#Teamtate and The Merchant of Shelton

Why are our schools failing? It is a popular question these days and too often people point at the teachers. They too rarely look at school administrators and I think the whole #teamtate fiasco is a good illustration of where administrators are failing.

Let me start off by laying out the story, at least as I understand it. James Tate, a senior at Shelton High School came up with a great way of asking a girl to the prom. He posted giant cardboard letters on the school. At least as I am hearing the story from the school administration’s perspective, this involved trespassing on school property after dark. This was grounds for a one day suspension, and any student who has been suspended cannot participate in other school activities. The rules are very clear. James Tate cannot go to the prom.

The rules are there for a reason and should not be altered, the argument goes. Else, you may head down a slippery slope. Someone else might do something destructive and since the rules were bent once would argue they should be bent again. It all makes perfect sense in a black and white world with no room for shades of grey, let alone anything colorful.

It may be that we are moving towards such a world. It turns school administrators into automatons applying the rules, without any critical thinking. Yet isn’t critical thinking an important skill our schools are supposed to be teaching? Is critical thinking something taught by rote? Learn the rules. Apply them. Do not attempt to be creative.

No, if our schools are going to stop failing, they need to move away from this black and white thinking. They need to celebrate creativity.

So, perhaps the students at Shelton High School need to study The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps they could even stage an adaptation with Shelton High School Headmaster Beth Smith taking the role of Shylock, James Tate taking the role of Antonio, and Sonali Rodrigues playing the role of Portia.

Yes, Shylock Smith is entitled to take a pound of flesh from Antonio Tate.

but, in the cutting it, if she dost shed
One drop of Tate’s blood, her lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Connecticut, confiscate
Unto the state of Connecticut.

Already the Mayor of Shelton and the Governor of Connecticut have lined up on the side of Tate and if we read The Merchant of Venice further, we will see that perhaps Shylock Smith will need to be seeking mercy from Duke Dannell. Will someone find such a creative solution to this current mess to help Shelton and Connecticut recover from the damage that Shylock Smith is doing to the city and the state? Let us hope so. Let us hope that this can be a reminder to all of us about the importance of celebrating creativity, even if it requires rethinking and even bending rules sometimes.

2011 Amity Budget Referendum Results

Yesterday was the Annual Amity Budget Referendum. Only 471 people from Woodbridge turned out to vote out of a total of 1412 people across the school district. While this was a disappointing result, it was only 16 less people from Woodbridge than the year before, and only 26 less for all of the three towns.

The individual numbers weren’t really all that different in Woodbridge either. There was a slight movement against the budget in Woodbridge this year with 23 less people voting for the budget and 7 more people voting against it.

Bethany actually saw six more people vote in 2011 than they saw in 2010. Fifteen less people voted for the budget and twenty-one more people voted for it.

Orange saw the biggest changes. Overall they only had sixteen less people voting. However, because of the increase in the number of students from Orange at Amity, they will be hit harder than the other towns in terms of the budget. This resulted in 95 less people voting for the budget and and 79 more people voting against the budget.

As people hung around the Center in Woodbridge waiting for the polls to close some suggested that the issue in Orange is a belief that they could build their way out of a financial problem. The problem with building more houses is that more people live in the houses and it costs more to provide services to these people, such as the cost of educating the children in these new houses.

Another interesting tidbit came up. I did not know that you did not have to be registered to vote in the budget. Besides registered voters, U.S. Citizens who are listed on the property tax rolls as having at least $1000 worth of property in town can vote. One person showed up in Woodbridge who was not registered, was a property holder, but it turns out was not a U.S. citizen and because of this didn’t end up getting to vote.

With that, here are the results for last year and this year:

2010 Results

Town Yes No Total
234 113
400 204
369 118
1003 435

2011 Results

Town Yes No Total
Bethany 219 134 353
Orange 305 283 588
Woodbridge 346 125 471
Total 870 542 1412

(Cross posted at the Woodbridge Citizen.)

A Middletown Romeo and Hester

When I first heard about the unresolved bullying in Middletown, CT, a couple thoughts came to mind. One was about what literature I would recommend to students dealing with bullying. There are a couple obvious choices, a few less obvious, and many more that I probably should have thought of but haven’t.

Heading off the list is Lord of the Flies. It is pretty obvious and I would be remiss not to include a quote from that great book.

Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy

Another book that came to my mind was The Scarlet Letter. The reason it came to mind is perhaps less obvious. I have a tendency to look at things from a systems sort of viewpoint. I suspect that bullying is rarely simply a few kids being mean to a few other kids. Instead, I suspect that it often reflects something else going on in the culture, some hidden sin.

