Thursday, October 16, 2008

Witness the anger and bitterness

Here are two letters that appeared in response to my recent opinion piece in the Rochester Eccentric that called for a community dialogue on student behavior as it relates to drugs, alcohol, fighting, and theft.

Rochester Eccentric: Letters (10/16/08)

To put these letters in context and perspective, I’d encourage you to read my article again first (found by clicking here), and then read the letters.

I've spotlighted these letters because they demonstrate the bitter, reflexively defensive tone that too often obstructs civil dialogue on the thornier issues facing our schools.

I've inserted comments in the middle of their letters to illustrate how they’ve twisted things.

Keep in mind that the primary focus of my article was to call attention to the difficult, yet important issue of student safety and behavior regarding drugs, alcohol, and theft. The only thing I encouraged was a wider community dialogue. Yet for some unknown reason these parents seem to be fixated on discouraging video surveillance.

So, as you read these letters, ask yourself what sort of message are these parents trying to send to me by responding so angrily to my opinion piece? Are they saying that school safety and student behavior is fine, and doesn’t require any attention? Or are they saying, “Don’t mention this in public?”

==> Mike.

P.S. For the record, Ms. Thomasson was one of the speakers at the September 22 board meeting that is discussed in my opinion piece and the letters below.


The real disconnect

In Mr. Reno's quest to install video surveillance in the Rochester Community Schools, [What quest is that? I think VS would be worthwhile, but I never once mentioned it my article.] he has misrepresented the facts and disrespected the school community. Data does not support his claim that video surveillance is needed in our schools. [What data? What claim?]

While Mr. Reno claims that there is a disconnect between the school community and reality, the disconnect is between Mr. Reno and the school community. He shows his disconnect when he refers to the building security strategy as merely pep assemblies promoting safety. [Exactly what strategy does Ms. Johnson believe is in place?]

Since Mr. Reno is totally lost when it comes to understanding our school community and how it works, I suggest he stick to his responsibilities as board member. [I believe safety is indeed a board responsibility.]

Melanie Johnson
Rochester Hills

Reno is wrong

I am writing in response to Mr. Reno's opinion piece in (the Oct. 5) Eccentric titled "Focus on facts in school safety debate."

In yet another effort to advocate for video surveillance, [Read my article… I advocated for a “reality check”, not video surveillance.] it is unfortunate that Mr. Reno failed to mention any of the other important items that are included on the list of more than $5 million of high-priority, unfunded items for the coming school year, including curriculum and technology updates and required maintenance of Rochester Community Schools' facilities. [Entirely unrelated to my opinion piece. It’s a completely different discussion, which I’ll explore soon.]

In his opinion piece, Mr. Reno belittled school culture-changing initiatives such as Challenge Day [False: I participated in one of these events, and clearly see benefit in them.] and presentations by nationally known diversity speaker Michael Fowlin [The board has never been invited to a school to hear him. Would love to go.] , by calling them "pep assemblies promoting safety." Well, he is wrong. [Never belittled them… in fact I mentioned they were a key component. What I clearly said was that they should not be the ONLY component.]

These programs are part of a district-wide strategy focused on prevention. [Exactly what strategy is that?] We do have pep assemblies at Rochester High School and they are awesome, but they are all about and only about school spirit!

But, speaking of school spirit, Mr. Reno dismissed public comments made at the Sept. 22, 2008, Board of Education meeting by Rochester High School parents and students, as merely "an admirable showing of school spirit." Either he wasn't listening or he didn't understand the comments that were made.

In response to remarks made by a police liaison officer at the Sept. 8 board meeting, that made every day seem like "Fright Night" at Rochester High, more than 30 students and about a dozen parents came out to tell the Board of Education and the public that Rochester High School is a safe place to go to school. [Nobody said it is not safe.]

No one said that there aren't problems. [Not true… several students said there were no problems. And more significantly, board members said that as high school parents they do not see these “situations”.] But as a diverse community of nearly 1,800 students, it is very similar to other high schools in our area, particularly when it comes to school safety issues. [The Deputies and I both said the very same thing.]

