Friday, January 10, 2014

We Have a Winner!

The voting is complete, and we have a winner in the most closely-fought battle yet for the not necessarily prestigious Curmie Award, bestowed each year on the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education. And the winner is… (fanfare… drum roll…) Principal Greer Phillips of PS 79 (the Horan School) in East Harlem.

Ms. Phillips ordered a lockdown drill at PS 79, complete with false claims of an armed intruder—without notifying either the faculty or the police that it was only a drill—in a school with a high percentage of special needs kids less than a week after the events in Newtown, Connecticut last December. It was this incident, indeed, that led me to decide that events “from late 2012 that didn’t find their way into the public perception (or at least into mine) until 2013” were still eligible for this year’s Curmie. It struck me at the time I wrote about this story last January 26 that boneheadedness of this caliber should not be excluded from Curmie consideration just because I hadn’t seen the story until after the new year. Apparently, you (collectively) agreed.

In all, 46 people voted, with 109 total votes cast in the open balloting which allowed readers to vote for as many nominees as they chose. Principal Phillips was named on 19 ballots, narrowly claiming the crown from some tough competition: Principal Tracey Perkins of Cypress Lake (FL) High School got 17 votes for punishing a student who disarmed a classmate who was carrying a loaded gun; officials at Dietrich High School in Idaho and at Batavia High School in Illinois collected 16 apiece for punishing teachers who said the word “vagina” in a biology classroom and reminding students of their 5th amendment rights before administering a survey that could well have led to self-incrimination, respectively. [Carla Scuzzarella of Andover (MA) High School also registered 16 votes, but new information about the Erin Cox case suggests at least the distinct possibility that Dr. Scuzzarella did nothing wrong.]

Principal Valerie Lara-Black of Mary Blair Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado was next in line with 10 votes for suspending a 2nd-grader who threw an imaginary grenade into an imaginary box containing “something evil.” Principal John Hynes of Grace Brethren High School in Simi Valley, California got 9 nods for changing the grades of at least one student, possibly more… including his own daughter. The board shares in his honorable mention for not firing him. Finally, the unnamed teacher who poured pencil shavings into the open mouth of a 13-year-old student at Boles Junior High in Arlington, Texas (and, again, the authorities who let her off with a short suspension) rounds out the finalists with 8 votes.

A few thoughts… First, I really had no dog in this fight. I was a little surprised that the pencil-shavings incident didn’t attract more votes, not because it necessarily deserved them, but only because it seemed closest to the kind of outrageous behavior by teachers which won two years ago and copped the first two places last year. Similarly, the outright dishonesty of John Hynes struck me as uniquely problematic. But they were, perhaps, perceived as anomalies—after all, the voting guidelines did say, “a thoroughly heinous but isolated act shouldn’t necessarily get your vote over a less outrageous action that might be seen as either an exemplar of a systemic problem or a harbinger of bad things to come.”

Punishing students and faculty for doing nothing wrong (a 2nd grader “saving the world”), or indeed for doing something specifically right—disarming a gunman, reminding students of constitutional rights, using the correct terminology for human anatomy—these are the deeply troubling glimpses into the world of educational administration. Even Curmie isn’t cynical enough to suggest that this is the norm, but it sure does seem to be approaching it. It’s all about following the rules even if they’re irrelevant, submitting to authority even if it’s overweening, coddling parents unless they have a legitimate concern. Because, you see, a). we mean well and b). we know best.

Curmie calls bullshit.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to argue with the collective wisdom of Curmiphiles. Principal Phillips managed to do something not merely colossally stupid, but arrogant, cruel, smug, unethical, insensitive, reckless, boorish, and—oh, yeah—illegal, as well. Plus, in the kneejerk world of post-Newtown, it also succeeded in being an emblem of everything that makes me crazy about the world of public education and self-righteous liberal do-gooding.

I may not have had a preference among the finalists at the beginning of the voting, but you have convinced me that the right person won. I’ll send the Curmie along to her, but perhaps first I should call her up and tell her that there’s a serial killer waiting for her in her apartment and that he’s amusing himself by setting her cat on fire. She won’t really appreciate the Curmie until she gets out of therapy, anyway, right?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Humpty Dumpty Moments Are Getting On My Nerves

It will come as little surprise to you, Gentle Reader, that John Rizzo, the acting general counsel of the CIA in the years after 9/11, is trying to make a buck off being one of the few people in the country willing to put forward the preposterous proposition that waterboarding isn’t really torture.

Well, actually, he doesn’t quite say that: he makes excuses for unethical, illegal conduct—“it was decided [gives a whole new meaning to the grammatical phrase “agentless sentence”] that extraordinary measures needed to be considered” and “the pressure was intense.” And besides, it’s not like waterboarding is the worst thing out there: there’s a different “technique I thought was even more chilling and scary than waterboarding.”

