Too Much? Student Arrested for Finger Gun

Depending on where you sit, this could be a case of wildly disproportional panic by school administrators or a reasonable move to protect student safety. From the cheap seats, I can’t help but think that this case called for a different solution.

Here’s what we know: Two eighth-graders were talking in class. One asked the other which of their classmates she would kill first. The student made a pretend gun and pretended to shoot four specific students, then pretended to shoot herself.

Disturbing, for sure. Here’s the question for this morning: What would you do about it if you were the teacher or principal?

In this case, the principal called the student to his office. The student was handcuffed and arrested. She was charged with a felony for making a criminal threat. As a youthful first offender, her maximum sentence if found guilty would be a period of probation.

Was arresting the student the right move? I hate to second-guess the people who actually know her and the situation, but it seems like this should have been handled differently. Why not have counseling for both the arrested student AND the other student who prompted her with the question about shooting classmates?

I don’t take this kind of threat lightly, but it seems as if dragging this student out of school in handcuffs, then eventually allowing her back in school with everyone knowing this story will only increase the chances that this student will act on her threat.

What do you think? What would you have done if you were the principal?

Gov’t Fights Anti-Christian Bias: Will Conservatives Celebrate?

Maybe you didn’t see this one, because no one seems to be talking about it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against a Pennsylvania company for bias against three Christian employees. On first blush, it seems like a story that culture-war conservatives would want to celebrate.

EEOC

Big Government fighting for persecuted Christians…

After all, this seems to be good news for conservative Christians. In this case, the EEOC alleges that three workers were insulted and treated badly. Their Pentecostal religion was demeaned as a “disgusting cult.” The suit points out that creation of a “hostile work environment and disparate treatment” due to the workers’ national origin and religion constitutes “unlawful practices.”

On its face, this diligent protection of conservative Christians might seem like good news for anxious religious conservatives. Very different types of conservative Christians have lamented the fact that mainstream society and government persecute traditional Christians.

From the crunchy side, for example, Rod Dreher warns,

the cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

And from the Kentucky creationism side, Ken Ham has insisted,

It’s not enough to just tell students, ‘Believe in Jesus!’ Faith that is not founded on fact will ultimately falter in the storm of secularism that our students face every day. . . . Our country has forsaken its Christian soul. We need to see that for what it is.

Rod Dreher and Ken Ham probably wouldn’t agree on much, but as Christian conservatives they agree that mainstream society has turned hopelessly anti-Christian. Yet I’m guessing they won’t take this story as good news. Why not?

First, it is simply bad strategy for them to notice. Like a lot of conservative cassandras, Dreher and Ham have both put all their chips on a persecution story. A more complicated version of that story won’t help them much.

If more thoughtful folks like Dreher DO comment on this story, they could explain it a couple of ways. First, they might claim that conservative religion was more of a free-rider in this case. The government was really interested in protecting these particular Christians because they were also insulted for their Puerto Rican heritage. Plus, intellectuals like Mr. Dreher might point out that this sort of legal protection is beside the point. Sure, the EEOC might fight against insults and harassment, but the EEOC will then turn around and persecute Christians who do not recognize LGBTQ rights. The actual beliefs of conservative Christians, Dreher might say, are nowhere protected.

So although these three plaintiffs might have the government on their side when they are mocked for being Puerto Rican Pentecostals, Mr. Dreher might retort, when they actually try to live their lives as demanded by their Christian faith, they become instead the target of the EEOC.

Or maybe conservative pundits just won’t say anything at all.

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

Kids: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

If you have kids in public schools these days, you are likely hearing about lockdown drills and run-hide-fight training. What are we supposed to think about them? On one hand, we all want our kids to be safe. On the other, watching six-year-olds cower and tremble about a threat that they will (statistically) likely never encounter seems kooky. In the Atlantic last week, Joe Pinsker asked historian Paula Fass for some context of scaring kids straight. Prof. Fass offered two good examples, but we can come up with a lot more. And that fact points us to a central, odd truth about the nature of American schooling.

Pinsker ran through some of the central dilemmas of lockdown training. In actual fact, students are extremely unlikely to experience a school shooting. Yet the training for them can be deeply upsetting. As Pinsker wrote,

These lockdowns can be scarring, causing some kids to cry and wet themselves. Others have written letters bidding their family goodbye or drafted wills that specify what to do with their belongings. . . . children are being trained to anticipate an outcome that is both terrifying and extremely unlikely to happen to them.

Pinsker wondered if there had been similar scare tactics employed in schools in the twentieth century. Paula Fass pointed out two big ones: duck-and-cover drills and kidnapping scares. Like school shootings, both threats were terrifying, but statistically speaking, both were also extremely unlikely.

