Coach Scott started behaving like a particularly petulant 3-year-old (a 3-year-old losing 35-7 at the time, to be more precise); if, in fact, the referees and opposing coaches had signed off on a little extra time for Senior Night; if, in fact, the rule book actually says the three minute warm-up time can come after the halftime break (I think it does, [well, technically the case book does], but it’s incompetently written [go figure], so I’m not sure)… If all of these things are true, then there is no excuse for Scott to even be upset, let alone throw a temper tantrum. If he, in fact, shook the podium the assistant drum major was standing on, well, there’s a word for that: assault.

A reasonable response by the Principal, who had, at that night’s Band Senior Recognition Ceremony, told the band that they “[embody] what this school is all about,” would have been to suspend Scott for long enough to get his attention or, given that he appears to be no better a football coach than a person, fire him. That didn’t happen, of course, because: Football. ‘Murika. Freedom.

Instead, we get an open-letter apology six days after the fact, and an assurance that “Coach Scott has offered to apologize to the band members for his actions.” Of course, if the coach felt the slightest degree of contrition for behaving like a total jerk, he’d have apologized to the band, not offered to do so. But he’s a high school football coach in a school with a great history of gridiron prowess (two state championships under the previous coach). The fact that he’s 4-26 over the last three years doesn’t change his sense of entitlement in the slightest. Nor does the fact that it was Senior Night for the band, too, and that a lot of people in the stands came to see them, not the football team. He is, in short, a walking cliché. So, alas, is Principal Randazzo.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Curmie Contenders: “It's Not the Crime; It's the Cover-Up” Edition

Today’s Curmie contenders feature outrageous activity, but at some level, the problem is in the lack of response rather than the conduct per se. In other words, given the literally millions of people employed in the education profession in this country, it’s a virtual given that a few of them will do something vicious or hateful or otherwise unethical from time to time. And, as an educator myself, I understand that sometimes the frustration just boils over: probably most of us have said or done something completely out of character at least a few times. More often than not, these outbreaks are unpremeditated, “last straw” sorts of events. If not, they’re likely the result of panic—the same causes, in other words, that cause students to do stupid things like threaten teachers or plagiarize a paper.

The greater problem, then, is when an administrator who has the time and detachment to render an appropriate judgment fails to do so. Think of it this way: Curmie has probably watched a few thousand football games over the years, either live or on TV. Seldom has he seen a more egregious facemask infraction than in the 1998 game between Kansas State and Nebraska. (If you want to see the video, check here, starting at about the 5:35 mark… or you can settle for the still picture you see here.) Despite its obviousness, it wasn’t called. Nebraska fans are convinced their team would have won the game had the officials done their damned jobs. Of course, perhaps K-State would have won anyway. But one of the worst no-calls in the history of sports meant we never got a chance to find out. (It was a fourth-down play, meaning K-State got the ball when Nebraska would otherwise have been marching towards a go-ahead score.)

So who’s responsible for that result? Not the player. All those clichés about “just trying to make a play” are actually true. I have no doubt the K-State linebacker was just trying to grab onto something to make a tackle, and it happened to be the Nebraska quarterback’s facemask. And frankly, it wouldn’t matter even if it had been intentional. Should there have been a penalty and possibly even an ejection? Of course. But it wasn’t the player’s fault that things didn’t turn out that way. We expect those charged with penalizing bad behavior—judges, cops, referees, school administrators—to do their jobs. When they don’t, they, as much as those who actually violate the rules, are responsible for the negative results.

All of which brings us to Arlington, Texas, where an unnamed teacher at Boles Junior High emptied the shavings from a pencil sharpener into a student’s mouth last winter. The exact timeline of events is unclear from news reports, but we know that the event took place in January, that the suspension (or at least the announcement of it) took place “almost a month after the incident,” and that the teacher was back in the classroom by February 9. In other words, the teacher was probably suspended for about a week.

At first glance, this incident bears a good deal of resemblance to what got reigning Curmie Award winner Lillian Gomez her title: punishing a student by putting something awful in his mouth (directly or indirectly). True, there are differences—the victim in this case wasn’t a special needs student, he actually deserved some kind of punishment (he was apparently sleeping in class, which is both disrespectful of the teacher and distracting to classmates), the scheme wasn’t premeditated, and it wasn’t the child’s regular teacher. Moreover, the chances that allegations of a racial motivation are unadulterated poppycock border on ontological certitude. Nor is bloviating about parallels between the school’s response and that of Penn State’s to Jerry Sandusky (“There’s no difference between what they did and the administration at Penn State did.”) either accurate or useful.

That doesn’t make this teacher’s behavior anything but outrageous and unprofessional, and she deserved to be fired: not suspended for a few days and facing a tough reappointment review while remaining anonymous; fired, with her name announced at a press conference. OR… there really wasn’t a case at all, and the suspension itself was a miscarriage of justice.

Assuming the objective charges to be true, irrespective of what motives some attention-seeker ascribes to them, this teacher should be gone, and it’s on the school that she was able to finish at least the academic year. Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall nails this one:
…any school administrator that wouldn’t resign and give a news conference to the local press and TV outlets if such a teacher was allowed to return to the scene of her crime is also in the wrong profession, and needs to investigate whether any bait shops are hiring. This is an example where parents and the public earn the kind of schools they get: no parent should send a child back to a school that employs teachers this untrustworthy, and the proper response to a school allowing such a teacher to return is to empty that school of students, and to demand the removal of every decision-maker within it as well as an independent review of every teacher employed there.
Jack is also right when he suggests a little later on that the union was an impediment to a just conclusion. Whereas teachers unions in particular are often accused of being the problem, even when there is no union, this time it would appear the allegations are accurate. That still doesn’t excuse the inaction of school authorities.

Our other story today comes from Simi Valley, California, where Principal John Hynes of Grace Brethren High School confessed to changing grades of at least one student and nonetheless kept his job.

Published reports are unclear about what was admitted to and what wasn’t—it appears that the pastor of the church with which the school is affiliated is claiming it was “one student in one class,” but Anke Saldarriaga,a Spanish teacher at the school last year, alleges that grades of four students in her class—including Hynes’s daughter—had been altered without her permission. If I’m reading the doublespeak correctly, the one case everyone agrees happened was not in Saldarriaga’s class. The daughter’s history grade was also changed, according to a report in the Ventura County Star.

To say that the school authorities are sending mixed messages is to err rather more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. On the one hand, they claim that “There was an academic breach of integrity with our principal,” and that they took (unspecified) “swift and substantial disciplinary action.” On the other hand, they seem to dismiss the majority of the allegations against him, including… perhaps… the most serious one: changing the grade of his own daughter. I say “perhaps” because he won’t answer whether he changed his daughter’s grade because she’s a minor. Sure. That’s the reason you won’t answer. I believe you. My eyebrow just does that sometimes.

