High school in a war zone

President Obama condemned the wave of violence in Chicago in a speech at Hyde Park Career Academy. He said “the solution is not only more gun laws, but community intervention and economic opportunity in impoverished neighborhoods.” A few hours later, the sister of a student sitting behind Obama on the stage, was shot and killed in a North Chicago alley. Janay Mcfarlane, 18, had attended Hyde Park.

Last school year, 29 current and recent students at Chicago’s Harper High were shot; eight died. This American Life looks at the violence that surrounds the high school. More than 15 gangs operate in Harper’s attendance area, reports Linda Lutton. “Boys are nearly always assigned a gang affiliation, whether they want it or not, based on where they live,” says Lutton. Many gangs don’t sell drugs. They shoot each other over “girls, ‘he said-she said’ stuff, money owed, a fistfight.”

In one story, staff and students learn at a Homecoming pep rally that a recent student was just shot a few blocks away. Principal Leonetta Sanders struggles to decide if she’s going to hold two events – the football game and the dance – while everyone’s worried about retaliation.

When a boy is tall enough — he has “hard legs” — he’s a target says a gang member in the second episode.

Harper High’s “After Action Review” team — the principal, social workers, the football coach and others — tries to contain the damage after each incident, reports Slate. Chicago school officials picked up the AAR idea on a visit to Fort Leavenworth to study military training.

5-year-old suspended for bubble shooting ‘threat’

5-year-old kindergarten girl was suspended for “terroristic threats” for saying she’d shoot a friend and herself with a pink Hello Kitty bubble gun. The Pennsylvania girl, who didn’t bring the bubble shooter to school, made the comment while waiting for the school bus. She was questioned for three hours by school officials without her mother’s knowledge.

After a psychologist confirmed she isn’t a would-be terrorist, the 10-day suspension was reduced to two days for “a threat to harm others.” The Hello Kitty “gun” shoots soap bubbles, so potentially she could have gotten her friend wet.

Student suspended for Sandy Hook poem

A San Francisco high school senior was suspended — and could be expelled — for writing a poem about the Sandy Hook massacre. “I know why he pulled the trigger,” wrote Courtni Webb, 17, in a notebook. She thinks gunman Adam Lanza felt isolated and unloved.

Webb goes to the Life Learning Academy, a small charter school for “troubled” students, including those with arrest records. It has a “zero tolerance” policy against violence, which school administrators say the poem violated. A letter to Courtni’s mother said the poem “contained deeply concerning, and threatening language.”

Here’s part of the poem:

They wanna hold me back
I run but still they still attack
My innocence, I won’t get back
I used to smile
They took my kindness for weakness
The silence the world will never get
I understand the killing in Conecticut
I know why he pulled the trigger
The government is a shame
Society never wants to take the blame
Society puts these thoughts in our head
Misery loves company
If I can’t be loved no one can

Writing about violence isn’t the same as wanting to commit violence, says Courtni.

The poem doesn’t read like a threat to me.

 

Poverty rises, but kids are doing OK

Child poverty is up — but so is “child well-being” — according to the Foundation for Child Development. Child well-being is up more than 5 percent since 2001 in the index, which evaluates 28 factors.

Families are struggling to pay the bills with “falling median income and less secure parental employment, all shown to be associated with higher chronic stress on children and families,” notes Education Week.

From 2001 to 2011, the percentage of children living in families below the poverty line has increased from 15.6 percent to 21.4 percent; a third of this increase in child poverty occurred between 2001 and 2007—before the most recent recession.

But other things improved.

. . . Last week’s horrific school shootings in Connecticut notwithstanding, children as either the victims or perpetrators of violent crime has fallen more than 60 percent from 2001 to 2011. Likewise, the index shows children are less likely to do drugs or become parents as teenagers. They are more engaged in their communities and have slightly better educational attainment, though growth in preschool enrollment has stalled since the recession.

