First Person

This week's safe schools snippets

4 students’ phones seized in sexting investigation

PARKER – Accusations of the sharing of sexually explicit photos and text messages could lead to serious charges for some Chaparral High School students.

9Wants to Know has learned this is at least the second school sexting investigation in Douglas County in the last six months. Check out the 9NEWS report. 

Colorado lawmakers revisit post-Columbine school discipline rules

DENVER — School discipline policies adopted after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings are getting a second look Thursday in Colorado.

Lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at giving educators more discretion over expulsions and police referrals. The goal is to eliminate zero-tolerance policies that lawmakers say have led to mandatory expulsions for bringing a fake gun to school or getting into a minor scuffle. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Colorado Senate passes Safe2Tell school safety bill

DENVER, CO– The Colorado Senate on Tuesday voted unanimously to pass a bill that improves the way students can anonymously reach out to adults about dangerous, violent or criminal activities.

Senator Steve King’s Senate Bill 12-079, Concerning Revisions to the Safe2Tell Program Relating to Advances in Communications Technology, protects the confidentiality of information received through any method of transmission, including telephone call, email, web form, or texting. Read more from Yahoo Finance.

3 tips for parents to help their bullied kids

Kenton Raiford, who was bullied in middle school, now witnesses a lot of bullying in his senior year at Jesse Bethel High School in Vallejo, Calif. While bullies get physical sometimes, he says, “It’s more about mental and emotional attacks.”

Bullies at his school ridicule low-income students for wearing hand-me-downs, harass lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students for their orientations, and tell immigrant students to “go back to their country,” Raiford says. To curb these negative comments, Raiford is setting up a Stop Bullying Campaign in his high school for May. Read more from U.S. New and World Report.

Sage Canyon Elementary students promote anti-bullying with flash mob

More than 200 Sage Canyon Elementary School students used a creative and trendy method to promote their message of friendship and kindness.

The kindergartners through sixth-graders surprised players and spectators at halftime of the Feb. 7 Douglas County High School basketball game with a flash mob. Students danced for three-and-a-half minutes to “Firework” by Katy Perry, while students in the stands held up anti-bullying, tolerance and acceptance-themed signs. Read more from the Denver Post.

Officials: Bullying debate in Minn. brought change

(AP)  COON RAPIDS, Minn. — Leaders in Minnesota’s largest school district said the long debate over how teachers should handle discussions about sexual orientation probably had a bigger impact than a new policy will.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District replaced a policy requiring teachers to be neutral in discussions about sexual orientation with a new one requiring them to foster a respectful learning environment for all students. Read more from CBS News.

Bullying in 2012: Fighting fear with facts

You hear about it at the water cooler, read about it in the paper, and might have even experienced it in your own family. Concern over bullying is a growing trend that worries parents and educators alike, perhaps because today bullying happens not only at school but also anywhere that youth communicate online, even at home. But what do we do about it, and whose responsibility is it to protect children and teens? Read more from the Huffington Post.

Bullying and Suicide: The dangerous mistake we make

Tyler Clementi killed himself in 2010 after his roommate at Rutgers University filmed him kissing another man. Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl who moved to the U.S. from Ireland, killed herself the same year after being bullied by high school classmates in Massachusetts. Fifteen-year-old Amanda Cummings from Staten Island made headlines early this January when her family said that relentless bullying was to blame for her suicide.

Each of these tragedies mobilized a cultural army of anti-bullying advocates, celebrities, the media and policymakers who have said — or at least strongly implied — that bullying can lead to suicide. Read more from the Huffington Post.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.