Saturday, October 31, 2015

Disturbing Schools

Way back when I was a teenager in a northern state, at a really predominantly white middle class high school, a few smartasses thought it would be a riot to paint murals of our geometry teacher on a large prominent window over the weekend.  He was a sweet guy who got a bit confused at times.  These geniuses learned that he had been a boxer; we all assumed he'd been punched one too many times.  It was also rumored that his name in the ring was "Killer Kells," although this may have just been my classmates' creative genius at work.  Each weekend, for a number of weeks, there would be admittedly clever but truly cruel paintings of "The Killer," bald head shining.  As the weeks progressed, the school administration got faster at removing the evidence, so that eventually it was being removed by Monday morning so that no one ever saw it, the thrill of the crime was gone and the vandalism stopped.  Poor Killer.

As juniors in French class, we all took great pleasure in refusing to speak French.  A few hecklers would entertain us and, again, rumor has it, we drove one of these two very dear women to early retirement.

And of course there were fights.  There are always fights in high schools.  There are always kids that talk back to teachers, that hang out in the bathrooms instead of going to class, who refuse to do what they are supposed to do.

In 1962, South Carolina adopted the "disturbing schools" law.  It remains on the books, and because it is vague and overreaching, it can be used to justify pretty much any police involvement in a school.  School resource officers have become an integral part of middle and high schools, theoretically selected and trained to be positive role models and actual legal resources for students, teachers and administrators.  Some actually do that.  Others, like Officer Ben Fields, bring his aggressive, even militaristic, attitude to his job.  He seems to have neither the skills nor the training to help him understand why teens would act out, and what represents an actual threat versus a troubled kid giving a teacher a hard time.  And how each of those cases require different interventions.

We can probably thank the mindset that created and maintained the "disturbing schools" law for that.  It's a spare the rod and spoil the child 1950's philosophy to which too many parents, voters and legislators continue to adhere.  The punishment mentality has far more to do with sex education in our schools than any desire to reduce the risk of teen pregnancy.  And here in South Carolina, it is no surprise that, along with teaching the perennial and negligibly effective D.A.R.E. program, Fields was football coach.  I have to say that it would take an unusual personality to be successful at coaching football and be able to relate to non-jocks, and particularly girls.  Ben Fields was not that personality.  He has been accused of excessive force (charges dropped), had in 2006 been accused of battery during an arrest of a black woman, and has a trial coming up in January against a charge of racism and false accusations towards a black student.

We know that the Catholic Church moved clergy around rather than take action after accusations of sexual assault.  We know that often people are promoted out of a situation where they have created problems.  I would not be surprised if a police officer who has had incidents of questionable behavior and lawsuits is moved from the streets into the schools, where the assumption is that the job would be less challenging and sadly, more out of the public view.

Of course, being a coach usually means that you can count on the loyalty of your team members.  In this case, students have spoken in his defense, of what a good guy he is and that he is not a racist.  On Friday, there was a walk-out to protest Fields' firing.  And even though Sheriff Leon Lott did the right thing by firing Lott, in his remarks he repeated that the student was in the wrong.  He congratulated the students who had recorded the incident, but has stood behind the arrest of the young woman who spoke out against Fields' assault as it was happening.

Let us not forget that Leon Lott was one of several sheriff's that acquired an MRAP, an armored personnel vehicle, that he nicknamed the "Peacemaker."  Lott said he planned on using the tank for "community policing programs and for personnel protection."  A spokesman for Lott said, "it's been a great icebreaker for kids and adults."  The attitude of might makes right permeates Lott's philosophy of law enforcement.

So while we should make our top priority getting rid of those "school resource officers" that believe that force is their best resource, there are underlying and long-lived philosophies about the best way to care for -- and discipline -- our kids when they are at school.

Our kids can make us all feel powerless and frustrated.  Teachers, here in South Carolina, often with classes too large, inadequate administrative support, low pay and not enough training, will face more and worse behavior problems.  That is what needs to be addressed in the long run.  Firing the problem resource officer (which appears would have been unlikely to happen without the video proof) is easy.  Improving the schools, and changing the attitude that resists improving the schools, is the hard part.  Let us not say impossible.

On the other hand, our lawmakers know nothing if not how to slow down and prevent progress.  Even though the Supreme Court found in favor of the Abbeville School District and is requiring the state to look at and change the funding formula that disadvantages rural schools, little progress has been made, nor is expected to be made.  And this is merely to meet our own low bar of bringing all districts up to "minimally adequate."  With that in mind, we are expecting our kids to spend most of their waking hours in places we adults would not frequent, loud and raucous classes full of students who frankly have bigger problems of their own.