The one thing you don’t do, ever is change a teacher’s grades. Certainly not without consulting the teacher. Especially if it’s your kid. I get it. Christian school—they don’t have to play by the rules everyone else follows, but ought they not have more interest than their secular counterparts in academic integrity? Isn’t that part, at least, of what parents are shelling out $9K and change every year to get?

The point is that there are no doubt other principals as unethical as John Hynes. But it’s unlikely that there are many who are known to be so by both their superiors and the public and are still on the job. “Thank God the school didn’t fire me like another organization would have,” quoth Hynes. Um… I don’t think He’s the one responsible. You’re thinking of the other guy.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Curmie Contenders: “That’s Just Stupid” Edition

A couple more Curmie contenders, this time in the “That’s Just Stupid” Division.

Other people would be happy for the raise.
The Cleveland State University Chapter of the Association for American University Professors has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against law school dean Craig M. Boise because, in giving several active AAUP members merit increases of $666, he “[in] effect… has called AAUP’s organizers and AAUP Satan.” Really, that’s the charge. In an actual formal complaint.

Moreover, one of the AAUP organizers argued in a memo distributed to virtually everyone on campus that:
[The $666 figure] is a universally understood symbol of the Antichrist or Devil—one of our culture's most violent religious images. Implicitly, but unmistakably and obviously intentionally, [the Dean] used his powers to set faculty salaries as an occasion to brand his perceived opponents as the Antichrist.
”Unmistakably and obviously intentionally”? Nope, it could be that it’s… you know… a third of $2000. Elie Mystal, whose blogging on the Above the Law site Curmie has previously noted with approbation, has some good snark on the topic, closing with his commentary on the law school’s quite logical assertion that “The $666 merit award was the result of mathematical division, not anti-union animus” with this: “Well that explains everything. Clearly, math is the devil.” Curmie has some advisees who would agree.

There’s also a poll on the topic on the Althouse site. As of this writing, “Lawyers and law professors are all satanic and deserve whatever evils they inflict on each other” has a little over half of votes, with “It's obviously retaliation for union activities and there should be a legal remedy” coming in at a robust 2%.

It is, of course, possible that the Dean has an animus against the AAUP. Hell, if this is a representation of the caliber of their members’ thought processes, I’d have one, too. What is particularly troubling here is that, without the silly Satanic accusation, the union might have a point. If AAUP organizers do in fact have exemplary records and the eight listed in the complaint totaled only $4000 in merit raises between them, whereas some individuals got $5000 apiece, that might actually be evidence of something. But the complaint is now subject to a variation of the Christine Vole effect (but presumably unintentionally): one of its assertions is so palpably absurd that the rest of it is also disregarded, even if it has merit.

By the way, if you ever wondered why a leftie like Curmie never joined the AAUP, here’s your answer.

Preventing distribution of these is as stupid as not using them.
We move next to Boston College, where the administration threatened disciplinary action against students distributing condoms and safe sex information from their dorm rooms. The group Boston College Students for Sexual Health had run so-called “Safe Sites” (get it… safe sites?) for some time before receiving word this spring that such a program runs counter to the “responsibility to protect the values and traditions of Boston College as a Jesuit, Catholic institution.”

Katherine Landergan of Boston.com explains:
The letter, signed by Dean of Students Paul J. Chebator and George Arey, director of residence life, says that “while we understand that you may not be intentionally violating University policy, we do need to advise you that should we receive any reports that you are, in fact, distributing condoms on campus, the matter would be referred to the student conduct office for disciplinary action by the University.”
Be it noted that Boston College does offer a student health insurance policy which covers “doctor’s visits related to family planning, contraception, and ‘in some instances birth control pills,’” in compliance with Massachusetts law.

Of course, BC, as a private Jesuitical institution, may well have the legal right to impose whatever sanctions it chooses. I say “may well have” rather than “has” because it strikes me that there are some 1st and 4th Amendment considerations here, and ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch mentions the “state’s civil rights act and its applicability to private parties” in her interview with USA Today.

Legalities aside, the BC administration is being just plain dumb. Whether they have the technical right to be puritanical jerks or not, this display smacks more of petulance than of reason, especially if—as the students involved claim—it came out of nowhere: a sudden crackdown after years of knowing about the program. Maybe, maybe, they could legitimately insist that the name of the university be removed from the group’s title. Beyond that, they just look out of touch with reality. That’s fine if you’re Asbury or Liberty or Bob Jones, who really do exist in a different universe from ours, but Boston College has a legitimate reputation as a great scholarly institution. Surely they know that programs like Safe Sites have no effect on the frequency of sexual activity, only on the risks associated with such activity. There’s a difference between being prudent and being prudish. BC has opted for the latter, to their disgrace.

By the way, it might be worth noting that BC has also changed course for the worse in other areas, as well: insisting, for example, that an independent student newspaper reject advertisements for alcohol, cigarettes or birth control before the lease of their on-campus office space would be renewed. As with the condom distribution case, I am reasonably sure the administration has a legal right to behave as they are, but (again) the appearance of silliness ultimately trumps the reasonable things they wanted to accomplish.

Some people can enjoy the music without chemical assistance.
Finally, there’s the decision by the University of Massachusetts to cancel a series of electronic dance music (EDM) concerts from its campus because of concerns raised by a spike in the usage of “Molly,” a purer, powdered or crystalline form of MDMA (better known as “Ecstasy”).

Once again, there’s an attempt to achieve a desired change through convoluted reasoning. It’s hardly the first such process. What it shares with the others is the unlikelihood of success. Raising the drinking age to 21 was intended to reduce drunk driving, because increasing the penalties for drunk driving would just make too much sense as a solution. It paid a short-term benefit by reducing the number of newly-legal drinkers on the road. As soon as that number stabilized again, the percentage of 21-year-old drunk drivers was indistinguishable from the percentage of 18-year-old drunk drivers a few years earlier. Oh, and binge drinking increased on college campuses. This is the same thinking that makes us show ID to buy decongestants (pseudoephedrine is an ingredient in methamphetamine), and why you couldn’t take nail clippers onto airplanes long after 9/11.

Look, I get it. For all its appeal, MDMA in its many forms is a destructive, sometimes fatal concoction. And there does seem to be a relationship between its use and EDM… the same way every other kind of popular music is linked to some kind of potentially abusable substance. Imagine the blues without whiskey or jazz without marijuana. And let’s face it, the term “acid rock” doesn’t refer to the pH content of the music. If UMass wants to ban every kind of music linked to substance abuse, there wouldn’t be much left. (I’m told on good authority, by the way, that Alvin and the Chipmunks are a lot better if you’re high.) I might also point out that there is a positive correlation between football games and beer consumption. I don’t think UMass is contemplating doing away with their football team… although they did go 1-11 this year, so they might be looking for an excuse.