Not only that, he snivels, but “No. I'm a lawyer, and torture is legally defined in U.S. law.” Oh, well thanks for telling us you’re a lawyer, because you sure as shit aren’t a linguist, you pompous fuck. And yes, there is a definition of “torture.” Here it is:
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality
OK, so since waterboarding obviously fits that definition, since even the military acknowledges that fact (in part because they quite reasonably don’t want their own personnel subjected to that kind of treatment), then we’re left with four possibilities:
a). Mr. Rizzo is a disingenuous ass.
b). He’s dumber than a stack of burnt toast.
c). He’s nuttier than squirrel turds.
d). He’s Humpty Dumpty, imperiously asserting that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
The best photograph I could find of John Rizzo.
This isn’t about efficacy. There will be those who claim that waterboarding, or any other form of torture, works, and therefore becomes rather like the sausage that we like to eat but would rather not contemplate how it’s made. True, most of such claims are nonsense, but the fact is that the reality—that torture doesn’t work—seems counter-intuitive, and is undermined by a relentless entertainment media campaign based not on evidence but on what the decision-makers perceive as effective story-telling.

But even the torture supporters, if they’re even in the general vicinity of honest, are just that: torture supporters. That’s at least a morally defensible position, even if an intellectually problematic one. But to suggest that waterboarding isn’t torture because (ultimately) suggesting otherwise would be a form of self-incrimination… that is unconscionable.

Curmie has mentioned this before… one of my all-time favorite riddles is this:
Q: How many legs does a dog have if you call a tail a leg?
A: Four. Calling it one doesn’t make it one.
Calling waterboarding something other than torture doesn’t make it so, either. Unless, Mr. Rizzo, you’d like to undergo the procedure at least 183 times, because you’re at least as tough as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, right? Oh, and you’ll sign a release in advance absolving your… erm… enhanced interrogators of all responsibility if they… you know… actually kill your sorry ass. It’s not like the victims of this barbaric technique know for certain that what’s really wanted from them is information. Maybe they think—with considerable reason—that CIA goons are just sadistic assholes who like making other people suffer, and an “accidental” death (like the eponymous event in the Dario Fo play The Accidental Death of an Anarchist) is somewhere between collateral damage and the whole point of the exercise.

So you do that, Mr. Rizzo, and maybe I’ll believe you’re anything but a self-righteous, bloviating, psychopath.

I’m waiting…

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Call It The SeaWorld Effect

One of the more intriguing phenomena of the Internet age is the so-called Streisand effect, named for an attempt by the famous singer to prevent dissemination of photographs of her home in Malibu. The attempted suppression, however, drew a whirlwind of publicity… and widespread distribution of the very photographs she didn’t want made public.

Tilikum, one of the stars of "Blackfish"
A case in the news this week is a first cousin to this syndrome. This fall, CNN produced and aired a documentary entitled “Blackfish.” I haven’t seen the film, but I suspect I have a pretty good idea what it’s about, especially after reading the account of Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity author David Kirby. The broadcast concludes, apparently, that SeaWorld is guilty of manifold transgressions, including cruelty to the very sea mammals it purports to be championing. Needless to say, the show wasn’t intended to send viewers flocking to SeaWorld.

That TV special got some good ratings, but still attracted fewer than a million and a half viewers: less than one half of one percent of the total population. (A lot more have no doubt seen it seen it became available on Netflix.) Curmie, interested in animal rights but not much of a TV viewer, wasn’t even aware of the documentary until yesterday, in fact. And why did it come to his attention then?

Well, the Orlando Business Journal posted an online poll asking “Has CNN’s ‘Blackfish’ documentary changed your perception of SeaWorld?” This is where I turn the commentary over to Richard Bilbao of that publication:
As of midday Jan. 2, the results were staggeringly in favor of those saying the film hasn't had any impact on their perception of the parks — roughly 99 percent siding in SeaWorld's favor. 
With all the heat SeaWorld has been receiving over the past couple of months, including the loss of musical acts, I decided to make sure the numbers weren’t skewed by some computer bot set to constantly choose “No.” 
But imagine our surprise when we noticed that one single Internet Protocol Address (IP Address) accounted for more than 54 percent of the votes, or about 180 of the total 328 votes. IP Addresses are typically unique Internet identifiers given to a computer or series of devices — say a multi-computer network in your office.
And who’s the owner of the domain name and company that address belong to? and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.
In another post, Bilbao reports the response SeaWorld spokesman Nick Gollattscheck:
Our team members have strong feelings about their park and company, and we encourage them to make their opinions known. 
We have three parks and our corporate offices in Orlando. You would expect that we would have a lot of team members in Orlando — and throughout our company — who would vote. If a poll goes up regarding SeaWorld, our team members have as much a right to vote as anyone else, and vote they did. We don’t have a ‘bot’ — each of those votes that came from SeaWorld were cast by a team member who is passionate about who we are and what we do.
Fine. I know that the computer in my office has a different IP address than the one in the office of my colleague next door. But I’m no IT guy, and maybe the talking head guy’s comments are honest. Maybe there was a corporate effort to strongarm employees into voting; maybe not. But whether or not this was a conscious attempt to skew the poll or not, it did: in the opposite direction. At the time of Bilbao’s initial article, the poll was going overwhelming in SeaWorld’s direction: 99%, in fact. Even if all the votes from SeaWorld were discounted, the votes were still 95% (!) “No,” that the film had had no effect.