Mr. Reno is now asking for an exploration of safety and security facts, saying that our Rochester public schools are out of touch with reality. That is not the case. In fact, we have had frank discussions about safety and security concerns. [Who exactly is “we”? These discussions have not happened at the school board level, which was my entire point.] A parent and community forum sponsored by the Rochester PTA Council called Rochester Unplugged addressed many of these issues. It included a panel discussion with members of law enforcement, our judicial community and the media. [Why is it OK for the PTA Council to have a discussion, but not a Rochester board member?] The District Student and Staff Safety and Security Committee, of which I was a member, did discuss and take into consideration school safety facts before making safety and security recommendations to the Board of Education in 2007. [That is incredibly misleading. The superintendent has clearly said that the purpose of that committee was to consider how to protect students against aggressive attacks on the building, and specifically did not address student behavior issues like drugs, alcohol, or theft in any way whatsoever.] But those recommendations were made by the committee without regard to budget constraints.

Given current budget constraints on our general fund and a limited fund balance, the Board of Education will need to make some difficult choices in the coming months. Mr. Reno believes the board could choose to do them all, meaning fund all of the $5 million of high-priority unfunded items in the next school year, including more than $1 million in video surveillance equipment. [That is completely wrong in several ways. I don’t agree that the list is complete, nor do I believe the district needs to do the complete video recommendation. Ms. Thomasson is simply making this up.]

I personally do not believe it would be fiscally responsible to fund them all by spending down our fund balance in such uncertain times. The Board of Education must prioritize these items and I believe the items that directly impact student learning should be at the top of the list.

Sue Thomasson
Rochester Hills


Friday, October 10, 2008

School safety and student behavior is a complicated issue, so let's ignore it.

Are there safety issues at your school? Are your children tempted at school with drugs or alcohol? What is being done to combat these realities? These sure seem to be reasonable questions for parents to ask.

For school boards, they're not only reasonable questions, but they're prudent questions that should be routinely asked.

An interesting exercise for any parent might be to send their school board an email and ask them when they last held a meaningful discussion on the matter. What was the date of the meeting? What statistics and data sources were reviewed? What is the strategic plan for safety, and what is used to measure success and progress?

While some might certainly be on top of it, I suspect that most give this important subject a casual glance at best. They might direct you to the state report they file, which is largely useless and innacurate.

Some boards fail to ask at all.

And some boards go as far as to resist and obstruct efforts to learn more.

This clearly seems to be nothing short of gross negligence.

School safety is a complicated topic, and one that I think does not get enough attention.

While statistically most children are very safe from physical harm at schools, keeping them that way requires diligent effort. And physical security is only part of the issue; schools must also help to protect against drugs, theft, and other misconduct which is not only illegal, but is also a learning distraction.

Rochester has been superficially discussing school safety for several years – several long years – after grappling with threats of a “Columbine-style” attack were scrawled on a bathroom wall.

Trying to secure the buildings is an issue, with modern technology such as video cameras and card-swipe locks. But it’s more than that… it’s also about helping to change the culture in schools. These are all important and essential elements in what should be a comprehensive and integrated security plan.

It’s not unlike what we face in American society today.

Oddly enough, the biggest challenge has NOT been trying to debate action plans.

Instead, it’s been on ongoing battle to simply assess the situation in district buildings.

Finally, building administrators and police liaison officers – the “boots on the ground” in high schools – were allowed to share their first hand perspectives, only to have their comments twisted and character attacked.

It was shocking to see the steadfast refusal by some to even consider that high schools have issues with drugs, alcohol, fights, and theft.

From my perspective, cameras and locks have taken a backseat to the larger problem of education. Not of educating the students… but of educating the adults.

I wrote about this issue in this opinion piece:

Rochester Eccentric: Focus on facts in school safety debate (10/05/08)

What remains unclear to me is whether this is a head-in-the-sand issue, or whether this is a don’t-publicly-tarnish-our-image issue. In any case, it's hardly a responsible approach.

(As an interesting side note, there is new federal legislation -- HR2352 -- that just passed the house which is designed to aid the effort of responsible school boards to enhance safety in schools. Ironically, it made it's way to the Senate on September 22, 2008, the same day that the Rochester board seemed to bury it's efforts to enhance safety.)

I’ve pasted below the full text of my op-ed in case the link doesn’t work


Focus on facts in school safety debate

A few short years ago threats of violence against a Rochester school interrupted learning, distracted administrators, and cost taxpayers plenty in police overtime.