Opposition to public performance, by the way, goes back a long way. In Renaissance England, for example, the Puritans objected to theatre. Part of their concern was philosophical, but part was pure pragmatism: theatre attracted a young, well-to-do, often drunken male audience, who in turn attracted those whose living depended on that clientele: prostitutes, pickpockets, and cutpurses. And those were the people the good burghers really sought to keep out of their towns.

But attempts to influence Behavior X by banning Behavior Y seldom succeed. There are two other problems, as well—other than the obvious-to-anyone-but-a-university-administrator 1st Amendment implications. First, just as it is possible to listen to and enjoy the Grateful Dead without any chemical assistance whatsoever, many people enjoy EDN without MDMA.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the causality seems to be wrong: it’s Molly users who go to EDM concerts, not EDM concert-goers who use Molly. A comment by Jarek Draven on the Mancunion site linked above makes this point:
MDMA does enhance enjoyment of music. ANY music, which you might normally enjoy. It also makes movement feel good. Therefore, it makes dancing more enjoyable, and it just so happens that EDM is great music for dancing. It's really as simple as that. And yes, MDMA sales are associated with dance parties. But to think a school can get rid of MDMA by banning a particular genre of music is pure idiocy.
Needless to say, students at UMass concur. One blames “some stupid kids in another state” for the ban’s impetus; another points out that “It’s not going to prevent anything from happening; people are still going to use ‘Molly,’ regardless.” Significantly, Amherst Fire Captain Jeffery Olmstead makes the point that knowing when and where to set up triage centers actually helps: if the Molly users are all going to be at the concert, he’s in a better position to help those who need it.

The bottom line: post-adolescents will have sex with or without condoms, and they will use drugs with or without concerts. As for the Cleveland State AAUP complaint… well, stupid is what stupid does.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Glendale USD and the Cyber-Narks

Today is a rough day for Santa, what with the literally millions of stops he has to make over the next few hours. But his is also a year-round job, keeping that naughty and nice list up to date. The Glendale Unified School District in California, however, has made his job a little easier. Those voyeuristic assholes benevolent folks have graciously offered to pry into the private affairs of the 13,000 or so good (or not so good) little boys and girls in their district. Think of the time that saves Santa (and the NSA).

Once again, as with the bullshit questionnaire in Illinois I wrote about yesterday, the motives are impeccable, at least as far as the perpetrators are concerned. This isn’t a prurient violation of privacy, you see, it’s all about “student safety.” The fact that what students do outside school hours is none of the district’s fucking business doesn’t matter, then. Nor does the fact that the administrators aren’t police… or doctors… or priests… or even trained social workers. They’re just… you know… nosy concerned.

OK, yes, if all that is being monitored are public posts, then the whole procedure is probably legal. But paying over $40,000—pretty close to the cost of another teacher, who might actually do some good—to hire a private company to nark to you about your students sure as hell isn’t ethical. Nonetheless, the snoops at a company called Geo Listening (how quaint) spew forth a daily report about cyber-bullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy.

***JARGON ALERT***. The purpose, you see, is to supply “critical information as early as possible,” allowing school employees “to disrupt negative pathways and make any intervention more effective.” Seriously: “disrupt negative pathways”?

Not sure if this is Richard Sheehan.  I think so, though,
All of this gets idiot creepers like Superintendent Richard Sheehan aroused. He murmurs inanities about “going above and beyond” in terms of student safety. Perhaps someone should tell him that his phrasing makes it clear that this kind of invasiveness isn’t necessary? Nah, he could never comprehend that concept.

This silliness (or, rather, what would be silliness if it weren’t so insidious) began, apparently, because a Glendale student killed himself last year. Therefore, all civil liberties must be suspended in perpetuity. And, of course, the True Believers credit a pilot program with allowing an intervention with a suicidal student. Perhaps this is true. It still wouldn’t justify this eavesdropping program. I’d point out three things, however: 1). Making Shit Up is really easy if you know that confidentiality rules mean no one can ever either verify or discredit your claim. 2). Assuming the case existed at all, I don’t know (and neither does Sheehan) whether the student was really suicidal. 3). Assuming the student existed and was suicidal, there’s no way of knowing whether an intervention would have occurred anyway, without the Big Brother operation.

There are also those with concerns (duh!) about privacy, concerns that aren’t addressed by Clintonesque legalisms. Naturally, the district administration couldn’t care less. And students are at least aware of the program, meaning that they’re finding ways around the system. There was a Facebook page—Remove Your School—started by Glendale students urging classmates to remove identifiers from Facebook profiles. The page isn’t there anymore… were I of a suspicious disposition (perish the thought) I might suspect that the school strong-armed the students into taking it down (or that the Zuckerberg minions dutifully removed any page that might suggest that absolute transparency in all things might not solve all the world’s problems). And some social media do indeed allow posts to be “friends only.”

And there, of course, is the rub. If I’m a Glendale student, and I don’t want the school administration figuratively peering over my shoulder every time I put something on Facebook, I can avoid that scrutiny. And why would I want to do that? Well, perhaps I have something to hide (drug use, truancy, etc.) or maybe it’s just that I’m smart enough to believe that what I tell my friends is none of Dick Sheehan’s damned business.

This program, then, is a colossal boondoggle. It may be legal, but it’s certainly creepy, and it violates the spirit of privacy laws even if it adheres to the letter. But equally importantly, one of two things is true: either Geo Listening has the technical expertise and the immorality to monitor private correspondence, or anything that really matters won’t get picked up at all. Sure, Sheehan and his lackeys will get their jollies eavesdropping on perfectly normal but potentially embarrassing adolescent behavior, but student safety, the purported goal of this enterprise, will be completely unaffected. No good comes of this, and the school (which is to say, the taxpaying public) is out 40 grand.

Well, Sheehan does get some Curmie Award consideration. There is that.

Robert Reich and “Real Charities”

You don't have to be a millionaire to love this painting.

There are still a few (and by “a few,” I mean a lot) of potential Curmie nominees to get to, but I’ve got to mix it up a little, here. So we turn to a recent piece on Salon.com by former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. In it, Reich seems to bemoan the fact that rich people’s charitable contributions go to where the donors want them to go, and not to “the poor.”

I get it. Really, I do. It would be nice if more charity went to those who need it most. But it isn’t my call, or his. And the suggestion that the poor benefit not at all from contributions to cultural institutions is as ill-founded as it is pompous. Anyway, here’s Reich:
But a large portion of the charitable deductions now claimed by America’s wealthy are for donations to culture palaces – operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters – where they spend their leisure time hobnobbing with other wealthy benefactors.