And then the perceived manipulation went public… and then viral. As I write this, the percentage of those answering “Yes” has swelled to 80%. Yes, 80%, up from 1%. That takes a lot of voting. I’d be willing to bet that a fair number of those poll participants a). didn’t know there was such a thing as the Orlando Business Journal before this week, let alone ever read it, or b). have never seen “Blackfish.”

No, the reaction was purely visceral. Whether SeaWorld did anything wrong—either in terms of the content of the film or with respect to the poll—matters little. It appears that they did, and that’s enough to get people riled up. Unscientific polls, which this one freely admits to being, get hijacked all the time. Advocacy groups of every political description openly call on their supporters to do exactly that, as if “winning” a completely irrelevant online ballot meant anything at all. [Curmie is aware, by the way, of the irony of making this comment while in the process of conducting an utterly unscientific online poll for the Curmie Award… but vote anyway: nominees here; ballot in the upper right corner of this page.]

What has happened, then, is that the poll has been transformed from inconsequential to completely useless in terms of reflecting public opinion. Still, it offers considerable insight into the way the American psyche operates. And a lot more people are aware of the existence of the movie now, and of the conclusions it draws.  The incident also suggests that, volitionally or otherwise, SeaWorld made a whale of a mistake.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Erin Cox Case. Again.

Option #1: Curmie was snookered.

We need this guy on the case.
(Sorry, Cumberbatch fans.)
I wrote two stories (1, 2) about the Erin Cox case in Massachusetts. She, you may recall, was the high school volleyball player who was stripped of her team captaincy and suspended for five games for what she claimed was simply picking up a drunken friend at a party at which underage drinking occurred. I even nominated Principal Carla Scuzzarella for a Curmie Award. In fact, she was leading the voting when reader Renee provided a link that suggests that all of Ms. Cox’s allegations of mistreatment were, to coin a phrase, lies.

I know, I know, I was relying on reporting from sources like the Boston Herald and WBZ-TV. I ought to be able to trust them, but I should also know better. Indeed, even when the story spun by Cox and her opportunistic and quite possibly dishonest attorney Wendy Murphy began to unravel, I distrusted school authorities in general so much that I dismissed their claims of due process with a good deal of contempt. (I still don’t believe the denial of a zero tolerance policy, by the way.)

In other words, I was guilty of confirmation bias.

Or perhaps not.

Option #2: All those initial allegations were true.

The only evidence that they weren’t is one story in a monthly local free paper which has been repeated a couple of times but never independently confirmed by a news source you’ve ever heard of. One way or the other, that’s evidence of unethical journalism: either by the big media outlets who didn’t admit their mistake or by The Valley Patriot.

Let’s see: there’s a “handwritten letter to the court” which is quoted but not shown, nor is a link provided. “The officer who charged Cox with possession of alcohol was Boxford Police Officer Brian Neeley, the same officer who wrote the email to the North Andover Schools on her behalf.” So why did he write the e-mail? Moreover, as argued on the Stately McDaniel Manor site:
If we assume this reporting and anonymous “Valley Patriot sources” in the district court and law enforcement are accurate, there remain a number of perplexing questions. If [the Valley Patriot’s Tom] Duggan’s sources for this story do indeed come from the local court and law enforcement, they are not only violating the ethics of their positions, but likely, Massachusetts privacy laws relating to juveniles. This is an inherent problem of this sort of case. Pursuing facts that are hidden behind privacy walls requires someone to breach those walls, always unethically, usually illegally. One may argue that the public has a “right to know,” but there is no such “right” in the Constitution or elsewhere. This also raises the question about whether it is ethical for journalists to entice public employees to violate the public’s trust and even the law. After all, this is hardly an issue of national security or the betrayal of a vital public trust by a high governmental official. There is not a great deal of honor in whistleblowing in such cases.
In any reasonable interpretation of Duggan’s prose, the local police are saying that when [school district lawyer Geoffrey] Bok wrote that Cox was arrested, he was “not correct,” or in common, everyday English, he lied. Yet Duggan says that there is no evidence that Bok lied, citing the distinction I have drawn regarding physical custody arrests and citations. Apparently the local police think that distinction important and believe that Cox was not arrested. Because even a citation is actually an arrest, this would tend to support Murphy and the police, not Duggan or Bok.
Mike McDaniel concludes:
Regular readers know I am anything but a defender of the mainstream media. Perhaps they have not retracted their stories because they do not have definitive proof they were wrong. Can we believe Duggan’s anonymous sources? Perhaps. As I wrote, it would certainly not be unusual for any teenager in a difficult situation to present them self in the best possible light, even to lie. Perhaps Erin Cox did lie about this. Duggan certainly seems to believe that, but if he does have a copy of Cox’s handwritten “confession,” he is also sufficiently savvy not to publish it or to reveal from whom he received it. That could be legally expensive. It is possible, too, that the police and courts wanted that information leaked, so the leakers had nothing to fear, but that opens another can of ethical and legal worms, and arguably a larger and more convoluted can….
I’ll continue to dig toward a resolution I can report with confidence. Until then, you have all the facts I’ve been able to discover. I recommend that you, gentle readers, don’t hold your breath.
Apart from the fact that Curmie has a special affection for those who address their audience as “gentle readers,” I think McDaniel makes a lot of sense.