“Parents got a lot more active in the lives of their children,” says Kenneth C. Land, a Duke sociology professor who was the lead researchers. It’s not just affluent “helicopter parents,” Land says. “Even parents of more down economic status are monitoring their children more and being more involved.”

Autism and violence

Adam Lanza had Asperger’s Syndrome and a personality disorder, his brother reportedly said. Can autism explain the Sandy Hook tragedy? asks Amy S. F. Lutz in Slate Magazine. Overall, people with autism are less likely to commit crimes than “neurotypicals.” Very few plan and execute an attack, as Lanza did.

However, some erupt in short episodes of violence: “Studies have found that up to a staggering 30 percent suffer from aggressive and/or self-injurious behaviors of varying degrees.”

As president of EASI Foundation: Ending Aggression and Self-Injury in the Developmentally Disabled, Lutz helps “many families struggling to manage their autistic children’s dangerous behaviors.”

Autism alone doesn’t lead to violence, writes Lutz. The problem is autism plus a psychiatric disorder.

One 2008 study by scientists at King’s College London found that 70 percent of their young autistic subjects had at least one co-morbid disorder, such as childhood anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, oppositional defiant and conduct disorder, or ADHD. Forty-one percent had two or more co-morbid disorders. . . . A 2008 review by Stewart S. Newman and Mohammad Ghaziuddin reported that “an overwhelming number of violent cases had co-existing psychiatric disorders at the time of committing the offence”—84 percent, to be precise. And Newman and Ghaziuddin couldn’t rule out personality disorders, such as anti-social personality disorder, in the remaining subjects.

School shooters “are almost always mentally or emotionally ill,” said Katherine S. Newman, author of the 2004 book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings in a CNN editorial.

. . . those of us who care for a person on the autism spectrum . . .  need to watch for those secondary psychiatric disorders our loved ones are vulnerable to. Often, parents and clinicians assume that patients are anxious or depressed or manic or aggressive because of their autism, when in fact those symptoms may have a different etiology. . . .  it was only once my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated accordingly that the frequent, unpredictable, and intense rages that characterized his childhood finally subsided.

 People with Asperger’s Syndrome and their parents are very worried about being seen as cold-blooded killers. On I Speak of Dreams, Liz Ditz rounds up reactions from people with autism, parents and others.

It’s a bit off topic, but everything you thought you knew about autism is wrong, writes Bookworm in a review of Ido in Autismland, a collection of essays by a 16-year-old boy who doesn’t speak but learned to communicate with a letter board. Ido Kedar also blogs.

Union blocks bill on firing ‘predator’ teachers

Awaiting trial for sexual abusing fifth-grade students, a Los Angeles teacher was paid $40,000 to take early retirement. A bill to make it easier and faster to fire teachers for crimes involving sex, drugs or violence stalled after the teachers’ union came out against it. Assembly Democrats receiving heavy teachers’ union contributions abstained in a committee vote, the equivalent of  ”no” without the accountability, reports Anderson Cooper.

Here’s the Los Angeles Times on teachers’ union clout in California.

A teacher reviews her performance review

An English and journalism teacher for six years, Coleen Bondy ranked as low average in her effect on students’ test scores this year. The value-added scores — based only on her least-motivated students — are “practically useless in evaluating teacher performance,” she writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

It’s hard for those who finished high school 20 or 30 years ago, as I did, to fathom the conditions in a typical L.A. Unified high school classroom these days. Classes are huge. Students face overwhelming family and social issues. Drugs are rampant. Students are incredibly disrespectful, testing authority constantly at the beginning of the year. Teachers must be able to get a strong grip on their classes all by themselves because consequences for bad behavior in class are often nonexistent outside it.

. . . Today’s teacher must be highly skilled in her subject matter just to make it into the classroom, more so than at any other time in the history of education. She also must play the role of parent, custodian, psychologist, drug and alcohol interventionist and parole officer, to name a few.