Another portion is for contributions to the elite prep schools and universities they once attended or want their children to attend…. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the rest of the Ivy League are worthy institutions, to be sure, but they’re not known for educating large numbers of poor young people. (The University of California at Berkeley, where I teach, has more poor students eligible for Pell Grants than the entire Ivy League put together.) And they’re less likely to graduate aspiring social workers and legal defense attorneys than aspiring investment bankers and corporate lawyers.

I’m all in favor of supporting fancy museums and elite schools, but face it: These aren’t really charities as most people understand the term. They’re often investments in the life-styles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have as well. Increasingly, being rich in America means not having to come across anyone who’s not.
Curmie is usually a big fan of Mr. Reich, but not when he’s spewing twaddle like this. Curmie is as cynical as the next guy, but might it not be, after all, that rich folks support museums and universities and the like not out of a desire to hoard the goodies, but to make them available? If that was true of the Andrew Carnegies, Leland Stanfords, and Cornelius Vanderbilts of the world (not exactly the nicest of folks in many ways), why might it not be true for the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gateses?

Berkeley has more Pell-eligible students than the Ivies? Might that be because it’s a state school with a specific mission to educate the greater population? Or that it’s bigger than the Ivies (Berkeley has about five times as many employees as my Ivy League alma mater has students)? And might not contributions to the Ivies be in part necessitated by the fact that they’re not getting a state subsidy, so private donations are all the more important? By the way, I don’t have the figures, but I’d be willing to bet that my current employer, a non-flagship state university, probably rivals Berkeley for Pell recipients, although we have only half the student population and a budget considerably smaller than that. Not to mention the sour taste created by Reich’s holier-than-thou attitude…

There, then, are three fundamental reasons to reject Reich’s argument. First is the “they can do what they want with their money, but I’d do something different, so they should, too” approach. There is no more telling liberal conceit (in both senses of that term) than this: the idea that, in this case, it’s only a “real charity” if Robert Reich thinks it is.

Second, there’s the cherry-picked data and false logic. I’ve already mentioned the Pell Grant business. We could add the bit about all the tax deductions going to the rich. Of course, they do: that’s a function of the tax code, specifically the standard deduction. A much higher percentage of Curmie’s contributions would go to reaching the tipping point whereby itemizing deductions pays off than would be true for Scrooge McDuck. But Curmie has often benefited from the standard deduction per se in a way that ol’ SMcD wouldn’t have.

The greatest weakness of Reich’s argument, however, is the sheer anti-intellectual, anti-aesthetic smugness of it all. He smirks that “Poor New Yorkers rarely attend concerts at Lincoln Center,” for example. Actually, they do, though not in person. Contributions to Lincoln Center by rich people allow that venue to survive. Contributions to NPR and PBS allow the concerts produced there to by accessed not merely by poor New Yorkers, but by poor Peorians and poor San Franciscans, as well.

Think of what it costs to produce an opera: just in terms of professional staff, there’s the cast, orchestra, artistic staff (designers, directors, choreographers, etc.), front-of-house staff, technicians… at least 100 people, most of them for the entire run of the production process, from first rehearsal (or before) until the show closes. These are professionals, remember, and they deserve to be paid accordingly. We’re talking well into five-figures in box office a night, just to make payroll. That doesn’t count the cost of the venue, the promotion, the equipment, the upkeep, the sets, the costumes… Guess what? Help has to come from somewhere. Those tax-deductible contributions matter. A lot. And it’s pretty clear that one of the strengths of the current tax structure is its encouragement of charitable giving.

Contributions by millionaires and billionaires (and by a lot of us who aren’t) allow my alma mater (which is also Reich’s, by the way) to have need-blind admissions and to be able to say this on their website: “Students coming from families with total incomes of less than $100,000 and typical assets receive free tuition and no loans at Dartmouth. Many of these students receive scholarship assistance to cover the other costs of the Dartmouth experience.” I think that’s fairly impressive, and frankly, I’m proud to have contributed in some small way to making that happen. The same argument could be employed, of course, for countless other colleges and universities, not to mention a vast panoply of other worthy ventures, including those elitist museums and arts companies.

Whenever I’m in Chicago, I make a point to find a little time to visit the Art Institute. It holds a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons, not least because it displays several of my favorite artworks, including the Gustave Caillebotte painting at the top of this post (my wife and I refer to this painting simply as “Gus”). It costs a fair amount of money to go to the Art Institute: $23 for someone like me. It’s worth it. But both the quality of the exhibitions and even that level of affordability (Illinois residents can get in free on Thursday evenings, by the way) are very much a function of charitable giving, often by (gasp!) rich people. If I can get a ticket to the Alley Theatre in Houston for $60 instead of $100, that is a direct result of someone underwriting the operation. It means that I can go more often, and that someone with a little less cash flow can go at all.

And do not EVEN begin to tell me about how art is the exclusive purview of the rich, Mr. Reich. I mean, haven’t you seen “The Shawshank Redemption”? Do the names Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, Athol Fugard, Václav Havel, or Joan Littlewood mean nothing to you? Did you not know that the most famous revival of the quintessential absurdist play, Waiting for Godot, is not the current one with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (although I’m sore depressed that I don’t get to see it), but the one at San Quentin Prison many years ago? Have you never heard the Blind Boys of Alabama or Leadbelly? Seriously, Mr. Reich, you don’t get out much, do you?

Over the years, Curmie has contributed to three colleges and universities; several theatre companies, museums, arts councils, and galleries; a wide range of animal rescue or welfare organizations; a few different churches; a handful of health and disaster relief agencies; a couple of charities with a specific mission to help the poor; three or four environmental causes; some free speech advocacy groups; at least a half dozen different PBS and NPR affiliates; and probably a few places I’m not remembering off the top of my head. I don’t know which of these Mr. Reich considers “real charities.” I also don’t f*cking care.

[I should note that Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall has already written on this subject. We agree on this one.]

Curmie Contenders: Punishing Teachers for Doing Their Jobs Edition, Part II

We continue with our tour of administrations’ punishing teachers for behavior that is at worst unproblematic and at best admirable. This post starts in Batavia, Illinois, where school officials, convinced of their moral superiority, disdainful of the idea that some things are outside their purview, and oblivious to insignificant documents like the US Constitution, decided that they’d ask their students about smoking, drug and alcohol use, and so on. Note, by the way, this key sentence from the Daily Herald: “The survey is part of measuring how students meet the social-emotional learning standards set by the state.” The only people on the planet you can count on being stupider than high school administrators are the politicians and political appointees who decide that what the world needs are “social-emotional learning standards.”