The fact is that these waters are very muddy indeed. Did the national and regional (i.e., Boston) media sensationalize the story and then abandon it when things got complicated? Of course. Was Cox in possession of alcohol? Perhaps. Did the school provide an appropriate hearing? Perhaps. Were Principal Scuzzarella’s actions worthy of a Curmie Award? If, but only if, the anonymous sources and reporting of a small-town free press are on the up and up. So whereas I urge you to vote for the 3rd Annual Curmies (nominees here; ballot in the upper right corner of this page), I don’t think it’s appropriate to vote for her (and I can’t remove her from the ballot): one of the cardinal principles of our justice system, after all, is the presumption of innocence. Ms. Scuzzarella might be guilty. “Might” isn’t good enough. And if she really did administer justice appropriately, then I apologize for saying otherwise.

Oh, and whatever is or is not true, Erin Cox is a kid. If she really was drinking, well, she wouldn’t exactly be the first teenager to do that. Her mother and lawyer may be irredeemable, but she isn’t. Let’s let her grow up and see what happens.

Congressman Mike Rogers: 1st Recipient of the Curmie II Award

[Curmie’s Law, Article 173: it’s OK to talk about last year’s events until the college football season is over.]

If the Curmie Awards didn’t exist, this page’s end-of-the-year/beginning-of-the-year tradition might be a contest for the stupidest utterance by a politician. The contest would not be about politics per se, as intelligent people can disagree about whether Obamacare is a net plus or a net minus, whether drone strikes serve the national interest, or whether private ownership of assault weapons is protected by the 2nd amendment. (Curmie’s answers: the former [barely], no, and no. Your mileage may vary.)

Nor would it be about actual lies—death panels, “you can keep it,” Muslim outreach programs, etc. Even reckless allegations with no supporting evidence—the stuff folks like Louie Gohmert and Steve King are famous for—would be beyond the scope of this award.

Congressman Mike Rogers,
Winner of the Inaugural Curmie II Award
No, this award (call it Curmie II) would be for statements so absurd on their face that we wonder how the speaker is capable of dressing himself, let alone holding public office. This year’s (i.e., for calendar year 2013) recipient would have to be (please, God, let there be no serious competition!) Representative Mike Rogers for his immortal line, “You can’t have your privacy violated if you don't know your privacy is violated.”

Yes, really, he said that, and unironically, too. Check it out here: it’s at about the 2:30 mark in the embedded video if you want to actually hear him. Or read the transcript, below.

Rogers chairs the House Intelligence Committee, an ironic appellation if ever there was one, given the transcendent idiocy of its leader. The committee was holding a propaganda exercise hearing to justify examine the NSA’s wildly unconstitutional domestic spying surveillance metadata gathering program. Everything was going swimmingly but then somehow someone who actually disagreed with the program was allowed to testify. Shocking, I know.

That someone was Stephen Vladeck of the American University Washington College of Law. Vladeck is a summa cum laude alumnus of Amherst, and he has a J.D. from Yale. Still in his early thirties, he’s already a professor and associate dean. No dummie, this. Indeed, not since Georgia Tech vs. Cumberland has there been a competition as lopsided as a battle of wits between Vladeck and Rogers.

Vladeck makes the seemingly incontrovertible point that in the case of NSA’s data collection:
It’s impossible to separate the substantive validity of the program from the process concerns that have been raised by plenty of members of Congress and members of the public. And so I think that until we have some better sense and some better grasp of those process concerns, I think it’s a bit unfair to have to answer the substantive question in the abstract.
And then, a moment later, we get this:
Rogers: I would argue the fact that we haven't had any complaints come forward with any specificity arguing that their privacy has been violated, clearly indicates, in ten years, clearly indicates that something must be doing right. Somebody must be doing something exactly right. 
Vladeck: But who would be complaining? 
Rogers: Somebody whose privacy was violated. You can’t have your privacy violated if you don't know your privacy is violated. 
Vladeck: I disagree with that. If a tree falls in the forest, it makes a noise whether you’re there to see it or not. 
Rogers (astounded): Well that’s a new interesting standard in the law.
The logical extensions of this line of reasoning are as terrifying as they are remarkable. The peeping Tom at your window isn’t committing a crime unless you catch him. If you steal a priceless painting from a millionaire’s vault, it’s not illegal unless he notices. If you cheat on your taxes, you’ve done nothing wrong unless the IRS audits you. The list is endless.

One of Curmie’s favorite bloggers, Ken at Popehat, normally known for snark but not for satire, opts for the latter by positing a scenario by which Rogers installed hidden surveillance cameras in the women’s bathroom at his office in the Capitol: “I would argue the fact that we haven't had any women come forward with any specificity arguing that their privacy has been violated….”