And that really is it in a nutshell.  If you have ever had to go to work with a big problem on your mind, you understand how hard it is to concentrate, or to feel that your job is just that important.  If it is a job that gives no pleasure or support, if the work feels meaningless, and you have your own problems that you are wrestling with...

...well, imagine kids with their own troubles having to sit in those classrooms and be compliant for hours every day.

Better paid, trained and supported teachers is a start.  Smaller classrooms, counselors rather than officers.

Now that that one bad officer has been fired, how about tackling the hard job of fixing the schools?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Ironic Cherry Reads...

...Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers

Two decades after I graduated high school, I ran into one of our class's popular girls.  She was well-liked, a cheerleader, and academically successful.  In our short conversation, she commented on how horrible high school was.

Dave Barry has facetiously said that when an adult of any age commits suicide, it is because he can't get out of his mind some dumb thing he did when he was a teenager.

The young adult book, Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers, was one of the choices on the 9th grade honors summer reading list at West Ashley High School this year.  Thanks to a single parent's protest, it was removed.  I happened upon it at my branch library, where free copies were made available and displayed during Banned Books Week.

And I read it.

I was astonished at just how good the book was.  Yes, parties with drugs and drinking.  Sex, including attempted rape.  Smut, as this horrified West Ashley parent called it.

But that is not the point of the book.

Teenagers, trying to grow up, facing pressure from peers and teachers, and oh, clueless parents, all while trying to excel:  at academics, at sports, at popularity, at love.  Given the incredible mistakes adults make in their lives, it is no surprise that teens will make big mistakes.  And suffer for them.

I identified with this story on so many levels.  As a former high school psychologist.  As a parent.  And yes, friends, as a former high school student.  Because the conflict was there, the longings and the hurt, the striving and the feelings of failure.  All those hormones don't just go into the drive for sex, although they do indeed go there.  The passion for wanting to be a part of what is going on, while never really knowing what is going on, or what it is you really want, who can forget that?  How many people do you know that honestly enjoyed those school years?

And don't forget those clueless parents.  Parents who are proud or disappointed, who ask the wrong questions and hear what they want to hear.  Parents who have somehow blocked the pain of high school society from their memories and have no idea what their kids are going through.

Parents like this helicopter mom at West Ashley.  Who reads along with her daughter's summer reading assignment, but just can't handle the material.  Who can't deal with the discomfort of the bad things that do happen in high school.  Who was so blown away by scenes that reflect the reality of drugs and sex that she wasn't able to see the fear and pain that floats under the surface, under the facade of confidence, throughout every school day.

Who saw to it that if she couldn't handle it, no one else would get the opportunity.

I thought it was interesting that she took the book away from her daughter, got it banned from the school, but finished it herself.  Proclaiming about its indecency all the way through, while having her moment of fame and power.  Almost as though she were still there, in high school.

Of course, there is no excuse for the actions of the principal.  Except that is exactly what the principal at the fictional high school would have done.  We will have no controversy in our schools.  We will cover over the problems with a poor paint job, censorship, and detentions.  We will not defend our teachers' professional decisions, because we are afraid of creating a controversy.

Meanwhile, our students are dealing, every day, with tough decisions about conformity and rejection.

The banning of this book is exactly what the writing of this book illustrates.

The alternative would be letting teens know that they are not alone, that adults have been there and will be there for them.  Opening the discussion about how it feels to be afraid of making the wrong choice, of being rejected, is the way to give our teens real options.  Banning the discussion is the way we perpetuate the tyranny of high school.

And by the way, the educator that put this title on the summer reading list had intended that it would pave the way for the reading and discussing of books like Lord of the Flies, also banned in its day.

Some Girls Are is a quick read, and a page turner (I don't blame that West Ashley mom for not wanting to put it down), and the characters are intense.  In a very real sense, they are alone on an island, with the grown-ups far away and unreachable.  I urge you to give this book a try, and then pass it on to your teens.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Being Invisible

It was comical after Wednesday's Democratic debate, to watch MSNBC political hosts and pundits dance around the fact that Bernie Sanders has more supporters than Hillary.  They have mostly been ignoring his growing and extremely enthusiastic followers despite huge crowds and numbers -- and amounts -- of donations to his campaign.  They have been ignoring this despite the fact that he is accomplishing this without the celebrity and fortune of Donald Trump.

So when several focus groups agreed that after the debate they would support Bernie over Hillary, the media continued to report Hillary as "the winner" of the debate.  I heard a pundit rationalize that just because people in focus groups say they support someone it doesn't mean they will go out and vote for them.  Okay, I guess that could be said for all the brouhaha about Donald Trump as well as his sidekick, idiot savant Ben Carson.

