Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Last of the 2015 Curmie Contenders

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Curmie still needs to cover a couple more stories to get them eligible for Curmie Award consideration. They have nothing in common other than being education-related and outrageous. I want to get as many in as possible, so I won’t spend a lot of time on any individual story.

Here we go.

Aiden Steward: apparently not a wizard.
In Kermit, Texas, 4th-grader Aiden Steward was suspended for telling a classmate that he was in possession of “one ring to rule them all” that could make the other boy disappear. Any normal adult would look at this and say “hey, 9-year-olds who just saw ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies’ are going to act out movies.” Principal Roxanne Greer, however, is a couple sausage links short of a Grand Slam breakfast. That was a “terroristic threat,” you see. The boy’s father observed that his son “lacks the magical powers necessary to threaten his friend’s existence. If he did, I’m sure he’d bring him right back.” Unaccountably, Greer is still permitted to walk among us without adult supervision.

John McAdams: the canary in the coal mine?
Marquette University revoked the tenure of Professor John McAdams over a blog post (Curmie finds this especially creepy… I wonder why). True, McAdams behaved a little unprofessionally by calling out a graduate student by name. But the suggestion that he should have jumped through a zillion hoops before exercising his free speech rights is outrageous in the extreme, and Dean Richard C. Holtz is, frankly, the one who deserves to be fired.

As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes:
… Holtz's decision to hold McAdams responsible for [the grad student’s] harassment sets an alarming precedent: that faculty members will be held accountable not only for their words, but for any efforts to intimidate or harass those they publicly criticize. By this logic, a professor who criticized a college football player accused of rape, or a fraternity member who chanted “No means yes, yes means anal,” or a college Republican running an “affirmative-action bake sale” could be stripped of tenure based partly on whether that student got nasty emails. Only myopia can account for failure to see the threat to academic freedom.
This repression of faculty members’ rights is truly frightening. Should Holtz get the Curmie? That’s for you to decide, Gentle Readers, but he sure as hell ought to be a contender.

In Martinez, California, the school board had enough funds to provide air conditioning for only one of two elementary schools: John Swett and Las Juntas. Here’s board member Denise Elsken:
I would say 95% of the students at Las Juntas do not have air conditioning in their homes. So, whether that means those students are more acclimated and can handle a little bit more heat than the John Swett students, which I would say 95% of their residents have air conditioning in their homes.
We’ll just leave it at that, OK?

Ken Simon, a veteran teacher (47 years!) at Raymore-Peculiar High School in Missouri, was pulled from the classroom in May for doing his job showing a 10-minute video that demonstrated evolving attitudes towards homosexuality. Two students complained (about what?) and the administration made the obligatory inane decision. Students and faculty alike supported Simon. The administration doubled down on the idiocy. Water is wet.

The very first Curmie Award went to a Kentucky teacher who thought it would be ever so clever to discipline an autistic student by shoving him into a bag intended to carry gym balls. Mary Katherine Pursley of Mt. Bethel Elementary School in Georgia was apparently lured by the bright lights and international renown of a Curmie, so she decided to duplicate the feat. There was no ball bag available, however, so she used a trash can. Yes, really.

Sierra Norman: female and not Mormon
At Declo High School in Idaho, Sierra Norman had the audacity to want to be student government president despite being (gasp!) female and (bigger gasp) not even Mormon. She was denied the opportunity because the district decided she wasn’t a full-time student: she was taking too many on-line courses. Trouble is, according to a formal complaint from the ACLU,
The school district told Sierra that she couldn’t run for Student Body President because she was not enrolled in at least six non-online classes. But the only other student who petitioned to run wasn’t enrolled in six non-online classes for credit either. The difference? He was enrolled in online classes and LDS seminary. And he is male.
Oh, and the school district’s state funding is based on the full-time student population. Guess who’s listed as full-time for those purposes. Finally, a teacher supposedly said that “someone ought to Ray Rice Sierra.” What a pleasant little hellhole Declo, Idaho turns out to be.

Here’s another case of a teacher being punished for doing exactly the right thing. At Nevada (TX) Elementary School, a troubled 4th grader threatened to kill teacher Judy Stough. To protect herself and her other students, she locked the boy out of her classroom. The boy banged on the door and yelled at everyone inside. The students in the room and their parents are unanimous that Stough did everything right. Therefore, the administration suspended her. Because: school administrators.