Ken also applies the same riff to a Rogers-ism of a couple days earlier. Then, Chairman Rogers, responding to a claim that the NSA had recorded some 70 million phone calls in France, proclaimed:
If the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping champagne corks. It’s a good thing. It keeps the French safe. It keeps the US safe. It keeps our European allies safe. This whole notion that we’re going to go after each other on what is really legitimate protection of nation-state interest, I think is disingenuous.
Yes, being spied on by a foreign country can only be good for you. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

But this kind of statement is just mundane political nonsense. Yes, it suggests that the “nanny state” allegation generally—and with plenty of justification—applied to liberals works just as well for conservative Republicans: politicians (those in power, especially), like school administrators and other mental deficients, really do believe that they and their minions can do whatever they want, as long it’s for… you know… a good cause. And there is no ideological litmus test at work here—the difference between “big government liberals” and the average conservative pol has nothing to do with the size of government, but rather with the ends to which that governmental power is applied.

Still, there’s a rationale at work in the assertion that the French citizenry would celebrate the invasion of their privacy if only they could comprehend the benevolence underlying those profoundly illegal acts, even if it’s one that Curmie finds as alarming as it is silly. The idea that victims of a secret program aren’t really victims if they don’t know a). about the existence of said secret program and b). that they are in fact specific targets of that (illegal and secret) surveillance… to argue that requires a Special Kind of Stupid.

Congratulations, Congressman Rogers. You’ve won the Curmie II. (Well, maybe you won’t have until someone tells you…)

[NOTE: By the way, if you haven't already done so, please vote for the “real” Curmie Award by 7:00 pm CST on Wednesday, January 8. Nominees are here; the “ballot” is in the upper right-hand corner of this page.]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Incompetence by US Customs. Imagine Curmie's Surprise.

Boujemaa Razgui playing one of his flutes.
Shortly before Christmas, internationally renowned flautist Boujemaa Razgui was returning to the US from Marrakesh via Madrid, when, he says, Customs officials seized and destroyed thirteen hand-crafted flutes: eleven neys and two kawalas. [Note: several stories about the incident do not mention the kawalas at all.] The flutes were in Razgui’s checked luggage, which was searched in New York when the musician changed planes there. He was not present for the search. Moroccan-born and a Canadian citizen, Razgui maintains a residence in Brockton, Massachusetts, and was connecting to Boston from JFK Airport. When he arrived in Boston, the flutes were gone, replaced simply by a phone number to call. (Note: there are different variations on the story line. What I describe here comes from the most authoritative source and makes the most sense, but may not be accurate in all details.)

“I told them I had these instruments for many years and flew with them in and out,” he said. “There were 11 instruments in all. They told me they were agricultural products and they had to be destroyed. There was nothing I could do. The ney flute can be made with bamboo. Is that agricultural?” Razgui is understandably distraught, understandably unwilling to confront authorities in a country of which he is not even a citizen (he has a green card), and understandably unsure what to do next.

The flutes in question were made by Razgui himself; he uses different instruments for different musical genres… you know, like musicians do. And, and as international musician, he travels with his instruments all the time, crossing national boundaries as a matter of course. He’d never had any problems before. Of course, that’s because most customs agents around the world, however incompetent they might be, still have more brains than a used teabag. But, alas, there’s at least one in New York who can’t clear that rather modest hurdle.

Needless to say, Customs officials are righteously indignant that anyone should call them out on their idiocy. They issued a statement saying that no instruments were destroyed:
CBP Agriculture Specialists at John F. Kennedy International Airport discovered fresh green bamboo canes approximately three to four feet long inside of unclaimed baggage arriving on a flight from Madrid, Spain on Sunday, December 22, 2013. Fresh bamboo is prohibited from entering the United States to prevent the introduction of exotic plant pathogens. The fresh bamboo canes were seized and destroyed in accordance with established protocols to prevent the introduction of plant pathogens into the United States.
In other words, they’re true government officials, pathologically incapable of admitting a mistake (think “Obamacare website”), and willing to utter absurd prevarications to attempt to wriggle out of the justly deserved opprobrium now engulfing them. How do I know they’re lying? “Because they’re US Customs” is largely accurate but a little cynical even for me.

No, it’s because Razgui has no reason to make up the story but they do to deny it; because although bamboo can be used to make ney flutes, Razgui doesn’t, using rare reeds instead; because the CBP statement is a little too shrill, a little too implausible and—most importantly—a little too late; because it’s simply stupid to suggest that Razgui would have gone shopping for bamboo in Marrakesh, from where he started his journey; because the inconsistencies in Razgui’s story can be readily explained by his lack of facility with the English language.

Some of the comments on the articles linked above accuse the CBP of racism. I doubt it. It is conceivable that Razgui’s bag was searched solely because of his name, but the seizure of the flutes: that’s just because an agent didn’t know what he/she was looking at and, rather than admit ignorance, just decided to exercise power for its own sake. Because that’s what these people—cops, the TSA, the CBP—do.

Hail Sparty. And Hail Mark Dantonio.

Kyler Elsworth (#41) soars over the pile to make the clinching play as
Michigan State beats Stanford 24-21 in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—Curmie writes about something good that has happened. And so we start the post-Curmie nominations 2014 posts with such a story. It’s about college football, which could certainly use something positive. Of the last four Heisman Trophy winners, for example, one almost certainly demanded a huge (completely verboten) payoff from universities for his services, one violated a handful of NCAA rules with little to no punishment and is one of the most colossal assholes on the planet, and one is quite likely a rapist. Not that the talking heads at ESPN (or any of the other networks, for that matter) ever deviated from the script that anything a jock (well, a sufficiently accomplished jock, at least) might do is perfectly permissible. Similarly, coaches like Chip Kelly (formerly of the University of Oregon, now of the Philadelphia Eagles) and Pete Carroll (formerly of the University of Southern California, now of the Seattle Seahawks) escaped punishment for their recruiting violations simply by fleeing the jurisdiction: taking jobs in the NFL, where NCAA sanctions mean nothing.