But look who has noticed Bernie Sanders.  Donald Trump, the following day, called him a "maniac" that is forcing "poor Hillary" to the left -- "this socialist-slash-communist."  And, by the way, this maniac that is pushing Hillary around is just not the "tough, strong leader" that we need.

While we might not call Trump logical or rational, what he does have is a very sharp awareness of threat, and a subsequent instinct about how to attack and manipulate that threat.  Call it his cutthroat business sense, or maybe just his success at being a bully.  So when Trump takes notice and begins to attack Bernie Sanders, it is safe to assume that he recognizes the threat.

When is the media going to get it?  Time and again we have seen the media snowed by the loudest voice, the predominant story, the words of the powerful and/or the wealthy.  Take their focus on candidate Trump.  How many times did we watch segments wherein the media couldn't believe all the attention Donald Trump was getting from the media?  They have their story and by gods they are sticking by it, regardless of the facts.

The facts being that Bernie gets the largest crowds, the greatest number of donations, the most hits on Twitter, the loudest cheers of all the Democratic candidates.  That pundits were reporting Hillary as the winner of the debate after hearing the audience response (remember the old applause meter?) meant that they may have been hearing but they sure weren't listening.

Speaking of applause meters, back in 1980, I would watch Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  As the presidential election approached, each night he would ask the audience to clap if they were voting for Carter, and then if they were voting for Reagan.  The applause was always, always far louder for Reagan.  And Carson would look astonished and chuckle.

The media is doing that now for Donald Trump, and I am not finding it all that funny.  My own sense of self-preservation and denial kick in and I think, "Well, that doesn't mean they are going to get out and vote for him."  Yes, sadly, the idiots that can find their way to the town halls and the stadiums to cheer for his hate-filled nonsense can -- and will -- find their way to the polls.  But I am hoping that there is a lot more noise than substance, that those republicans who are embarrassed by Trump are many, and they are not seeking attention.  And that when a strong candidate presents on the other side, all those wackos will stay home and watch Trump and Fox News on TV.

On the other hand, we Democrats aren't comfortable welcoming success to our house.  I have talked with far too many who say they like Bernie but can't vote for him because he can't win.  And yet the enthusiasm among younger voters is very much like that for Barack Obama in 2008.  Are we really willing to reject a candidate we like, refuse to see the groundswell of support he is getting because it does not match our expectations?

When Obama won in 2008, with an increase in the majority of both House and Senate, Democrats were smug in their assumption that the republicans had been put down.  Oh we did laugh when John Boehner said "Hell, no you can't!" in his opposition to the health care bill.  And we were amazed at the gall when Mitch McConnell in the Senate said that the number one goal of the republican party should be to see that Obama did not get a second term.  Well, Obama did not back down on health care, although too many Democrats in Congress did, and the result was that Obama won his second term and became stronger, and the Democrats in Congress were left in the dust.  Not surprisingly the ones most likely to get dumped were the ones most afraid to stand tall as Democrats.

So here's the thing about Bernie.  I'm fine with him being ignored by the media, but he has shown himself to be quite capable of handling the inevitable attacks on his "socialism."  The people know he's out there, and a lot of us are behind him.  Hillary is a fine candidate and would make a fine president, but Bernie is that much better for not ever having to be tempted to be beholding to Wall Street and corporate donors.  He has made it farther than any of us, including himself, thought possible, so who are we to jump to conclusions about the likelihood of his success?

I am 100 percent for Bernie Sanders.  He has as much chance as anyone to win the nomination, and more so if those of us who are worried about whether he can make it stop worrying and vote for him.

If he does not win the nomination, I will throw my support behind Hillary with no reservations.  But until then, I believe that Bernie Sanders is our best possible candidate, and that he can win both the nomination and the election (my god, look who he would be running against!).  And, as Obama did in 2008, Bernie will help us get back a Democratic Congress.

Meanwhile, isn't it wild being the party of the people, fearless and moving forward?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Let the Banning Proceed!

When I moved to Charleston in 1999, I learned that my son's elementary school library was not ordering the Harry Potter books.  Not because the librarian thought they were bad, but because she feared parent complaints.  You know, Christians worried about making witches look like heroes, and the evil of magic.

Charleston County Public Library, then one of the best libraries I have ever encountered, happily filled the need.  In time, as more and more children absorbed the wonderful series, the Harry Potter controversy dissolved.  And the juvenile and young adult books the library has since made available to our children I believe continues to be among the best collection in the country.