Is there something like this taking place in Middletown? Is it playing itself out, not only in the battles with the Board of Education to get Monique a proper and safe education, but also in other aspects of Middletown, with concerns misappropriation of funds, battles between the Mayor’s office and the Board of Education, conflicts over the chief of police, and perhaps other unnamed battles?

Then, last week, there was a fatal shooting. Some have suggested that it has to do with other unresolved issues of bullying in the schools and perhaps in the town.

When I read about this, my mind went to another story people struggling with bullying should consider, Romeo and Juliet.

In the final scene, the Prince proclaims:

And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd.

I fear that until those in power stop winking at the discords in town, there will be more sadness to come.

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:

Special Education and Bullying

It has always been a tenet of American Education that students deserve a safe and appropriate educational environment, independent of any special needs that a student might have and there are various rules in place to protect this right. Yet sometimes these rules have to be used in new and creative ways to assure that a student gets the educational opportunity they deserve.

The first creative use of these rules was when a woman I knew who had a child with severe peanut allergies tried to get the school to make accommodations. The school balked and stonewalled until the woman brought in a disabilities act lawyer and the school came to understand that it would be much easier to comply than to fight. The school made some simple changes to its policies and the child managed to get an appropriate and safe education.

I’m now told that a similar legal maneuver might be taking place in a notorious bullying case here in Connecticut. In this case, the school district may be seeking to have the bullied student placed in special education. On the surface, this sounds offensive, especially from a school district that claims to have a zero tolerance for bullying. Requiring a safe classroom, free from bullying, shouldn’t be considered a special need. It is a need of all students. Suggesting that it is a special need seems to be an admission that the school is failing in its basic responsibilities to provide a safe, bullying-free environment.

On the other hand, it might also be an attempt to save face. By claiming that the student has a special need for a safe bullying-free environment, the administrators may be trying to assert that their environment is, in their minds, and perhaps even for most of the students, safe and bullying-free, while for the student in question, it is not.

Whether this is an admission of failure or an attempt to save face, there is a bigger issue, will the student get the education she needs and deserves? Given the actions of the school up to now, it would be easy to imagine that attempting to put the child in a special education setting might be seen as punishment. It may in fact be the case, if the school is saying that there are other special needs, beside protection from bullying. Yet one of the goals of special education these days is to ‘mainstream’ special needs students. This means having the students involved in as close to normal an education setting as possible.

If the school district can accomplish this, what they will essentially be doing is placing the student in a school where bullying is not an issue and where the same educational opportunities exist. It seems like that has been the goal of the family of the bullied student all along. If that is what the school district is seeking to do, then my thought is let them try to save face that way. Each one of us will decide whether we believe that the need to be in a bully-free environment is a special situation for the student or an admission of failure by the school district.

If, on the other hand, there is any whiff of a punitive approach where the student is not getting the same educational opportunities, then it would seem that the school district is acting in a foolhardy manner that will just end up increasing their legal fees and liabilities.

Marley and Monique

Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week for many Christians. It is a time of remembering the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, followed by his betrayal and even his closest friends turning their backs on him, before he was crucified and rose again. It provides a framework for my thoughts about two messages I recently received.

R.I.P., Marley Francis Jones........You will be missed.
With all our love,
The Red House Gang (your second family)

I only met Marley a couple times, at my Uncle’s funeral and at my Aunt’s funeral. He was a dedicated Franciscan and was always incredibly kind.

The message went on to say,

Marley was always there to help us through our sad times as well as the happy ones. He will be greatly missed by all of his friends

Always there to help... I guess it is something we all look for. We all have difficult times. We all have joyous times, and through all of it, we all need people to be there to help us.

The second email was from a person that has had difficulty finding someone to be with her and her family during a difficult time. It was from Alexa McClain, the grandmother of Monique McClain. Monique had been so badly bullied in a Middletown, CT school, that her family pulled her out and has been battling with the school district to get them to properly enforce their zero tolerance of bullying policy and to provide a safe learning environment.

Unfortunately, those whose job it is to make sure that children are provided a safe learning environment seem to be making the problem worse.

Fortunately, the North End Action Team eventually found a Wesleyan student to tutor Monique, but even with that, the school district’s stonewalling continues to threaten Monique’s education.

I just wish Marley was around for Monique. Perhaps, he, together with St. Francis, and others will pray for Monique. Perhaps her struggles with being bullied and having almost no one around to stand up for her will be transformed in to a joyful new life where she is valued the way Marley was valued. May she will be valued the way St. Francis and Jesus valued all those that people in power have overlooked or turned their backs on.

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