Sunday, August 03, 2008

HorseSense Under Construction

Readers will note some changes in our template and content in the forthcoming weeks.

Please stay tuned for updates about our HorseSense revamp and reorganization.

More coming soon!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Update: Another Delay in Student-on-Teacher Harassment Case

Originally slated for a July 9 retrial, Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School District will now head to court again September 3, at the earliest. Reasons for the delay are private. However, this report can confirm that while LAUSD will certainly benefit from yet another reprieve to re-assess its defense and/or consider settlement negotiations, there was nothing political about Judge Kenneth Freeman's decision to set the new date.

The hostile environment sexual harassment case was first brought to court in 2001 by a single teacher, Janis Adams, who argued that LAUSD had enabled three years of ugly and sexualized student aggression which culminated in the public sexual harassment, libel, threats, and defamation perpetrated by a student-generated underground "newspaper," The Occasional Blow Job.

In a June 9 hearing, where Judge Freeman refused LAUSD's motion to dismiss the case, lawyers for the district did reveal a new slant in their arguments. Acknowledging that Adams "had suffered something," LAUSD attorney Linda Savitt urged the judge to consider Adams' case purely as a "workman's compensation" matter rather than a case of sexual harassment. Judge Freeman rejected this idea.

It's sad that it's taken 8 years and over $1.3 million taxpayer dollars for the district to acknowledge, finally, that Adams suffered the insufferable. But LAUSD still needs to learn that personal retribution for speaking up as a teacher-worker can certainly include a sexual component, as in Adams' case.

In fact, sexual-bullying-and-harassment-as-retaliation for speaking up or standing up to perpetrators is a common consequence in workplace cases of this kind among adults--unless an employer intervenes swiftly to address the workplace dynamics. Legal scholar and Yale professor J.M. Balkin has written on this subject at length in Columbia Law Review.

Adams' case is no exception. The key distinctions of her circumstances only heighten the problem she faced: her perpetrators were required by attendance laws to re-enter her workplace; and, as minors (albeit very old ones) her perpetrators were treated as "little darlings" by the community and by their parents, who screamed a lot about rights and very little about responsibility.

No doubt LAUSD is dreading the moment when a new jury not only considers facts of this case, but also the impressive reality that Adams has withstood the emotional and financial strain of 8-years worth of litigation and argument in order to make her voice heard.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Teacher Watch: School Safety and Teacher Civil Rights

Do teachers have the same right to a safe workplace as other professionals? Not if they’re threatened, defamed, or harassed by students.
At least that’s what Los Angeles Unified has spent seven years and $1.3 million taxpayer dollars to tell one teacher plaintiff, whose hostile environment sex harassment suit against her former employer is slated for retrial starting July 9. If the district has its way, Adams v. LAUSD will have detrimental consequences for schools.

The teacher filed suit against LAUSD when she was grossly libeled and defamed in an underground student paper, the Occasional Blow Job, from March through June 2000 at Palisades Charter High School.

The first issue attacked teachers other than Adams, but when she challenged the publication she became its primary target. An actress-turned-teacher, Adams was called a former “porn star” who had performed so many anal sex acts she had to wear a diaper. On the cover of another issue, her face was superimposed atop the splayed body of a porn model.

In print materials circulated at her public workplace as well as the upscale neighborhood nearby, Adams was called “bitch” for fighting back. She reported being heckled as a "slut" on campus, car stalked by students when picking up her 7-year old, and harassed by phone calls at home. She also found a threatening note posted on her classroom door.

Despite Adams’s pleas to school administrators for support, and despite clear school policies against sexual harassment, the responses at site and district levels were lamely ineffective. Individual students received hand-slaps, but their publication continued to appear on campus until the school year ended. Deanne Neiman, the go-to district official in charge of vetting sexual harassment cases, remained ignorant of the controversy until just before her deposition was taken--almost two full years later.

The jury for the original 2001 trial sided unanimously with Adams, agreeing that LAUSD had been negligent in following its own discipline policy, the state education code, and federal law. The district was held liable for enabling a hostile work environment, to the tune of $4.35 million--more than double the damages Adams sought.

In a post-trial ruling, Judge Kenneth Freeman negated the financial award as inflammatory. But rather than reducing the amount or directing a different verdict, he ordered a new trial. In his statement of reasoning, he made the bizarre claim that teachers voluntarily forfeit their civil rights, “trading” federal protections against “offensive conduct” for the challenge of working with kids.

If you teach, this is one legal form you may have missed.

The implications of Adams are highly gendered. For nearly 150 years, the business of teaching minors has been a “pink collar” profession. The National Education Association reported in 2006 that approximately 8 out of 10 educators are female. Put this together with Hostile Hallways, the 2001 report by the American Association of University Women, documenting that 36 percent of high school students have witnessed peers sexually harassing teachers.

The reluctance of LAUSD to settle this case suggests that it’s not the money but teacher protection it dreads. In the past five years, there have been reports across the country--from Horace Mann School in New York City, Cook County High School in northern Minnesota, Tesoro High School in Orange County--of women teachers being sexually bullied and defamed on paper or online by male students, who then claim “free speech” when called on it. It was only a matter of time before one teacher stood up in court.