No big deal, right? This is the same kind of stupid, ineffectual, but ultimately harmless survey that every high school kid in the country has endured for years. Except for one thing: students’ names were on the forms, so the Man was not interested in aggregate information—no, authorities sought to “help” at-risk students. “We can't help them if we aren't aware of their needs,” sniveled one Jack Barshinger, the Malicious Do-Gooder Superintendent. Yeah, yeah, yeah: students could opt out, but they had to have done so before the actual administration of the questionnaire. Why? Because high school administrators don’t like to have anyone interfere with their arrogant posturing.

Apparently it never occurred to anyone in the Batavia district, or indeed to the unethical weasels at Multi-Health Systems Inc., who designed the survey, that students who answered truthfully to, say, marijuana use—the very kids the interventionist mob allegedly sought to “help”—would be admitting in writing to an illegal act and giving that information to school officials. Let’s face it—would you, Gentle Reader, trust those people not to share results with the police? They’ve already proved their untrustworthiness by the very act of distributing the survey without a warning.

John Dryden: Neither Inappropriate Nor Unprofessional
The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of Curmiphiles are adults, armed with a mature skepticism. Even some of you might feel pressured to comply with the wishes of, say, an employer, even if the questions being asked are out of line. That’s what John Dryden (no, not the Restoration critic/playwright) thought, too. He’s a social studies teacher at the school who, coincidentally, had just taught a section on the Bill of Rights when he saw the survey. When he saw students’ names on the surveys, he thought “Oh. Well. Ummm, somebody needs to remind them they have the ability not to incriminate themselves.” So he did.

Naturally, the KGB-wannabees didn’t appreciate that, and Dryden was issued a “notice to remedy.” That’s what you and I would call an official reprimand, but then, we don’t speak educationese. Dryden also served a one-day suspension without pay. In a classic example of psychological projection, the school board called Dryden’s actions “inappropriate and unprofessional,” forbade him from using “flippant” or sarcastic remarks, or providing “legal advice,” and he must not “mischaracterize” or “discredit” any district initiative. Let’s be real: these people are utterly devoid of competence or ethics. Flippancy is central to his teaching style (as it is to mine), the “legal advice” in question is simply reminding post-adolescents that they have rights, and the “mischaracterization” in question was, in fact, grimly accurate.

Quoth the Board: “As a result of your misconduct, it is unknown how many students who may be in need of emotional and social interventions will go without available assistance or interventions because they heeded your advice to refuse to answer, or provide false answers to survey questions.” Curmie replies: 1). It’s not your fucking job, and your voyeurism does not do you credit. 2). You have no idea whether students would or would not have provided authentic answers had Dryden not intervened at all. 3). The fact that your little unconstitutional fishing expedition didn’t find out dirt about your students doesn’t mean that help isn’t available to them: there are folks called parents, and doctors, and clergy—all of these people just might be of some help to adolescents in need.

Dryden himself responds: “This un-vetted survey was and is a massive invasion of privacy and students do have a Fifth Amendment right not to give to a state institution any information that might incriminate them regardless of the intentions of that institution. The administration has argued that they intended to do the right thing and that we should have simply trusted them to act responsibly with the information provided by students.”

The board, in other words, is like your Uncle Howard. You know, the one about whom your parents say, “he means well.” But you don’t want him making decisions about your life, because he’s… well… kinda dumb.

Patricia Adler: Not a Risk to the University
On to our other story: Patricia Adler is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, known above all for her hugely popular course on Deviance in US Society. Now she claims she’s being forced out because of a lecture she’s given for decades but which is all of a sudden a huge problem.

As Scott Kaufman of Inside Higher Education describes it:
The lecture on prostitution involves mock-interviews with student volunteers posing as different kinds of prostitutes: “slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services.” The intent is to demonstrate that social stratification exists even within categories of people deemed “deviant,” like prostitutes.

During these interviews, Adler said, the undergraduate “assistant teaching assistants” are dressed up like the manner of prostitute they are playing, and answer questions like “how they got into the business, how much they charge, the services they perform, and the risks they face of violence, arrest and AIDS.”

According to Adler, the dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Steven Leigh, told her that such a lecture posed “too much risk…in a post-Penn State environment.”
SAY WHAT? “Post-Penn State”? What on God’s green earth does a role-playing exercise in a Sociology course have to do with a pedophiliac coach being protected by higher-ups in the university?

Adler says she was given a choice: accept a buyout or risk being fired (and losing retirement benefits) if any student complained in the future. This, of course, is the sort of Machiavellian sleaze that has become far too common on university campuses. Speaking as a veteran of college and university classroom, I can pretty much guarantee that there’ll be a complaint if she stays: how many of us can claim that not a single student out of 500 (yes, 500 in one semester) will dislike us? Notice that there’s no self-imposed requirement on the part of the administration to verify the legitimacy of the complaint. And, of course, now that the threat is public, some little putz will sign up for the class for the precise purpose of complaining. But this way, gutless jackasses like Provost Russell Moore can write drivel like the following:
Professor Adler has not been dismissed from the University and is not being forced to retire. Dismissal requires extensive due process proceedings, and the University does not coerce its faculty to retire. She remains a tenured faculty member in sociology at CU-Boulder.

A number of you have raised concerns about academic freedom and how it may connect to this situation. Academic freedom protects faculty who teach controversial and uncomfortable/unpopular subjects. However, academic freedom does not allow faculty members to violate the University's sexual harassment policy by creating a hostile environment for their teaching assistants, or for their students attending the class.

In this case, University administrators heard from a number of concerned students about Professor Adler's “prostitution” skit, the way it was presented, and the environment it created for both students in the class and for teaching assistants. Student assistants made it clear to administrators that they felt there would be negative consequences for anyone who refused to participate in the skit. None of them wished to be publicly identified.
I call bullshit.

She’s having her signature course taken away from her, she can’t ever have a single complaint lodged against her or she’ll be fired without review and lose her retirement benefits, but she’s not being forced out. Academic freedom doesn’t apply, because although literally no one had actually complained on their own behalf, an anonymous former TA suggested that the volunteer undergraduate participants (who surely know in advance what is going to happen in the prostitution lecture) might be uncomfortable, making this a case about sexual harassment. Oh, and the Office of Discrimination and Harassment deems the lecture a “risk to the university.” (Insert passive-aggressive eye roll here.) If three decades on college and university campuses have taught me anything, it’s that such offices exist for one reason only, and that’s to justify their own existence.

Seriously, that seems to be the entirety of the case against Adler. The words “due process” apparently have no meaning in Boulder.