The principal of TNT Academy in Stone Mountain, Georgia was indeed fired for some racially charged (a.k.a. racist) remarks. At the school graduation, Nancy Gordeuk accidentally ended the ceremonies before the valedictorian’s speech. Stuff like that happens. What doesn’t, is Gordeuk’s screed: “You people are being so rude to not listen to this speech. It was my fault that we missed it in the program. Look who’s leaving—all the black people.” She reacted to the bad press by pretending the uproar was over using “black” instead of “African American.” Um… no.

Jerry Hough: an idiot who
shouldn’t have been suspended
Speaking of racist idiots, there’s Duke University professor Jerry Hough. Responding to a New York Times editorial, Hough launched into a diatribe about how “the blacks” ought to be more like “the Asians.” At Duke, he said, “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” Etc.

Hough is an embarrassment. But his suspension for having an opinion, even one that is “noxious [and] offensive,” is also problematic. The substance of Hough’s argument is not (quite) as disgusting as his expression of it, and whereas his comments aren’t going to get a lot of support from Curmie, his right to express them will.

At Glen Oak Elementary School in Lewis Center, Ohio, it’s apparently not a good thing to stand up to bullies. Or at least doing so seems to have cost 5th grade teacher Nicole LeMire her job. One of her more obnoxious charges blew his nose on classmates, used inappropriate language, and generally behaved badly. So LeMire made him listen to his classmates for a change. Curmie is an experienced teacher, but not at the elementary school level. He does know enough to consult actual experts, however.

One of those experts would be Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational at the University of Illinois. She says LeMire did exactly the right thing:
You want to call out the behavior because the victim deserves to have an adult say “we’re not going to tolerate this.” Kids are paying attention. Teachers need to be role models, and it seems she did what experts would agree with, because there has to be a climate where bullied kids feel supported.
Naturally, doing what the experts say to do got her fired. Were Curmie of a cynical disposition (perish the thought!), he might suspect that the bully has a relative on the school board or in the superintendent’s office.

Abby Dawson: definitely not good at her job
No enumeration of outrageous education-related behavior in 2015 would be complete without Abby Dawson, then the Director of Advising and Internships at Kennesaw State in Georgia. Seriously, Cruella De Vil has got nothing on this woman. Student Kevin Bruce showed up at the advising office without an appointment and said he’d wait until an adviser was available. For this, he was screamed at and told he was harassing the staff; Dawson threatened to call campus security. How do we know? Bruce made a video that went viral. Any sane employer would have fired her sorry ass in approximately 2 seconds. Kennesaw State suspended her a few weeks after the confrontation.

There are more stories, but that’ll have to do for 2015.

Good night, good luck, and Happy New Year.

Curmie contenders: Christianity in Public Education Edition (part 2)

A couple of days ago we looked at a host of instances of Christian over-reach: events that might have been fine in a religious environment, but not in a publicly funded (even partially publicly-funded) enterprise. We pick up with further follies of misplaced evangelism, because they just wouldn’t fit in one post.

What the hell is crap like this doing in a public school?
Of course, pseudo-Christians aren’t necessarily about how their religion is good; some of them would rather tell us about how other religions are bad. And so we shift our gaze to Richmond, Texas, where Foster High School teacher Herby Woolverton distributed what could legitimately be called a virulently anti-Islamic 8-page handout to his class: Muhammad was a “false prophet” and a “warmonger”; Islam “tends to force its ideology… through propaganda, subversion, and even physical force…” La la how the life goes on.

Once again, if Mr. Woolverton chooses to believe this crap, there’s not much we can (or should) do to stop him, provided he doesn’t resort to violence. But thinking this is an appropriate handout in a public school classroom: that makes him stupid and unprofessional as well as hateful. Curmie sheds nary a tear, and sincerely hopes he’s never allowed in a classroom ever again.

Of course, there are always the “he said/she said” stories. An ideal example is that of Valyntyne Hale, an 8th grader (at the time) at Del Crest Middle School in Del City, Oklahoma. The school says she was written up for a skirt that was too short. She says, no, it wasn’t, and she’s being harassed because she’s a Satanist. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible that the skirt does indeed “come up in the back,” as school officials claim, and that Ms. Hale and her father are playing victim. But it does say something about the state of public education that Curmie is more inclined to believe the girl than the teachers and principal. He does note, however, that he cannot verify the claim in the linked article that “[o]ther students in the school have worn short skirts with the school’s blessing. Some of those students are featured on the school’s official website.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that such students weren’t on the website, but they aren’t now.