So it came as something of a surprise that Mark Dantonio, head coach of the Michigan State Spartans, suspended Max Bullough, the best player on the best defensive team in the country, on Christmas night for an unspecified violation of a team rule. That just doesn’t happen to star players on big-name teams, at least not for games that matter. Sure, there’s occasionally a suspension about now, but it’s for the first game of next year (when the team is playing the Little Sisters of the Poor or some equivalent gridiron powerhouse), not for (shudder) the bowl game.

For confirmation of this assertion, we turn to Ohio State, where defensive end Noah Spence was recently suspended for three games, including this week’s Orange Bowl game. “But wait,” you say, “that’s an even greater penalty than Bullough faced. Doesn’t that prove that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is the same kind of stand-up guy as Dantonio?” Actually, it proves the exact opposite. As anyone who follows college football at all seriously understands, Ohio State and Coach Meyer have both had win-at-all-costs attitudes for a very long time, and did so long before the Buckeyes hired Meyer a little over two years ago. They’re perfect for each other, in other words.

And Meyer simply doesn’t suspend players who richly deserve it… not if they’re good players, at least. No, it was the Big 10 Conference that suspended Spence. Translation: Spence broke the rules (allegedly for using an unapproved dietary supplement, although the official reason for the suspension has not been announced), and Ohio State, rather than take action of their own, sought rather to keep their player eligible. Meyer’s staff actually helped Spence with the appeal process, and the coach pronounced himself “disappointed” that the player’s appeal hadn’t been approved: “he’s one of my favorite players.” Curmie is tempted to wonder if Meyer would have been quite so helpful had Spence been the #3 punter instead of leading the team in sacks.

Or look at South Carolina. Jadaveon Clowney, the team’s star defensive end, received two speeding tickets in a three-week period prior to the Capitol One Bowl, one of them for going 110 mph, both for exceeding the speed limit by over 25 mph. One of the reports, by the way, specifies that Clowney was driving a Chrysler 300—not the standard transportation for undergraduates. But there were certainly no illegal payoffs while Clowney is still technically an amateur athlete. No, of course not.

Clowney’s recklessness and self-entitlement would once have been cause for concern. Not in Coach Steve Spurrier’s universe. Suspend Clowney, or even bench him for a single series at the beginning of the game? Are you kidding? This is Steve Spurrier we’re talking about, and Clowney is a really good football player, almost certain to be the first defensive player chosen in the upcoming NFL draft, possibly even the first overall pick. Spurrier’s response to Clowney’s escapades, which resulted in the possible loss of his driver’s license and several hundred dollars in fines: “He needs to go to driving school, doesn't he? …. At least he'll have enough money to pay for it a week or so from now.” Cute.

Which brings us back to Mark Dantonio. No, he’s not the only coach who thinks rules matter (Boise State, for example, suspended their starting quarterback before the Hawaii Bowl, supposedly for urinating off the hotel balcony. He indignantly denies the charge, by the way). But he’s certainly in the minority in the ranks of coaches in the best programs in the best conferences.

Of course, the sorry collection of ex-jocks and talking heads that passes for sports journalism these days ululated at length about how Michigan State could possibly survive without the “heart and soul” of their defense. Not a word praising Dantonio for doing the right thing: if a player does something that should lead to a suspension, he should be suspended. Nope. Just veiled criticism implying that the coach had jeopardized his team’s chances of winning the big game.

The thing is that Dantonio actually seems to believe that stuff about sports helping to create better people—those who are willing to work hard toward a goal; who recognize that being a good teammate often demands sacrifice, but the rewards are plentiful and sometimes extraordinary; who truly believe that no one is irreplaceable; who value community, loyalty, and goal-orientation, but who refuse to substitute any of these for ethical behavior. He’s looking long term, in other words.

But it’s also true that there are short-term advantages to such an approach. If I’m in the locker room when the coach tells us that one of our star players has been suspended from a game that matters, I start thinking a little more clearly about the pragmatic as well as ethical advantages to playing by the rules. If bad behavior can get even Max Bullough suspended, maybe when Coach says he expects discipline from us, he means it. Maybe there’s even a life lesson to be learned here… you know, like all the over-produced promotional videos say there is.

And if I’m the guy who’s going to take Max Bullough’s place in the lineup, I’d better be ready. That guy, by the way, is Kyler Elsworth. He’s a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, getting his first and last collegiate start, replacing an All-American in the 100th Rose Bowl game. He draws confidence from his coaches and his teammates. He spends the week between Christmas and New Year’s studying film, going to only required Rose Bowl activities. He notices that when Stanford’s linemen get into a particular stance, the only way to stop what’s coming is “for me to go over the top.”