Mark J. Miller, a “spokesman for the university” (whatever that means) said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Education that the case might require review from the Institutional Review Board. The IRB’s own website, of course, specifies its function as reviewing “human subject research.” Adler’s prostitution lecture/skit doesn’t qualify (students are role-playing, not revealing anything about themselves… or do I have to have somebody looking over my shoulder every time I go into rehearsal or teach an acting class?), and Miller either knows that and is being disingenuous, or he’s dumber than a box of rocks.

Oh, and then there’s this: administrators said in a news conference that the “main concern” with Adler's course was that students were being photographed or filmed without their consent during the skit. Really. Steven Leigh, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, actually said this: “We were concerned in this course that maybe there are cell phone videos being taken or other kinds of videos that would put students in a position where we didn't have consent on these issues.” Seriously? First off, Adler isn’t responsible for what students do with their cell phones. She’s a professor, not a warden. Secondly, this is apparently a new concern, never mentioned before. Convenient, yes? Thirdly, students know in advance that they’ll be filmed, and I have no reason to disbelieve Prof. Adler’s assertion that they often ask for copies as keepsakes. Again, the insistence on legalisms like consent forms is precisely what administrators trot out when they really don’t have a case.

In short, the whole thing stinks. I have no idea whether Dr. Adler’s techniques are appropriate or not, but a whole lot of current and former students think that 1). she’s great, 2). that course is especially great, and 3). that lecture is the highlight of the class. Perhaps students are made uncomfortable. So what? Perhaps some students feel pressured to participate—show me someone, anyone, who actually makes that claim publicly about himself/herself and we can talk. But it sure looks from the outside that she’s being tried and convicted not merely on hearsay, but on anonymous rumor.

At worst, Dr. Adler might deserve a reprimand. For a tenured professor to be in fear for her livelihood for something like this is unconscionable. There seem to be a lot of people at Colorado who deserve to be fired. Dr. Adler is not among them.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Curmie Contenders: Punishing Teachers for Doing Their Jobs Edition, Part I

Curmie is way behind in his writing, and with the New Year imminent, it’s time for the traditional lumping together of prospective Curmie nominees whose stories have been on the I-wanna-write-about-this-list for a few days or a few months. This year, we start with administrations who punish teachers/professors for doing their jobs. Generally, the impetus for these sanctions is linked more to cowardice than to stupidity, although there’s plenty of the latter.

Two now, two more soon. Let’s look at them in chronological order (I’ll try to be brief):

Tim McDaniel: Not a Godless Pervert
In Dietrich, Idaho, high school science teacher Tim McDaniel was reported to the school board and ultimately investigated by the state’s Professional Standards Commission, allegedly for using the word “vagina” in a lecture on the female reproductive system. He also taught sex education in biology class (the school’s health teacher was uncomfortable doing so, so McDaniel took on that responsibility), discussed forms of birth control, and showed Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” to students and asked them to articulate a response. This last item appears to be the sole foundation for a charge that he promoted a political candidate while on school property. The facts that Mr. Gore hasn’t been a candidate for anything in nearly a over a decade, and that McDaniel asked his students to think critically about the film are, to the righteously aggrieved parents, apparently irrelevant considerations.

To be fair, there are allegations which, if true, actually do present a problem: telling inappropriate jokes (although reasonable people can disagree about what is and is not appropriate, we can all agree that some things are indeed beyond the Pale in a high school classroom) and divulging confidential material about students. Needless to say, these more substantive concerns were relegated to afterthoughts in the high dudgeon expressed by the leftie press. It seems, however, that even the handful of parents who complained about McDaniel want to concentrate on the lecture on reproduction, specifically on parental notification. Of course, maybe, just maybe, their kids wanted that information whether mommy and daddy wanted them to have it or not.

McDaniel claims to “teach straight out of the textbook, I don’t include anything that the textbook doesn’t mention.” He also gives “every student the option not attend this class when I teach on the reproductive system if they don’t feel comfortable with the material.” He’s been doing this for 17 years, without any previous complaints.

Students are overwhelming on McDaniel’s side: they started a Facebook page, “Save the Science Teacher.” “[T]here are a couple people in the community that are trying to get Mr. McDaniel fired for teaching the reproductive system, climate change, and several other science subjects,” students wrote. “All these subjects were taught from the book and in good taste. He cares for each of his students and goes the extra mile to help them all. Now is the time for us to help by supporting him!”

Superintendent Neil Hollingshead is something of a wuss, speculating at the time of the first blow-up that McDaniel probably wouldn’t be fired, but might get a letter of reprimand from the school board. The logical question here is, “why”? This whole business strays more than occasionally into heckler’s veto territory. It’s unclear whether the school board actually did anything, but finally, after an absurd nine month delay, the Professional Standards Commission has decided to let the matter drop. Everything is back to normal, except that McDaniel won’t be teaching reproduction: “It’s sad because the kids need it, but I don’t need the headaches,” he said. He’s right about both parts of that statement.

Moving on…

Hyung-Il Jung: Not a Psychopathic Killer
In April, University of Central Florida instructor Hyung-il Jung was placed on administrative leave for an obvious joke during a review session. Here’s Denise-Marie Ordway of the Orlando Sentinel:
Jung had gathered a group of about 25 students Tuesday for a review session in a hospitality-industry accounting class.
He told the Sentinel that he made a comment toward the end of the review session that was meant as a joke. The material was difficult, and he said he noticed the pained look on students’ faces.
“What I said was: ‘This question is very difficult. It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions. Am I on a killing spree or what?’” Jung said.
“It was purely a joke, of course,” he added. “I thought all of the students laughed together with me.”
UCF spokesman Chad Binette called the comment “completely inappropriate.”
Chad Binette is a moron. So is the Dean, Abraham Pizam. So is the apparently sole student to complain. The overwhelming majority of the students who were… you know… there sent an e-mail to the administration saying that they knew Jung was joking. That’s because they aren’t morons. See how easy that is, Gentle Reader?

Again, to be fair, that particular campus at that particular time wasn’t necessarily the place to be mentioning killing sprees: a month or so earlier, a UCF student had shot himself after threatening his roommate and while in possession (in his dorm room) of 1000 rounds of ammunition, an assault rifle, a semiautomatic pistol and four homemade bombs. So Jung’s quip was ill-timed and potentially in bad taste. The correct response:
Dear Dr. Jung:
We heard about your joke, and we think it was ill-timed and in bad taste. Please try to be more careful.
Love,
The Administration
Barring him from campus, requiring a mental health exam, refusing to allow him to talk to students “for any reason” or to administer the final exam… that’s just dumb. Moreover, it hurts his students more than any offhand remark ever could: by denying him the right to communicate with students, the administration was also denying them the right to communicate with him. Having been a college professor in five different decades, I can tell you one thing that hasn’t changed: students always have questions that come up after the last review session. Who knows Professor Jung’s course material better than he does, after all? I would also note that the letter of reprimand was sent the day after the joke—surely there was no time to determine whether there was any legitimacy to the allegation, which—of course—there was not.