More incredibly, just over a year ago, South Carolina lawmakers threatened to cut funding for the College of Charleston because the book Fun Home by Alison Bechdel had been on the freshman reading list.  The book deals with issues of gay identity in the context of family conflict.  It was horrifying to imagine that our legislators would attempt to censor college reading based on their homophobia.  But it happened.

Last week was Banned Books Week, and my branch at Johns Island had a wonderful display to remind us, once again, of the astonishing poor judgment that has caused communities over the years to ban some of our best books.  And to recognize once again, those amazing books.

On the bottom shelf of that display was a stack of books.  The accompanying sign welcomed patrons to take one.  Never one to resist that kind of bargain where books are concerned, I picked up a copy and flipped through it.  There was an insert from the author explaining why the book was being given away.  During the summer, a parent had complained to West Ashley High School's principal that this book was on the Honors required reading list (actually a choice between this and another) and was not appropriate and should be pulled off the reading list.

Instead of following the process in place in the school district, this principal decided to pull the book from the reading list.  Charleston County Public Library and others then agreed to distribute copies of this book so that any young adult that wishes can read it.

As a parent of two now adult former honors students, it horrifies me when any kind of information is blocked.  The purpose of education is not merely to provide facts, but to pose questions.  In my home any book could be read, any movie could be watched (which at times got uncomfortable), and both kids knew that we could talk about anything therein.  If our schools are not up to teaching honors students (or any student) critical thinking, we are failing them.  Parents who judge material unfit always have the option of not allowing their own child to participate, and I know that teachers and administrators are more than cooperative in this regard.  But to deny others access to material based on one's own comfort level is wrong and should under no circumstances be courted by school administrators.

The same blocking of information is now going on in the Charleston County School District regarding the new law that would require sexual education to be accurate and up-to-date.  Really???  There are people who work in education, serve on school boards and are raising children who do not want sex ed to be accurate?  Yes, and they are working hard to prevent that information from going out to any students in Charleston County.

But back to books.  The one that has been banned from West Ashley High School is by Courtney Summers and it is entitled What Goes Around and is actually two books in one.  The author has received awards and rave reviews for a number of young adult books.  Her writing is honest, the problems are complex, and if you are looking for pat, polite answers, you aren't going to find them here.  It is a wonderful opportunity for young adults to explore the complex and often very adult problems that exist in their world.

Again, it is chilling to imagine that one parent who does not want her teen reading about gritty, real-life problems can prevent all others in a school from having access to that material.

I am proud that Charleston County Library has stepped up to fill that void, and in so doing, make us all aware that important books continue to be banned in a country that was built on freedom of speech, openness to ideas, and the ability to engage in critical thinking rather than hide from unpleasant realities.

I also hope that parents made aware of this poor decision will speak up.  Charleston County School District has a process for reviewing parent complaints (as does the library).  The freedom to read and explore controversial topics is essential, and decisions to censor any book should never, ever be made lightly.

Thanks, Charleston County Library, for stepping up. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Other Nikki

Here are some words that I have never strung together, even during the Confederate flag business:  kudos Nikki Haley.

I just watched a news conference in which she described the catastrophic damage of the past few days and the steps that are being taken to get us up and running again.  She was pretty amazing (again, words I have never used to describe our governor -- unbelievable, yes, but amazing, never).  She covered all the important points, had a clear understanding of what the issues were, and a good sense of priority.  She had a plan that appeared pretty comprehensive.  She nailed problems from roads caving in to lack of drinking water.

It occurred to me that during this event, Nikki Haley was not being political.  Because of that, she was clear headed about what needed to be done.  She did not hesitate to ask for emergency relief from "the feds" as she calls them, and appreciative and gracious toward our president and first lady.  She was unconcerned about balancing the cost versus the worth of the people who needed help.  If a person needed help, it sounded like they would get help.

This may be illusion.  It may be just the first response.  It may be that as time goes on, certain people will be expected to get back on their feet sooner than others, and will get far less aid than they need.

But for right now, it felt like I could call 911 and get taken to a shelter, or a hospital, and no one would be looking to find out if I could afford a hotel or had health insurance.

Imagine if Nikki could govern like that when we were not in a state of emergency.  If she did not dole out food stamps as though her pocket was being picked or graciously accepted Medicaid dollars for the uninsured the way she is accepting emergency funds.

Here's another thing.  Nikki isn't talking about praying for help.  She is doing what needs to be done.  From road repairs to bottled water, she is not resorting to ideology to determine if the government should be spending that money.

If only she governed that way the rest of the time, what a fine place South Carolina might be.