Curmie also remembers one of his first posts on inappropriately handled dress codes: the case of “adult onset atheist’s” daughter who was similarly busted for having too short a skirt. First off, if her skirt was too short, then dress code is a farce; secondly, there were documentable instances of girls’ wearing shorter skirts without punishment; finally, oh, yeah, atheist family in a religious (in this case, Mormon) town. Stevie Nicks just might describe the Del City episode as hauntingly familiar.

Pastor Randy Pfaff, de facto Tsar of Florence High School.
And so we move on to Florence (CO) High School, home of Jesus Pizza. Could Curmie make that up? Here’s just part of the litany of allegations, according to a lawsuit filed by Robert Basevitz, apparently the only Jewish teacher in the school system (hired before he knew that a public school wasn’t really intended to serve everyone):
  • The Cowboy Church at the Crossroads, headed by Pastor Randy Pfaff, which (legally) holds services in the school cafeteria, is advertised by two large signs visible from the highway. According to the Church itself, it seeks to “get church back into school.”
  • The Fellowship of Christian Huskies, nominally a student group, is indeed run by Pastor Pfaff, and is in effect a beard for explicitly religious activities, supported by Principal Brian Schipper and Superintendent Rhonda Vendetti.
  • Morning prayers at the school’s flagpole are a daily occurrence. Pastor Pfaff or another member of the Church use a P.A. system to preach. These sessions are occasionally publicized over the school’s own public address equipment.
  • These prayers are often so large that non-affiliated staff and students literally can’t get to the doors of the school without interrupting the service.
  • The Church, with the complicity of the school administration, distribute flyers on school property, “including in teacher mailboxes, classrooms, and the School’s guidance office. There is also a “Prayer Requests” box in the faculty lounge.
  • The Fellowship holds weekly lunches at the school, an event known locally as “Jesus Pizza.” The meeting is promoted by a large and obviously sectarian sign on school grounds.
  • The Church, with the cooperation of the administration, distributes Bibles and placards in school. There’s a “scholarship night” run by the Church, with active participation from the principal and assistant principal.
  • One such “scholarship night” included “senior prayers” and a concert by a Christian rock group. The local newspaper (which seems complicit in the whole affair) chirps that “Many, many students and faculty have found Jesus during this presentation.” Curmie didn’t even know he was missing.
  • An all-school assembly was “based off the scripture of Matthew 7:13.”
And on and on and on. If even some of these allegations are even marginally accurate, we have a real problem here. Schipper and Vendetti need to be gone. They may be good administrators in some ways, but they need to be working for a Christian school that admits to being one.

Unconstitutional and completely fake at the same time.  The daily double!
Then, of course, there’s Mount Vernon (TX) ISD, which managed simultaneously to promote Christianity and to misattribute the quotations employed in the process. The dim bulbs at Mount Vernon decided that nothing says “constitutionality” better than painting the school walls with schlock like “It is impossible to govern a nation without God and the Bible” and “Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face.” The former quotation was attributed to George Washington, the latter to Ronald Reagan.

But here’s the thing: completely apart from the divisive proselytizing of these sayings, neither Washington nor Reagan actually said those things. The misattributed Reagan quote sounds vaguely like something the Gipper might have said, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of history would smell something suspicious about that alleged Washingtonian bromide.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation rightly notes not merely the unconstitutionality of the endorsement of a single religion, but also that:
The district cannot even fall back on the argument that these quotes have educational merit, given the many examples of misquotes, misattributions, and entirely fraudulent quotes displayed on its walls. The district sets a poor example for its students if it cannot be bothered to fact check the messages it chooses to endorse.
In one impressive display of arrogance, egocentrism, and stupidity, then, school officials managed to demonstrate both a profound ignorance of the Bill of Rights and combination of academic incompetence and laziness that would be unacceptable in a high school freshman. They are legitimate Curmie contenders.

Finally (because Curmie doesn’t have all week), there’s the story from Forest Park Elementary Schoolin Fort Wayne, Indiana, where 2nd grade teacher Michelle Meyer is accused of punishing a student for telling a classmate he doesn’t believe in God.

At one level, this is a classic “he said, she said” scenario, as Meyer denies the allegations. Even if we believe her account, however, there’s a problem. There seems to be no doubt that the student in question, “A.B.,” had told a classmate that he doesn’t go to church or believe in God. Meyer says she was concerned at the boy’s admission that he did not care about the impact of his words on another student. Two questions: 1). why should he? 2). was there similar concern that the classmate’s comments would have on him?

The school came to their teacher’s assistance, and in the absence of real evidence, they were probably right to do so. But don’t be surprised if the boy’s lawsuit is successful.