Like me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably now thinking the obvious: We could extend this list of unlikely-but-scary scenarios forever. Schools have always sought to terrify students into feeling an exaggerated anxiety.

Consider just a few examples:

1.) Sex. If you’ve experienced any sex-education curriculum lately, you know that they rely on a fear of STIs and unplanned pregnancies to get their points across.

2.) Drugs. It wasn’t only in the 1930s that school leaders warned students of “Reefer Madness.”

3.) Health. You might not be old enough to remember polio, but for those who lived through it, children were told not to go swimming for fear of contracting the disease. In the 1980s, too, children were warned that they could catch HIV merely from being near a positive person.

It seems to me we need to reverse Pinsker’s question. He asked,

In postwar America, have kids ever been so afraid and so regularly prompted to imagine their own suffering?

But we need to ask instead: Has there ever been a time when students were NOT regularly shocked and scared? When students were NOT shown clips of dope-smoking creeps or atomic devastation in an attempt to scare them into proper behavior?

And the big question: Why have schools always felt a need for such scare tactics?

I’ve got a couple of ideas. First, I think school leaders and parents tend to see scare tactics as developmentally appropriate. Like drivers-ed crash videos, scare tactics are thought to be necessary to pierce the adolescent fog surrounding students’ brains, to make them understand the real dangers of certain things. Also, I think school administrators and politicians understand that exaggerated fears are politically required, even if they are not practically relevant. No school leader could survive an election if she told parents she was doing nothing to prevent a threat because the actual threat was so miniscule.

Is there more? Are there other reasons you can think of why schools have always hoped to terrify children about highly unlikely dangers?

Youth Gone Wild

It was a fluke, you might say. A rare event. You’d be right, but that won’t stop people from being terrified of packs of young people going on the rampage, as a group apparently did in my neighborhood this week. And, in fact, the history of schools has always been, in part, a history of adults trying to control the potential violent threat of youth going wild.

Here’s what we know: Here in sunny Binghamton, New York, a 76-year-old man was beaten into the hospital by a group of kids. Apparently, he said “hello” to them and they started a confrontation that escalated rapidly.  The group of four to seven children ages twelve to fifteen began shouting at the man, then punching, kicking, and biting him. The man ended up with bite wounds, cuts, and, according to his granddaughter, a neck injury.

On one hand, it’s a story that gets attention precisely because it’s so unusual. On the other hand, America’s fear of young people runs deep. And that fear has influenced America’s schools for centuries.

Consider comedian John Mulaney’s take. As Mulaney puts it,

Thirteen-year-olds are the meanest people in the world. They terrify me to this day.

For the founders of America’s public school systems, there was nothing funny about it.

As I’m discovering in the research for my new book, the dawn of the 1800s brought renewed fears of what wild children might do. Joseph Lancaster, founder of a new type of urban school for poor children, warned in 1807, left out of school, kids

will become the burden and pests of Society. . . .  It is in vain that laws are made for the punishment of crimes, or that good men attempt to stem the torrent of irreligion and vice, if the evil is not checked at its source; and the means of prevention, by the salutary discipline of early education, seasonably applied.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2019?

The kind of school Lancaster had in mind was all about teaching children to obey, obey, obey. Like students in today’s ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, Lancaster insisted that his students learn to behave in a submissive, docile way. As he put it in 1804,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Did it help? Back in 1804, when Lancaster promised to corral and control wild urban youth, did it work? Not really. Then and now, the promises of urban school reformers can’t keep up with the harsher realities of urban life.

I don’t think young people are really any more violent or explosive than adults, but for centuries Americans have been terrified of what might happen if more youth go wild. I can’t help but think that my 76-year-old neighbor will think twice before he says “hello” to any more kids on his block.

Long Island School of Doom

HT: SB

More proof: The suburbs are eating our children. It’s another terrible school-shooting story, this time from Long Island, New York. And this one has a twist that has me feeling distressed and mystified. What does this story tell us about the nature of American school and American childhood?

connetquot cache

What the cops found. Might they have found this is a thousand teenage bedrooms?

Here’s what we know. According to the local newspaper, three students at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, New York had plans to blow up their school. The kids were overheard making plans on the bus. When police searched their homes and lockers, they found a bunch of stuff, including

two laptops, three BB guns, a homemade ax and books about serial killers and forensics, along with “The Anarchist Cookbook,” which includes bomb-making instructions.

Now, I have to admit I am deeply biased. When I was a sulky suburban teen, I also owned a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook. I probably owned books about serial killers. If I could have I would have loved to own a BB gun. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I saw it as a kind of joke, nothing more.