And so, with his team having trailed early on by 10-0 but now protecting a 4-point lead with a little over a minute and a half left in the game, it’s his job to help stop Stanford’s vaunted rushing attack on a 4th and less than 1. He hurtles over the prostrate bodies of linemen on both teams, arms outstretched, bearing no little resemblance to a condor launching itself from an Andean crag. He meets fullback Ryan Hewitt in the backfield, stopping his forward progress. A couple of Michigan State buddies arrive a moment later, completing the play… and the Spartans win the Rose Bowl for the first time since the Reagan administration. Oh, and Elsworth was named the Defensive Player of the Game.

This is storybook stuff. It may be that Mark Dantonio is as big a jerk as the other guys. But he (and Max Bullough, by the way) handled the announcement and aftermath of the suspension with professionalism. He got his team ready to play. And for one brief moment, as Kyler Elsworth slammed into Ryan Hewitt, we saw a flash of what college football purports to be.

It may have been fleeting. It may even have been illusory. But it happened. Oh, yes, it happened.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Announcing the Nominations for the 3rd Annual Curmie Award

It’s that time again: the nominations for the 3rd annual Curmie Awards for the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education. I remind you that the award is not for the most egregious act, but the one that shows the profession in the worst light. That is, a thoroughly heinous but isolated act shouldn’t necessarily get your vote over a less outrageous action that might be seen as either an exemplar of a systemic problem or a harbinger of bad things to come.

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

Also, the recipient must be, at some level, an actual educator. Hence, the outrageous institutionalization of restricting academic freedom by the Kansas Board of Regents doesn’t qualify: those folks are political appointees, not educators… that’s both the problem and the reason those censorious asshats (another tip of the cap to the folks at Popehat for that expression) won’t get a Curmie… or at least a regular, voted-on-by-the-readership one. I reserve the right to give them a special Curmie, along the same lines as the one awarded recently to the Florida Fifth Circuit Count of Appeals for forcing the Osceola County School District to put 2012 Curmie winner Lillian Gomez back in the classroom because feeding hot sauce-laced crayons to autistic kids is “not so egregious such that loss of effectiveness could be decided as a matter of law.”

There are two changes from previous practice. It’s still the case that I must have written about the events in question during 2013, but I’m expanding the time parameters a little to allow stories from late 2012 that didn’t find their way into the public perception (or at least into mine) until 2013. And all nominees must be in the United States (I suppose this isn’t a change, per se, but this year I need to make the rule explicit because of a story from Canada).

I tried to balance different types of professional infractions: teachers behaving badly, administrative arrogance, rampaging nannyism, and so on. Curmie’s civil libertarianism will be well in evidence, as will his version of the domino theory: if Awful Thing X is allowed to take place without outcry, then surely Awful Thing Y will be next.

Curmie wrote a lot fewer posts in 2013 than in previous years—40, as opposed to 79 in 2012 and 101 in 2011. That means that there were a lot of stories I didn’t get to: nothing about the prom follies in Missouri (two different places) and Indiana, the 14-year-old arrested for wearing a pro-NRA shirt, the utter idiocy of Georgia higher education Chancellor Hank Huckaby’s comments about “students’ studying the wrong areas,” the California school that allowed cops to entrap a special needs student on a drug offense, the silliness of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association proclaimed new standards for post-game handshakes, the SAT’s “lying is the best policy” approach to essay grading, the Colorado school that charged a 6-year-old with sexual harassment, the Washington school that apparently sees nothing wrong with forcing students to open their Facebook accounts to the prurient gaze of administrators, SUNY Oswego officials who placed a journalism student on interim suspension for telling prospective commenters for a feature story that “what you say… does not have to be positive,”… and more.

Still, I managed over a dozen posts featuring some 28 different stories, and the hard part wasn’t finding enough Curmie-worthy prospects, but in narrowing the list to eight finalists and eight (dis)honorable mentions. There were nine (yes, nine) segments about stupid gun-related regulations that have nothing to do with actual safety issues (toy guns that really do look like real guns would be another matter). All of these incidents were outrageous, but six of them didn’t even get dishonorable mention status, in part because that would load up the nominations with a particular kind of idiocy, when there are so many from which to choose. Also not making the cut were a couple of displays of administrative stupidity stemming from a combination of humorlessness, hyper-literalism and arrogant nannyism. No attempts to shut down high school theatre productions made the list, either, although there was one strong contender and another case I didn’t get the chance to write about. It turns out that all the finalists are from the world of elementary and secondary education: one teacher, one private school administrator, six public school administrators. There are a couple of college administrations on the DisHonorable Mention list, but this is the year of public and private schools.

But enough about what isn’t on the list. We move on to the DisHonorable Mentions for the 2013 Curmie Award, in the order I wrote about them:

Life Learning Academy in San Francisco for suspending Courtni Webb and threatening her with expulsion for writing a poem in a personal notebook that expressed some empathy for Newtown killer Adam Lanza.

Newlin Fell Elementary School in South Philadelphia for screaming at, searching, and otherwise humiliating 5th-grader Melody Valentin for having a piece of paper torn into the very rough outline of gun, which she was in the process of throwing away.

The unnamed teacher at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, for ridiculing 9th grader (and African-American) Christopher Rougier for dressing up as Santa because “Santa Claus is white.” (Apparently elves and reindeer can be black, however: just thought you might want to know that, Gentle Reader.)