Again, the inmates did not completely take over the asylum. FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), wrote to the university, reminding them that what they were doing was a violation of Dr. Jung’s 1st amendment rights, that “the Supreme Court has defined ‘true threats’ as ‘those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.’”

And Curmie just loves this paragraph:
Moreover, treating Jung’s joke as a threat ignores the plain fact that, as reported, the statement itself was not actually a threat. It is phrased in the present tense and is clearly an exaggerated metaphor. Even if it were a literally true statement (it was not; no students were suffocated, nor did Jung go on a “killing spree”) it still would not be a threat but rather a description. Legal knowledge is not required to make this determination; a grade-school understanding of grammar would suffice.
You really ought to put some salve on that burn, guys. Anyway, a couple weeks later, the demand for a mental exam was dropped. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Jung was returned to the classroom. It should never have come to that, however, and it is unclear whether that utterly irresponsible reprimand remains a part of his file.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dystopian Movies Have Nothing on Reality

Stories of police over-reach and prevarication are thick on the ground these days. Just from the past couple of months, we have the following:
Tallahassee police stand by the tactics that led to a woman’s cheekbone being broken when two cops slammed her face first into their patrol car and then into the pavement.
Oklahoma City police charged environmental protesters not with trespassing, but with a “terrorism hoax” for using glitter on a banner.
New Orleans police can arrest you if you’re carrying “more than five” condoms. (Although other sizes of packages are available, a standard box contains a dozen condoms.)
Pennsylvania state police arrested a New York couple and kept them incarcerated for a month before finally determining that the white powdery substance in the baggie was not, in fact, cocaine, but soap.
Durham, NC, police are trying to get us to believe that a 17-year-old suspect fatally shot himself in the head although he’d been searched for weapons and his hands were handcuffed behind his back.
Dallas police, according to an objective witness, shot an unarmed suspect whose hands were in the air.
New York police (well, the DA’s office, actually) charged an unarmed man with assault because they (the police) shot two bystanders while aiming at him.
Houston police handcuffed a 13-year-old girl and turned her over to Child Protective Services despite the fact that her mother had signed notarized papers granting guardianship of the girl to her dance instructors, who were taking her for training in Houston. Oh, she’s white and the instructors are black, but that’s completely coincidental, right?
Milwaukee police have been convicted of multiple illegal strip searches against both men and women.
San Francisco police sent a young African-American man to the hospital, used batons on bystanders who tried to intervene in the beating, and arrested four people, two of them for felonies. The alleged crime that started it all? Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
A Haskell, Arkansas, cop chased and tased a young woman for (get this) refusing to show him her breasts.
And these are just the stories that caught Curmie’s eye over a three-month period. (Some of the actual events happened earlier; they passed into the public consciousness more recently.)

OK, I know, some of these stories might turn out to be a little less problematic than they currently seem. But all of them? I doubt it.

Didn't this used to be a thing?
Still, there are two similar but apparently discrete stories that make all of these seem pretty insignificant by comparison. Both happened about a year ago, and are making news now because of ensuing lawsuits. Both involve New Mexico residents suspected—incorrectly, as it turns out—of carrying drugs. What happened to them later is pretty similar—and terrifying—too, but we’ll get to that in due course.

David Eckert pulled out of a Walmart parking lot in Deming, New Mexico, and made a rolling stop, so police stopped him. This much doesn’t seem to be in dispute. The police, however, believed his “posture to be erect and he kept his legs together,” which they (and an overly-compliant judge) decided was probable cause for an anal cavity search for narcotics. Even though there was a warrant, the doctor on duty at the local emergency room refused to perform the procedure, claiming it to be “unethical.” Undeterred, the cops scoured the countryside and finally found someone less bothered by medical ethics if there was money to be made: the fun folk at Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City.

Eckert was admitted, then subjected to the following array of increasingly invasive procedures, accompanied (no doubt) with increasing frustration and desperation on the part of the beloved boys in blue:
1. Eckert's abdominal area was x-rayed; no narcotics were found.
2. Doctors then performed an exam of Eckert's anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.
3. Doctors performed a second exam of Eckert's anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.
4. Doctors penetrated Eckert's anus to insert an enema. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
5. Doctors penetrated Eckert's anus to insert an enema a second time. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
6. Doctors penetrated Eckert's anus to insert an enema a third time. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
7. Doctors then x-rayed Eckert again; no narcotics were found.
8. Doctors prepared Eckert for surgery, sedated him, and then performed a colonoscopy where a scope with a camera was inserted into Eckert's anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. No narcotics were found.
I don’t know about you, Gentle Reader, but if I were the one conducting this investigation, I would have stopped somewhere around the first anal probe, even if I were some testosterone-addled backwoods idiot in a cop suit. (Apologies for the foregoing redundancy.)

But that’s not all. Eckert’s lawyer argues with what seems to this layman’s eye to be considerable justification that the warrant was overly broad and lacked probable cause. Moreover, Chris Ramirez of KOB TV News points out that
…the warrant was only valid in Luna County, where Deming is located. The Gila Regional Medical Center is in Grant County. That means all of the medical procedures were performed illegally and the doctors who performed the procedures did so with no legal basis and no consent from the patient.
In addition, even if the search warrant was executed in the correct New Mexico county, the warrant expired at 10 p.m. Medical records show the prepping for the colonoscopy started at 1 a.m. the following day, three hours after the warrant expired.
Oops. That’s still not all, but be patient, Gentle Reader.

There’s another case, this one involving an unidentified 54-year-old woman. She was returning to the United States from Mexico, having visited a friend. At a border checkpoint in El Paso, Texas, a drug-sniffing dog seemed to have detected illegal substances. (There’s some dispute over whether even that part of the government’s story is legit.) And here we go again, with the exception that it was US Customs and Border Control agents, not a gaggle of small-town yahoos, who were in charge of the completely over-the-top, baseless, arrogant humiliation of a citizen for no reason other than their perceived ability to get away with it.

According to “Jane Doe’s” lawsuit, here’s what happened:
Over the course of the next six hours, Defendants subjected Ms. Doe to a series of highly invasive searches, any one of which would have been humiliating and demeaning. First, government agents stripped searched Ms. Doe and made a visual and manual inspection of her genitals and anus. Finding nothing, Defendants next subjected her to an observed bowel movement. When that procedure yielded no evidence of drugs, Defendants X-rayed Ms. Doe. Having found nothing, Defendants next shackled Ms. Doe to an examining table and inserted a speculum into her vagina, performed a rectal exam on her, and conducted a bimanual cavity search of her vagina. Still not satisfied, Defendants subjected Ms. Doe to a CT [computed tomography] scan and again found no evidence of drugs.
She was then released without charge. So that makes everything better, right?