The authorities in Bohemia weren’t predisposed to laugh it off. The kids were charged with felony conspiracy charges.

An alarming story, no? But here’s the kicker. This same high school has been the target of two more student attacks over the years. Back in 2010, two students attempted to buy guns and make bombs, presumably with a plan to destroy the school. One of the students, Christopher Franko, received a three-to-nine-year sentence.

Back in 2007, two students were arrested for planning a Columbine-style shooting spree at the very same school.

We’ve got to ask: What the hell is going on at Connetquot High School? These are students who have it all, relatively speaking. They are attending a nice school in a nice neighborhood with plenty of green grass and fresh air.

Yet instead of growing up healthy and happy, these Long Island teens keep wanting only to blow the whole thing sky high. What gives? Why do even privileged children of America—some of them, at least—feel such a deep and abiding violent resentment of the friendly school that Bohemia ‘shaped, made aware,/ Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam’?

I don’t think we can take bitter comfort that this teen violence is somehow restricted to Bohemia, New York. After all, the Connetquot shooters were merely copying generations of bomb-throwing schemes among privileged American youth.

So we have to ask the tougher version of the question: Is this town somehow merely the epitome of suburban teenage angst? Is there something rancid buried in the heart of the American suburban dream that is festering in the souls of its comfortable youth?

Gay Trump Card

Okay, folks, here’s another head-scratcher from the world of America’s educational culture wars. SAGLROILYBYGTH have probably already seen the latest expose of James Manning’s ATLAH school. So here’s the puzzle for this morning: In spite of long efforts on the Left to combat racism, is it really only on the fundamentalist Right that the war on racism has been won? Where white and black fundamentalists agree on the meanings of race and racism? I don’t know what to think.

manning atlah

Westboro, NYC.

First, a little background: If you haven’t seen the HuffPost expose, it’s worth your time. Pastor James Manning has attracted attention in the past for his fervent and ferocious anti-LBGTQ views. He made wild accusations that Starbucks was infusing lattes with semen. His church sign went into full Westboro mode at times, proclaiming “Jesus would stone homos” and “Obama is a Muslim. Muslims hate fags. They throw fags off buildings.”

Now Manning is facing accusations of abuse of his students and congregants. According to the HuffPost article, Manning locked a student in a dark basement, used sexually suggestive language with minors, and clamped down viciously on any murmur of dissent in his school and congregation.

The recent expose leaves lots of big questions unexamined. Most telling, the racial ideology/theology of Pastor Manning throws a monkey wrench into any simple culture-war divisions. For instance, according to HuffPost, his school uses both A Beka and Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) materials. ACE, at least, has been credibly outed as a congenitally racist and white supremacist outfit.

ACE MLK

What do white fundamentalist think about race and racism?

One might think that Manning simply didn’t care about the entrenched racist attitudes in the ACE materials because he was looking for fundamentalist schoolbooks and couldn’t find any that weren’t racist.

Maybe.

In other publications, though, Pastor Manning has insisted on some non-conventional racial attitudes. He furiously attacked President Obama. And in the clip below, he insists,

Not only am I not an African American, but I’m not a black man.

[Warning: Video below contains extremely offensive racial language.]

I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions, but I can’t help but wonder if Manning’s outside-the-box racial ideology makes him generally comfortable with the racial ideology of the Accelerated Christian Education materials. After all, fundamentalist curricular materials talk about more than just race.

When it comes to student learning and behavior, for example, Manning’s school touts its “memory/articulation/discipline” approach. It is a traditional approach that comports nicely with the classroom ideology of A Beka Book. As one of A Beka’s promoters promised, A Beka materials do more than just teach facts. At an A Beka school, one leader promised,

You learn the Bible.

You learn that God created.

You learn the worth of your soul.

You master the three R’s and other subjects.

You sit up straight and pay attention.

You learn that it is right not to cheat.

You learn to recite when called upon.

You learn honor and respect for your parents.
You learn respect for authority.

You learn that a man’s word is his bond.

You learn that a job worth doing is worth doing well.

You learn personal initiative.

You develop pride in America.

You learn that the free enterprise system is still the best system.

You learn that competition is healthy.

The goal of a school like this, according to A. A. “Buzz” Baker, is not only to teach a few fundamental religious truths. Rather, a good fundamentalist school will bundle those religious facts into a deeply conservative view of life and learning.

To this reader, Manning’s radically traditionalist, violently anti-LGBTQ school fits perfectly into this fundamentalist educational attitude. At first, we might think that the rest of the fundamentalist package—anti-gay, pro-discipline, pro-memorization, pro-Bible—allows African-American conservatives to overlook the racist component of fundamentalist textbooks.