LAUSD’s central argument, in the first trial and on appeal, is that it has “limited control” over students, mere “third parties,” in the school workplace.

But what other workplace, aside from prisons, has compulsory clientele? And how can any district justify discipline policies for protecting such “third parties” from each other, but then deny such protection to those we entrust with their care?

It’s easy to say we expect educators to stand up against bullying, drug use, cheating, hazing, graffiti, and violence. But few people realize that the first responders--our teachers--are often targeted, threatened, isolated, shushed, or simply ignored when they intervene to witness or prevent escalating behavior.

There can be no sustained safety for students at the expense of teacher civil rights.

LAUSD: Not Yet Settling for Teacher Civil Rights

Monday, June 9, in Department 64 of Los Angeles Superior Court, Los Angeles Unified lost its latest "Hail Mary" to dismiss 8-years' worth of trial and appeal in the sexual harassment complaint of former teacher, Janis Adams.

In a fruitless response to Judge Kenneth Freeman's oral ruling against the district, LAUSD attorney Linda Savitt started her arguments with, "First of all, let me say anyone who teaches high school deserves a medal of honor..."

Experienced faculty hears the "but" coming.

Savitt indeed continued: "...But kids are mouthing off, and you know they will." Mouthing off? Judge Freeman seemed to disagree that this perhaps easily foregone conclusion negated the severity of Adams' particular case, which included repeated acts of defamation, libel, attacks on her family, threats, and stalking from students during spring 2000 at Palisades Charter High School.

The judge agreed that these allegations were questions of fact to be weighed by a jury in deciding LAUSD's degree of liability for protecting teachers in the workplace.

New trial begins July 9, barring a settlement. Stay tuned here for updates.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Teacher Watch: War, Inc. in Limited Release

Overshadowed heavily by the release of the Indiana Jones grand finale, John Cusack's War, Inc. opens today in Los Angeles at the Landmark Theater on Pico and Westwood.

Why not make it a double feature--for double discussion?

Find local showtimes for this limited release here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Teacher Watch: Susan Ohanian's When Childhood Collides with NCLB

In his introduction to Susan Ohanian's latest, powerful book, Sid. S. Glassner writes, "The No Child Left Behind Act created an environment in our schools so counter to democracy's constructive spirit" that "[s]uch a condition cannot be permitted to persist nor should it ever be repeated."

A tale told in two voices, When Childhood Collides with NCLB (published by the Vermont Society for the Study of Education) dramatizes a sharp rift between media punditry and real life in public school. Each page literally splits down the middle as Ohanian provides two narratives, juxtaposing her own poems and meditations about classroom life with excerpts from newspaper headlines, press releases, reports, and commentaries. The result is a moving and provocative reading experience.

Her poem, "Processes and Terrors," for example, begins: "How to cross/A Piranha-infested River:/Stay out of the water/when piranhas are feeding./Swim or walk across/Quickly and quietly." This piece is printed directly across from a relevant snippet of a 2004 speech delivered by NCLB author and lobbyist for test publisher NCS Pearson, Sandy Kress: "[F]or those of you who are intimidated or threatened by NCLB, the world is actually going to become worse as we go along. I mean to say, more demanding. And it will look back at NCLB as a kind of just an initial foot in the water, if you will, to the world we're about to enter."

What multiple choice test or prep-packet asks students to consider a connection between poetry, Piranhas, and Scantron forms? Any teacher might happily use sections of Ohanian's book as a model for similar responsive creative writing exercises in their own classrooms.

A single copy of When Childhood Collides with NCLB is available for $8.95. Order copies from the author and publisher by sending a check directly to VSSE, Box 26, Charlotte VT 05445.

For $27, you can get two copies plus a year's subscription to the hard-hitting monthly Chicago teachers' newspaper, Substance.

Friday, April 25, 2008

War, Inc. and A Nation at Risk: The Martial Overtones of Ed Reform

John Cusack's new film, War, Inc., appeared in limited release on screens this past week in Toronto and will show April 28-May 4 at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie dramatizes the outrageous marriage of violence and profiteering enabled by corporation-loyal foreign policy, and its satire doesn't come from fiction: billions of taxpayer dollars are used to employ fee-for-hire "private military" or "security" vendors (think Blackwater) in the name of supplementing our nation's poorly-compensated and poorly-outfitted armed services.

So how could the push for perpetual--and now private--warmongering get so far, so fast?

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism offers a brilliant take, arguing that our economic system exploits moments of disaster and suffering to maximize corporate profits on an international scale. In the face of tragedy, brutality, economic losses, real and imagined fears, citizens are enticed to give up their best economic interests, their civil liberties, and their consciences while power and resources are consolidated for a mercenary few.

A longstanding tradition of educational practices in the U.S. has helped this process along, quietly evolving as support for the military-industrial--and now data-tainment-surveillance-- complex. On a parallel track to the "war and worry" economy, schools have become the true domestic front for conflicts abroad.

It's a handy coincidence that the limited release of War, Inc. coincides with the annual barrage of spring tests just beginning for students all across the country.

The publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 may have preceded 9-11 and our "war on terror" by a generation, but it began the drumbeat of crisis-mongering which has enabled the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and other academic surveillance corporations to profit from fear-based education policy--all in the name of improving schools and making them safe for success.

It's easy to decry campus shootings, but how long will it be before some school offers a specially-designed "security services" academy track to target "at risk" or uniquely "gifted and talented" kids? Unless we actively push back, it's not an impossibility.

Military terms such as "strategy," "targets," "cohorts," and "marshaling" have become essentially natural in conversations about student achievement, school funding, and teacher training. We say "battery of tests" without blinking an eye. Even the emphasis on "raising standards" has martial overtones: "standard" also means flag.

Thus it shouldn't surprise anyone that the No Child Left Behind Act dictates for student names be provided to military recruiters--unless parents know enough to complete an "opt out" form.

It's also perfectly logical that Reed-Elsevier, one of the major corporate players in the assessment industry (think Stanford Achievement Tests), acquired Seisint Technologies in 2004. Seisint famously developed Matrix software to monitor citizens for Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

The now-constant rhythms of scantron, bubble-the-answer testing have normalized the need for social surveillance while also feeding collective and individual anxieties about failure, school funds/closures/takeovers, matriculation, college attendance and placement, scholarships, and simple economic survival. It's no wonder captains of the test industry look ahead towards a bright future, while the daily-life, real-people context of classrooms gets cast as a weary and antiquated distraction.

A new generation of students has been raised--from grade one--to expect multiple choice questions with multiple choice answers to provide the quickest and most reliable way to know whether they know anything.

The social implications of this compulsion are far-reaching. It takes extra work to scrutinize and question who generates these assigned "multiple" choices.

All the while, billionaire business leaders, including superstars Eli Broad and Bill Gates, stand eager to "rescue" (i.e. privatize) the desperate, distracted, and panicky public education system, donating all-expenses paid makeovers in the corporate model. Euphemisms like "professional learning communities" (where consesus is "demanded") merely perpetuate increasingly well-dressed, professionalized and potentially violent forms of remote control.

Sometimes violence itself is the tie that inspires, even if we'd rather forget it. Harvard President James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), co-father of Educational Testing Service and persuasive advocate for the mid-century comprehensive, mega high school, established status as an education policy advocate because of his experiences with warfare.

As a professor, Conant helped develop chemical weapons for the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. He subsequently chaired the National Defense Research Committee, playing a fundamental role in our development of the atomic bomb. Conant also served on the Interim Committee which decided to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without warning.

War, Inc. thankfully will provide broad audiences with an opportunity to reject easy notions of compartmentalization. In asking "how" and "why", we might remind ourselves that politics, economics and education are inextricably intertwined.

Watch for the release of the film your local area later this spring and early summer. Meanwhile, read a great live blog session with the producers and writers of the movie online at Crooks and Liars.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Exit Exam Blues: Waiver Dies for Special Ed Students

So much for special needs.

According to a settlement filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Friday April 4, high school seniors enrolled in special education classes will have to pass the California State High School Exit Exam (HSEE) in order to receive diplomas in June.

The settlement overturns a measure approved by the state Legislature for the classes of 2006 and 2007, exempting special education students from the HSEE and granting diplomas to all such students who had fulfilled other graduation requirements.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, author of the law which originally enacted the Exit Exam requirement, told the editorial board of the Press-Enterprise last week: "I don't want to have a devalued diploma for these folks."

"These folks"?

Certainly it's time for parents and schools to weigh the possibility of opting out where they can (with the state STAR testing program), and/or organizing collective boycotts of the HSEE.

There's safety and solidarity in numbers. For information on your rights and available resources, contact CalCARE at 510-496-6028 or FairTest.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Opting out of Standardized Tests: CalCARE's Push for Justice

Parents, teachers and students are all too aware that the emphasis on standardized testing has come at the expense of much "big picture" learning. In Riverside, California, junior high school teachers have a tough time convincing students to study, complete homework, attend on time, or even to behave during classes--since, as long as they squeak through trimester assessments with merely a "basic" score, students can advance to high school even if they fail core English and math courses.

Not exactly the "rigor" touted by the authors of No Child Left Behind. Not the most coherent preparation for a glorious 21st century future.

What about opting out? The California Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CalCARE) has renewed its awareness campaign encouraging parents (and school districts) to know their rights about opting out of the state STAR test program. CalCARE is the state affiliate of watchdog FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

California is one of the few states which allows parents to opt out of testing, but the movement has grown even in states where risks exist. CalCARE and FairTest provide support and technical legal information about what districts may or may not do to discourage parents from taking action. Both organizations also serve as clearing houses to connect, record, and publicize any intimidation used by districts or school sites.

The strength lies in numbers. California districts which are already designated by NCLB as hopelessly "failing" might have the most to gain by a collective opt-out. The move is especially important for parents whose students do not yet read, write or speak English fluently.

For more information and answers to questions, parents, teachers, and administrators can also contact CalCARE directly by phone, at 510-496-6028.