There are more stories, of course: too many to enumerate. Here are just a couple to mention in passing: the Hall County school district in Gainsville, Georgia, that was successfully sued for promotion of Christianity in their athletic program; the Kountze (TX) ISD, whose cheerleaders can’t possibly just… you know… cheer without trotting out the religious banners; Principal Allen Burch of Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Florida, who unilaterally pulled The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime from a summer reading list because it doesn’t show proper reverence for God and the Christian faith; the whiny Duke freshmen who didn’t want to read Fun Home because it would compromise their “personal moral Christian beliefs” (Curmie has an idea: don’t go to Duke if you’re so fucking cloistered you can’t even read something that challenges your privilege)—this would get its own post had Duke’s reading list been required and had they allowed these close-minded little assholes to avoid the work, but the university responded appropriately.

A couple more stories to write up to try to squeeze them in before the year is out.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Curmie contenders: Christianity in Public Education Edition (part 1)

One of the most predictable themes come Curmie-time is the pervasive intrusion of specifically Christian ideology into the public sphere. Curmie isn’t talking here about the ethical system: “thou shalt not steal,” etc., but rather the evangelical “you’re going to hell unless…” stuff. It is more than reasonable that many people in positions of authority are Christian—they make up the majority of the population, after all. But when teachers and administrators impose conformity on those they supervise, then we’ve got a problem.

So here’s a sampling—only a sampling, mind you—of what’s been happening across the country in an especially abundant year for attempted indoctrination. This will still take two posts, lest Curmie be forced to officially change the page’s name to TL;DR. These are presented in the order they came to Curmie’s attention.

Jack Hawkins: should be looking for another job.
Last winter, as a New Year’s greeting, Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins sent an e-mail to, apparently, everyone at the university—students and employees—in which he attached a video of Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen. In the video, Christensen reports on a conversation with a Chinese economist who said that, prior to spending time in the US, he “had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy.” Christensen then laments the decline of religion in American society, links religion to obedience to the law (!) and wonders aloud, “where are the institutions that are going to teach the next generation of Americans that they, too, need to voluntarily choose to obey the laws.” He concludes by arguing that “if you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”

Curmie thinks Christensen is full of crap, but he’s free to believe what he wants and to make a video about it if he chooses. Hawkins can, as a private citizen, agree with Christensen. What he cannot do is to use his position as a Chancellor of a public university to endorse an argument that religion and obedience are inherent goods. Hawkins, of course, as pusillanimous toads do, issued an unapologetic apology, which in fact doubled down on his arrogance: “As Chancellor of Troy University I have the obligation to share information with students, faculty, staff and alumni which I deem helpful in building a stronger community. In sharing the New Year's message for 2015, information was presented which I believe will be helpful to all of us.” Let’s ignore the hideous grammar (always a good sign when a university Chancellor can’t write at the high school level) and move on to the substance: The obligation? Are you freaking kidding me? To argue, in his capacity as Chancellor, that only religion can save us from anarchy? The initial e-mail was kind of dumb, but he could, as is said of everyone’s least-favorite uncle, have meant well. The follow-up should get him fired. It won’t, of course, because: Alabama.

Next up: Swainsboro (GA) Primary School, a public school where teachers Cel Thompson and Kaytrene Bright led their kindergarten and first grade charges (respectively) in prayer and responded to parental complaints by sending atheist kids out to sit in the hall. That would be creepy even if it weren’t blatantly unconstitutional. Wow. Just wow.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) ultimately sued on behalf of anonymous parents John and Jane Doe. As FFRF co-president Dan Barker said at the time:
It should not be necessary for FFRF to sue over such an obvious violation of specific Supreme Court decisions barring devotions from our public schools. No child in our secular school system or their parents should be subjected to prayer, or stigmatized when their parents speak up to defend the Establishment Clause. But unfortunately, it appears a lawsuit will be the only way to protect the freedom of conscience of these young children.
Well, duh.

The FFRF ultimately settled with the Emanuel County School District: Emanuel County teachers reportedly received educational training on their obligations not to promote religious beliefs in their classrooms, and the family has been financially compensated. Any settlement that allowed Thompson, Bright, or Principal Valorie Watkins to remain employed means the district and those particular employees got off far too easily.

Ah, Georgia. 35 miles to the west, in Dublin, middle school teacher Nancy Price Perry told her students that President Obama isn’t Christian and that if their parents voted for him, then they aren’t, either. She also challenged her students to “prove their Christianity.” WTF??? Then, when someone complained, she brought her husband—a local conservative radio personality and member of the school board--to the meeting. Because that’s not inappropriate at all.