The Glendale (CA) Unified School District for hiring a private company to spy on the social media posts of their students, a process which is either illegal and unconstitutional or doomed to ineffectuality.

The Cleveland State University chapter of the AAUP for claiming that $666 raises are tantamount to accusations of Satanism.

The University of Massachusetts for cancelling all electronic dance music concerts on campus because attendees often use the potent Ecstasy variant known as “Molly.”

Mike Scott, the football coach at Annandale (VA) High School, for throwing the school’s marching band off the field in the middle of their senior night halftime show despite there being plenty of time remaining on the clock, and Principal Vincent Randazzo for doing next to nothing to punish the bullying coach.

Hillcrest Middle School in Simpsonville, South Carolina for suspending an autistic student for showing older students a cartoonish drawing of a bomb.

And now… The nominees for the 3rd Annual Curmie Awards…. (drum roll…)

Principal Greer Phillips of PS 79 (the Horan School) in East Harlem for conducting a completely unannounced (to teachers, to the police…) lockdown drill less than a week after the horrors at Sandy Hook Elementary. In aggravation: outrageous timing and an incompetently run drill complete with contradictory instructions, but also the makeup of the student body (a high percentage of students with emotional or cognitive problems). In mitigation: I can’t think of a thing.

Principal Valerie Lara-Black of Mary Blair Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado for suspending 2nd-grader Alex Evans for throwing an imaginary grenade into an equally imaginary box containing “something evil.” In aggravation: this is stupid behavior even if there’s something tangible. In mitigation: there’s probably some idiotic zero tolerance policy that purports to justify if not demand these flights of inanity.

Principal Tracey Perkins of Cypress Lake (FL) High School for suspending a 16-year-old student because he disarmed another student, a football player who was threatening a teammate with a loaded gun. You see, he was “involved in an incident in which a weapon was present.” In aggravation: apart from the sheer idiocy of the charges, they were changed after the school started being (quite rightly) embarrassed by the publicity. In mitigation: it is possible that the boy was indeed uncooperative with the ensuing investigation.

Principal Carla Scuzzarella of North Andover (MA) High School for stripping Erin Cox from her volleyball team captaincy and suspending her for five games because she went by a party where there was alcohol long enough to drive a drunken friend home. In aggravation: the police statement makes it clear that Ms. Cox had not been drinking, and the policy manual makes a specific point about the folly of guilt by association. In mitigation: there are reports that she was at the party longer than it would have taken just to collect her friend.  [EDIT: the follow-up on this case shown in the link provided by Renee in the comments below makes it clear that Ms. Cox may well not be the victim here, and that school authorities behaved appropriately.   Whereas there is little corroboration of the assertions in that news story (which seems to have been written by someone with an agenda of his own), Curmie apologizes to Principal Scuzzarella for what seems likely to have been a false accusation.  It is impossible to remove this nomination from the ballot, but I urge you not to vote for Ms. Scuzzarella.  If you have already voted, you can indeed change your vote.]

Officials at Dietrich (ID) High School for reporting science teacher Tim McDaniel to the school board and the state professional standards commission, allegedly for using the word “vagina.” Yes, in a biology class. In aggravation: Mr. McDaniel seems to be being penalized for the precise reason that he was doing his job. In mitigation: it is unclear to what extent the school per se was responsible for the brouhaha, although they clearly did little to prevent it.

Batavia (IL) High School and their equally incompetent school board for punishing social studies teacher John Dryden. His crime? Reminding his students of their 5th amendment rights while distributing a survey that could indeed have led to self-incrimination. In aggravation: the survey, with students’ name on it, was a clear invasion of student privacy, motivated by the usual nannyish hogwash. In mitigation: Dryden did react without checking with school officials about the intents of the survey.

The unnamed teacher at Boles Junior High in Arlington, Texas for pouring pencil shavings into the mouth of 8th-grader Marquis Jay, and to the authorities who cravenly gave her a slap on the wrist. In aggravation: you need aggravation??? In mitigation: the boy deserved some punishment—he was at best inattentive—and it seems to have been an unpremeditated and isolated incident.

Principal John Hynes of Grace Brethren High School in Simi Valley, California for the completely unauthorized action of changing the grades of at least one student (possibly several, including his own daughter), and the spineless board who allowed him get by with little punishment. In aggravation: it’s a short step from what has been admitted to and what has been alleged, which would be an outrageous abuse of power. In mitigation: with the exception of the one case, the allegations come almost exclusively from a now-former teacher. This may not be the most objective of sources.

So… there are the nominees. As usual, you are free to object if one of your “favorites” was omitted. Likewise, I’m free to tell you to get your own damned blog if you want to make the nominations.

Please vote for the most deserving recipient(s) in the box on the upper right of this page: you may vote for as many or as few nominees as you choose, but please don’t vote more than once. If you choose to comment, please do so in addition to rather than instead of voting—regardless of what people say in the comments, either here or on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, it’s only the actual votes that count.

The polls, as it were, will be open until 7:00 pm CST on Wednesday, January 8. Majority rules. (This isn’t PolitiFact, after all.)