I think the truth is more complicated than that. In the case of ATLAH schools, at least, the racial ideology/theology of white fundamentalism has leaped over the color line. In this one case, at least, both white and black fundamentalists embrace similar notions of race in these United States. I don’t think those notions are healthy, but like violent anti-LBGTQ rhetoric, they seem to have been taken to heart in some surprising quarters.

God, School, and Abuse

Try it. Ask someone what the government should do to restrict parents’ rights to send their kids to religious schools. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the same answer: Nuthin. But if you ask if the government has a duty to protect kids from horrific abuse, most people will say yes. And as this week’s news headlines confirm, that contrast leads to our endless confusion about the proper relationship between religious schools, parents, kids, and government.

turpins homeschool abusers

Whatever your religion, you don’t have a right to abuse your kids and call it “homeschooling.”

Exhibit A: The parents in the terrible Turpin case have been sentenced to life imprisonment. You may remember this horror-show case from last year. A family with a dozen kids was caught subjecting the kids to abuse—including starvation, sexual abuse, and neglect—under the guise of “homeschooling.”

Exhibit B: A New York judge has ruled that conservative religious schools do not have to comply with government orders. In this case, the city and state governments have been trying for a while to supervise the curriculum at some private Jewish schools. The accusation was that the religious schools had been teaching students only in Yiddish and Hebrew, neglecting their studies in English and science, and neglecting the education of girls as a whole.

Exhibit C: New York has also threatened to take away religious exemptions for measles vaccines. Lots of Orthodox Jewish families have abstained. Traditionally, they were given lots of wiggle room for religious claims. No longer.

Measles NYC orthodox

…but do parents have a right to teach only in Yiddish? …or to skip vaccines?

What does all of this tell us about the proper relationship between government, family, and private schools? Just this: The dividing line is not really about religion. Rather, it is about abuse. Parents and religious communities generally have lots of leeway when it comes to their kids’ educations.

If and when a kid is being abused, however, or hurt physically, the government tends to feel justified in stepping in. This is true when the harm is done only to the religious kids themselves—as in the case of the Turpins or the Jewish-school students—or to the wider public—as with the unvaccinated students.

The problem, of course, is that “abuse” is often in the eye of the beholder. What the Turpins did to their children was an obvious case. But, as Lawrence Krauss has accused, are ALL young-earth creationists guilty of abusing their kids by teaching them zombie science? Or, remembering the case of NFL legend Adrian Peterson, what about parents and schools who use corporal punishment?

No one knows. We don’t have a clear and universal definition of “abuse” that we can apply in every situation. For secular people like me, the idea of neglecting topics such as English and science seems abusive. It seems to harm the life chances of students. For people like me, too, it seems abusive to teach kids–for religious reasons–that only heterosexuality can be practiced morally.

But there’s the rub. I know that plenty of parents disagree. They want their kids to learn young-earth creationism because they love their kids. They want their kids to learn the (alleged) dangers of LGBTQ sexuality because they love their kids. Can that be abuse?

No one knows.

In the end, the reason it is so hard to build a convincing wall of separation between church, state, and school is not because of Jesus or Jehovah or Jefferson. Rather, it is because no one has a simple, universal definition of “abuse.”

Where Orthodox Meets Hippie

They don’t agree on much. But on this they do agree: MMR vaccines are not good for their kids. In my great home state of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups and rich hippies are uniting on this one issue (sort of). Why? As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, it’s not really about God or ethics or any of that stuff. It all comes down to Billy Joel.

Here’s what we know: In Rockland County, New York—just northwest of New York City—the government has taken drastic steps to ban unvaccinated children from all public places. A measles outbreak has led to this unusual measure. Traditionally, most states allowed parents pretty wide leeway in religious and moral exemptions to mandatory-vaccination laws. Today’s outbreak is forcing a re-think of those exemptions.

What does it have to do with Orthodox Judaism and hippie culture? In this case, a lot. The unvaccinated children are clustered in private schools, some of them Orthodox Jewish schools and others from a fancy-pants Waldorf school. In general, the cultural worlds of these two schools could not be further apart. In one thing, though, the parents agree, and this one thing is at the root of the measles problem.

From the Orthodox perspective, MMR vaccines have a complicated backstory. Some Orthodox leaders have counseled against vaccinations, but now leaders agree that vaccines are kosher. Parents, though, are still divided. As Forward described, many in the Orthodox community share

a feeling that their worldview is not in keeping with modern secular society, said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor who has authored several books about Orthodox Jews.