Perry apparently continues to argue that the story is “untrue.” One thing is clear. Either Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter is a craven buffoon, or he doesn’t believe her. Well, probably both, but he can choose one. He claims to have met with Perry to explain the perils of discussing religion or politics. Of course, that ought to be self-evident, and there’s no indication that Perry was disciplined in any way. (Her husband’s on the School Board, after all.) Moreover, if the NAACP is involved, there’s at least potentially a racial element to the story.

Look, it’s almost inevitable that a teacher will say or do something that reveals a political or religious position. But saying things that are demonstrably untrue or intentionally insulting to the students themselves, proselytizing in the classroom… that’s beyond the Pale anywhere but in a Podunk town in the south. (If the powers-that-be in Dublin would like to show they’re not an appropriate subject for ridicule, all they have to do is fire Nancy Price Perry’s ass and impeach hubby from the School Board).

Marshall students also painted a rock in
support of their transgendered classmates.
Of course, religious zealots and spineless administrators are not specifically southern phenomena. In Marshall, Michigan a bulletin board promoting transgender equality created by the Gay-Straight Alliance in recognition of Transgender Visibility Day was removed by school officials, in an attempt to defuse (not “diffuse,” as the article says) a controversy. A group of parents complained that the poster didn’t “exhibit Christmas values.” Reason #114,227 Curmie is not a high school principal: he’d have said “so the fuck what?” and moved on with his day.

Apparently there was an initial attempt to spin the removal as related to a policy about how long the poster was displayed. The same comments from Superintendent Randy Davis were interpreted by local television station WWMT to mean “the negative reaction from some parents is not what prompted them to take down the board,” and by Scott Kaufman of Alternet to mean that Davis “acknowledged that parental complaints did play a role in the removal of the bulletin board.” Here’s what he said; you decide, Gentle Reader:
We have had complaints once in a while from a parent about that. We talk about the fact that our students have a right to freedom of speech and equal access, and each of those times we didn’t take the posters down, we didn’t change what the kids were trying to do…. In our environment, it doesn't feel like there’s any controversy at all; in the world of Facebook, it seems like it’s on fire.
Certainly the administration could have been a little more transparent, to say the least. It’s hard to tell whether Davis is a good guy, standing up to those who would suppress students’ ideas, or a craven bureaucrat bowing to the slightest pressure, or a pragmatist just trying to keep the peace. Curmie’s bet is on the “craven bureaucrat,” but in the absence of real evidence to that effect, there’s no Curmie nomination here.

There’s nothing craven, just a little hypocritical, about the “school director” (where do they get these titles?) at Aloma Methodist Early Childhood Learning Center in Winter Park, Florida. As the name suggests, Aloma Methodist is a specifically Christian school, but it still receives a boatload of public money because Florida legislators are more interested in Christian zealotry than in upholding the Constitution they provide voluntary prekindergarten. Like charter schools in many parts of the country, then, they’re able to do whatever the hell they want, without consequence.

What that means here is that Jaclyn Pfeiffer could be fired for her “lifestyle choice” of having a girlfriend. School director Barbara Twachtman said in the letter to parents that “Ms. Jaci” was leaving “due to personal reasons,” that she was a “wonderful teacher… very gifted with children.” Moreover, “I know we serve an awesome God and that He has great things for Jaci….”

Puh-leeze. You fired her because she’s gay, you hypocritical ass. If you actually had the courage of your convictions, you’d say that. But you’re afraid that parents who don’t obsess over their kids’ teachers’ private lives might think you’re a sanctimonious cow. That shoe seems to fit perfectly. Yes, what you did is probably legal, which is a long way from making it moral or ethical. Tell the truth, and I’ll think you’re a bigoted jerk, but at least an honest one. But this little song and dance makes you as mendacious as you are imperious.

Curmie wrote an article a few years ago about La Dame aux Caméllias (a.k.a., Camille) by Alexandre Dumas fils. The central character in that play, Marguerite Gautier, is a “fallen woman” who sacrifices her own happiness for the family of her lover. At the end of the play, the lover’s father, hearing she is dying of consumption, visits her to apologize for the way he treated her… whereupon she dies. As she must. It’s okay to praise “those people,” as long as they are never allowed into society. Dumas knew that; Barbara Twachtman, the living embodiment of those bourgeois ideals of the French Second Republic, knows that. So congratulations, Ms. Twachtman, you win Educator of the Year. In France. For 1849.

More to come… watch this space.