In response, the district convened a school safety committee, which recommended various measures, including security technology. The board considered - and even budgeted for - some security items, only to rescind the funding last month.

Basically the board's come full circle since the 2005 threats, and its primary building security strategy now consists of pep assemblies promoting safety.

While the lack of a comprehensive safety-security plan and no planned investment in security technology is a worry, perhaps the greater concern is how the board approached this complex issue, almost looking for reasons to deny that high schools face difficult challenges.

To better understand the need for security technology, I requested that the Oakland County Sheriff's School Liaison program - whose deputies work in district buildings - be permitted to share their professional perspectives with the board.

At the Sept. 8 board meeting the deputies - flanked by building principals - carefully explained that fights occasionally occur in high school; fights that have even spread into the greater community after school. In an upscale community like Rochester, it came as no surprise that kids bring expensive Coach purses, iPods, and cell phones to school, and they get stolen. Vandalism can be expensive. And while some adults prefer not to discuss the presence of drugs and alcohol in schools, they are indeed present.

With these experiences as a backdrop, the board then heard how security technology could help their efforts.

There was no suggestion that the district is facing any sort of "crisis."

On the contrary, great care was taken to emphasize that Rochester has safe schools, a great student population, and a hard-working supportive staff. One officer stressed, "I spend 90 percent of my time with 10% of the students who cause 90% of the problems."

Their comments simply reinforced the undeniable reality that some high school teens occasionally make poor choices.

I later obtained the Sheriff's crime statistics, and the superintendent shared the district's disciplinary action statistics. This data confirms that high schools in Rochester - like schools everywhere - must contend with student misconduct and crime. Certainly not in epidemic proportions, but enough to warrant diligent attention.

Furthermore, information from Rochester Area Youth Assistance (RAYA) confirms our community does indeed face challenges with teenage drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, a few years ago the group received a federal grant to help their efforts because Rochester's teen substance abuse is above average.
After hearing deputy input, and reviewing the statistics, I'm reassured and proud of the law enforcement team that serves our schools. Our city governments - and the taxpayers - deserve a sincere "Thanks!" for supporting the Police Liaison program.

But then the Sept. 22 board meeting saw an obviously organized effort to refute the deputies. A few speakers implied the deputies' comments about crime in schools were a matter of opinion rather than fact.

The rebuttals defended the honor of a school, as if the public admission of crime was somehow an "insult." The showing of school spirit was admirable, but counterproductive because it left the impression that Rochester schools are problem-free, with no safety and security needs.

This disconnect from reality is a huge concern.

After hearing this, I suggested a community forum to discuss school safety and security. I proposed inviting the public, law enforcement, RAYA, and our distinguished district court judges, who collectively represent a broad cross-section of insights on the magnitude of these issues, and how they impact our community. The forum would dispassionately focus on facts, and ultimately create a community-based plan to better serve our children.

I thought this idea would be well received by board members, particularly those who had initially expressed concerns after hearing the deputies.

However, I was rebuffed with a clear reminder that other board members have high school-aged children, while I do not, and they "just haven't experienced" these "situations" in Rochester schools. Apparently anecdotal information trumps data from the professionals.

Such arbitrary and preposterous reasoning succinctly illustrates this board's all-too-common approach to discussion, debate, and problem-solving.

The fact that some board members' children aren't exposed to drugs, fights or theft is a wonderful testament to the hard work of district staff and law enforcement professionals. But statistics suggest other Rochester children face different realities, and the board has a responsibility to reach decisions based on the needs of all children.

Safety and security challenges are hardly limited to Rochester. For example, Royal Oak's superintendent, recognizing the impact drug use has on high school learning environments, has proposed confidential random drug testing, with results forwarded directly to parents. William Beaumont Hospital - a wonderful corporate citizen - acknowledges the magnitude of the problem and has offered to help them.

Public discussion of these serious issues creates the perfect opportunity to engage parents, and encourage them to become part of the solution. Pretending they don't exist, downplaying them, or attempting to bury them with public relations tactics, simply furthers the notion that public schools are out of touch with reality.

Let the school board know if you believe further discussion on this matter would be worthwhile.

Personally, I believe exploring the facts would be a valuable experience for all of us, regardless of whether our own children have been directly impacted.