“Society has decided to blame many of its failings on teachers,” Bondy writes.

If teachers can’t be evaluated fairly based on their students’ progress (compared to their previous progress’ rates) and they can’t be evaluated based on classroom observations, how can they be evaluated?

Idiocy implodes

After threatening a professor with disorderly conduct charges for Firefly and anti-fascism posters on his office door, administrators at the University of Wisconsin at Stout have backed down, reports FIRE.  Free speech is an important value, said the administrators in an e-mail.

It is important to note that the posters were not removed to censor the  professor in question. Rather, they were removed out of legitimate  concern for the violent messages contained in each poster and the belief  that the posters ran counter to our primary mission to provide a campus  that is welcoming, safe and secure.

In retrospect, however, it is clear that the removal of the posters -  although done with the best intent – did have the effect of casting  doubt on UW-Stout’s dedication to the principles embodied in the First  Amendment, especially the ability to express oneself freely.

UW-Stout will let Professor James Miller display his posters and will review procedures for “handling these  kinds of cases.”

Among those protesting the decision was actor Adam Baldwin, one of the stars of Firefly, who’d asked Miller if he knew of other  “violent” posters on campus. UW-Stout tolerated numerous ”Kill the Bill” posters — a take-off on the movie Kill Bill – as part of a campus-wide protest held in February against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill.

Warning: Idiocy at UW-Stout

A professor’s posters that call for fighting fair and warn of fascism aren’t protected by free-speech rights, claims the chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Stout (UWS).

James Miller, a theater professor, started with a poster featuring a line from the TV series Firefly. The sci-fi space pilot played by Nathan Fillion says: “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.” 

A literate person would read the message: I fight fair.

Campus police removed the poster because it “refer[s] to killing” and “can be interpreted as a threat,”  reports Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). When Miller asked for respect for his First Amendment rights, the police chief responded: “If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct.”

Miller put up a “Warning: Fascism” poster. “Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.”

A literate person would read the message: Fascism is bad because it leads to violence, which is bad.

Campus police removed it because it “depicts violence and mentions violence and death” and could “be constituted as a threat,” according to the university’s “threat assessment team.”

Despite FIRE’s publicity campaign, which lead to a wave of ridicule, Chancellor Charles Sorensen, Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes defended censorship in an e-mail to faculty and staff, claiming the posters “constituted an implied threat of violence.”

This was not an act of censorship.  This was an act of sensitivity to and care for our shared community, and was intended to maintain a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure.

Everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure except for people who like to express their opinions.

The university administration’s idiocy boggles the mind.

Violence, sex and 'dark' lit

School reading lists are full of violence, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a California law barring the sale of violent video games to minors on free-speech grounds. It starts with violent fairy tales, Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.

Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. In The Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. … And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island.”

I wonder how many high school students read Homer or Dante.  Still Lord of the Flies is still big on high school reading lists (no sex) and some complain that teachers are assigning or allowing students to read “dark” novels.

Much of young-adult literature invites teenagers to wallow in ugliness, barbarity, dysfunction and cruelty, writes Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, defending an earlier commentary.

It is true that so-called problem novels may be helpful to children in anguished circumstances. The larger question is whether books about rape, incest, eating disorders and “cutting” (self-mutilation) help to normalize such behaviors for the vast majority of children who are merely living through the routine ordeals of adolescence.

Siobhan Curious, who teaches 17- and 18-year-olds worried about going too dark in choosing a book list for a class on personal narrative.

When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.

Almost every girl and about half the boys put Lucky on their list.

. . . many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

Adolescence is a dark time for some kids, counters Linda Holmes on NPR blog. She “took an entire class in high school where we read books about killing your family, double suicide, drowning, being murdered in your bed … it was called ‘Shakespeare,’ I believe.”

I was troubled by the murder of MacDuff’s family in Macbeth, the tortures of sinners in The Inferno. And poor Piggy.