I mentioned one more thing. It’s this: both hospitals—Gila Regional Medical Center and the University Medical Center of El Paso—sent the bills totaling several thousand dollars to the victims, and apparently the Gila folks are aggressively pursuing Mr. Eckert for payment. These people were subjected to involuntary, invasive, warrantless, humiliating searches that found nothing, and these bastards are sending them the bill? This sounds like something out of Stalinist Russia, China in the Cultural Revolution, or maybe some dystopian movie (wasn’t there some variation on this theme in “Brazil”? Curmie hasn’t seen that film in too long…).

Curmie would like desperately to believe that the details of these cases are exaggerated, that this kind of stuff can’t possibly happen. But he knows better. He’s pretty sure both these cases happened pretty much the way they were described by the victims (OK, the alleged victims). In one case, there was no warrant at all; in the other, neither the time nor place of the exam were covered even by the hastily-issued warrant which seems to have been granted without anything in the same zip code as probable cause. Why? Because that’s how far too many police in this country operate, and have been allowed to operate. That medical authorities would play along and actually facilitate and exacerbate the government’s violations of civil liberties... alas, all too predictable.

The lawsuit in Jane Doe’s case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and New Mexico. “What is truly frightening about this incident is that it could have happened to anyone,” said ACLU-NM Legal Director Laura Schauer Ives. “The failed drug war and militarized border region have created an environment in which law enforcement officials increasingly inflict extreme and illegal searches on innocent Americans. We need to ensure that no one is ever again subjected to a nightmare like our client suffered.”

Yeah, what she said.





Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Special Curmie Award, Only a Few Days Before This Year's Nominees Are Announced

There are lots of other things to write about, but this one just must be placed at the top of the list. Remember Lillian Gomez? She’s the sadistic ass of an elementary school teacher who decided that the way to get autistic children to stop putting things in their mouths was to lace crayons and Play-Doh with hot sauce. That’ll teach the little brats, right? Curiously enough, her employers, let alone the parents of the kids in her classroom, were not impressed. The Osceola County School District fired her. (Ya think?)

This January, you, Gentle Readers, elected Ms. Gomez as the recipient of the 2nd Annual Curmie Award, awarded to the person or institution most embarrassing to the profession of education.

Well, naturally, she sued, because the fact that no rational human being would think she had a case ought not to be a deterrent. She had in fact done so when I first wrote about the case, even getting some idiot judge to agree with her; at the time I complimented the school’s administration that it had “stood up on its hind legs and said ‘no’” to the absurd recommendation (not directive) that Gomez be re-hired.

Gomez persisted, and… won her case! Yes, really. The behavior that you, my beloved Curmiphiles, deemed the most embarrassing to the entire profession in calendar year 2012 was determined by not one but unanimously by three members of the Florida Fifth Circuit Count of Appeals to have been “not so egregious such that loss of effectiveness could be decided as a matter of law.” Parent Jose Holguin wonders, “What else can she do to prove to the system that she doesn't have it?” Good question, sir, although I’d be a little more direct: I’m sorry, but HOW FUCKING EGREGIOUS DOES HER BEHAVIOR HAVE TO BE?

Here’s the thing. Whereas Gomez denies the charge, made by a teaching assistant in the room (!), that she actively forced the hot-sauce-marinated materials into a child’s mouth, “she did admit to ‘massaging’ some of the sauce into black Play-doh” and putting them in a plastic bag with a student’s name on it. A CNN report, picked up by The Raw Story, says that the parents of the affected student claim that because of his condition, he would not have been able to tell Gomez to stop, and that he would later suffer panic attacks if he saw crayons.

And now Gomez will not only have to be re-hired, she is apparently going back into a classroom with special needs kids. Apparently there were no convicted sex offenders available for the court to put there. Frankly, about the only good news associated with this case is that, unlike the Vatican’s long-time strategy of shuffling pedophile priests from parish to parish, this moronic court decision is at least public. Parents of her prospective students will at least know her name and face. I guess that’s some small solace.

It was probably a mistake to hire Gomez to begin with (it’s obvious now; it may not have been at the time), but for all Curmie’s well-documented antipathy for public school administrators, I’ve got to tip my cap to the folks in Osceola County: they did everything right as soon as they rightly perceived that there was a problem. Well, they did one thing wrong: they live in a place where the members of the appeals court got their law degrees from a Cracker Jack box.

That, after all, is where the problem is. When I announced the winner of the 2012 Curmie, I noted that “I detest ‘teachers’ like Gomez and [Curmie runner-up and fellow abusive teacher John] 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.” Gomez is a monster. Any rational person would recognize that not only her actions, but her apparent lack of recognition that she had done anything wrong, render her unfit for any classroom duties, especially with special-needs kids.

But her lawyer, one Thomas Egan, is the sort of whorish advocate who makes lawyer jokes necessary. [Q: How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb? A: Three—one to turn the bulb, one to shake him off the ladder, and the third to sue the ladder company.] He opines that “I think she made a bad judgment in the way she went about it, but her purpose was good.” I’m saying this once. Her “purpose” doesn’t matter. She either knew, or should have known as a professional responsibility, that there are other methods of achieving the results she claims to have wanted. That makes her either a psychopath or an incompetent. Either way, she shouldn’t be in the same zip code as a defenseless 7-year-old. And you, Tommy, can’t fall back on a client’s right to representation. That’s true in criminal cases, not here. You are despicable. There is no ethical reason to take this case. In a just universe, you’ll end up as a laboratory animal. After all, there are some things we can’t expect rats to do.

The real culprits here, however, are the trio of idiots who adjudicated this case. Gomez is amoral, and may not know any better. Egan would have to evolve ethically to be a snake-oil salesman, but without external valorization, he’s harmless enough. Which means this entire affair is laid at the doorstep of the justices who decided that gross incompetence, bullying, petulance and sadism aren’t grounds for dismissal of a special ed teacher unless she was punishing the kid with her malfeasance. It just wouldn’t be… you know… egregious.

I was impressed by how carefully all the news reports avoided mentioning the judges by name. Several articles suggested that it was a single judge who decided. In the age of the internet, however, the official document is only a couple of mouse-clicks away. The Hall of Shame, then, consists of: Chief Judge Vincent G. Torpy, Jr. and Judges Thomas D. Sawaya and Jay P. Cohen. They have contributed more to the destruction of American education than anyone this side of Michelle Rhee or Geoffrey Canada. Such dedication should not go unrewarded. I therefore confer upon them a Special Curmie Award, Judicial Asshat Division.