“It’s about a view that we have our ways and they have their ways,” he said.

When it comes to measles vaccines, many parents in the Orthodox community simply do not trust the experts, and it is that distrust that brings Orthodox and hippies together.

Just down the street from Rockland’s Orthodox schools, but culturally a million miles away, parents at Green Meadow Waldorf School have also attempted to keep their kids from receiving the MMR vaccine. The lesson about distrusting vaccines is the same, but practically every other aspect of these schools is different. Green Meadow, for example, promises that their school will

create a social, cultural, and learning environment that recognizes the child’s spiritual freedom and growth. . . . Rather than teaching to the test or adhering to Common Core standards, the Waldorf curriculum fosters independent, critical thinking and problem solving, develops ethics and morality, and promotes true joy in learning.

The progressive, child-centered world of Green Meadow may be totally different from that of Orthodox schools, but the parents share one fundamental beef. Just like skeptical Orthodox parents, anxious Waldorf parents share a virulent distrust of the medical establishment. They feel it so strongly they are willing to put their children’s health on the line. They probably wouldn’t agree on much else, but they might agree with Billy Joel that it’s always been a matter of trust.

Why Queen Betsy’s Rule about Religious Schools Is a Very Big Deal

If life gives you Lemons…change fifty years of SCOTUS precedent. That might be the new motto of Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos, as she pushes through a change in the relationship between private religious schools and public ones.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing, Washington DC, USA - 17 Jan 2017

…I’ll make Lemon-ade.

Now, I’ve been accused by very smart SAGLRROILYBYGTH of being hyperbolic when it comes to interpreting DeVos’s recent moves, so I’ll try to be careful in my hysteria here. Here’s what we know: This week DeVos introduced a change in enforcement of federal law regarding the interaction between public schools and private religious ones. It may sound like a snoozer, but it has enormous implications for those interactions. And those interactions, in turn, have huge implications for the presumed boundaries between religion and government in these United States.

Some facts in the case:

  • Queen Betsy’s proposed change would cease enforcement of a rule banning religious groups from providing secular services to students in private religious schools.
  • So, for example, if a student in a Catholic school needed speech therapy, the law requires the public school district to provide those services.
  • In the past, the district had to provide the services itself, or hire a non-religious contractor to do it.
  • Now, the public school district can hire a religious organization—not the private religious school itself—to provide those services.
  • The services are only supposed to be “secular, neutral and nonideological” in nature. In other words, things like speech therapy and literacy coaching, not religious instruction.

Clear as mud?

To understand why these changes are such a big deal, we need to revisit the SCOTUS ruling that has laid the foundation for the past half-century of policy regarding public aid to religious schools. One of the outcomes of that case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, was the famous “Lemon test.” This three-prong guideline helped Americans find the proper line when it came to public funding of religious education. Since 1970, when deciding if relations were too close between a religious school and the government, we could check these three guidelines:

  1. Does the statute have a “secular legislative purpose?”
  2. Is the “principal or primary effect . . . one that neither advances nor inhibits religion?”
  3. Does the rule “foster an excessive government entanglement with religion?”

In the original case, SCOTUS considered laws that helped pay the salaries of religious-school teachers. They found that those laws did indeed have a secular purpose—states wanted all children to get good educations. They punted on the second part—they didn’t rule on what the primary effect of the laws were. But the justices agreed that the laws violated the third rule. By putting government in charge of part of the school day of teachers at religious schools, the laws hopelessly entangled government with a religious institution.

To this reporter, it seems DeVos’s new rule would throw the Lemon Test out the window. Imagine the likely outcomes. A public school district would be able to hire a speech therapist (for example) who is employed by the Catholic Church, or by Focus on the Family, or by any other of a million religious organizations. The school district would not be able to pay for any type of religious instruction, but only the secular services provided.

In practice, the school district would have to monitor the goings-on in the speech-therapy sessions themselves. The “entanglement” of the public school district and the religious service provider would be beyond “excessive.”

Furthermore, if any religious service provider were able to capture the market for, say, speech therapy in religious schools, it would be able to earn a huge payday from the public tax coffers. I can’t see how that is anything other than a rule that “advances . . . religion.”

Is it a done deal? Not yet. As Americans United protested,

Betsy DeVos is neither the Supreme Court nor Congress. She does not get to unilaterally declare that a statute is unconstitutional, especially with a provision that is designed to protect church-state separation, a bedrock of our democracy.

An administrative decision not to enforce certain provisions of existing legislation is not at all permanent. Just ask Obama. If DeVos’s plan survives, however, it will reverse the past fifty years of church-state guidelines when it comes to private religious schools.