Teenage Males and School Shootings: Some Perspectives

by Tom Erney

Tom is a retired family therapist who spent his 45+ years sitting with teenage males as they shared with me their personal worldviews/ their unique “instruction books on life”. He said “Perhaps my vision of what fuels the desire of school shooters may shed some light on such a horrific, tragic topic. I’ll also mention some concrete steps our community could take to decrease the probability of school shootings.”

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The inner conflict and confusion that most adolescent males experience is unsettling, and can prove to be profoundly toxic. Along with the fundamental human wonderings related to personal identity…”who am I , and what is worth my time and energy?”…is added the immediacy of figuring out how to become a man. Hence, the ultimate validation among the guys is: ” You are the MAN!!!” So, boys wishing to become men look to three primary socializing institutions for guidance: their family, their peers, and society in general.
Breakdowns and contradictions in any of these three influencing forces complicate, and can even derail, the teens’ personal-social development.

Our most basic calling as humans is to find some pathway(s) to become heroic…to feel secure in the knowledge that we are both visible and valued. We long to see ourselves as participating in something of lasting worth. Oscar Wilde said it in this manner: ” To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist…that is all”. Yet, our consciousness as humans will not allow us to settle- to not matter. To not be visible and valued! We must sort out some pathway(s) to seeing ourselves as heroic( “the Man”).

This search for a personal identity that allows us to perceive ourselves as visible and valued is difficult and painful under the best of circumstances. When any/ all of the three socializing institutions in males’ lives break down( family/ peers/ society in general) around a teen male, he aches for some solid ground midst all the conflict and confusion. Many teen males learn to channel almost all of their unpleasant emotions into anger…for anger is not seen as weak in male culture. Anxiety and depression often accompany the outward expressions of anger. The inner dialogue seeking to convince you that you are helpless, hopeless, and powerless must be altered…by any means necessary: sports, drugs and alcohol, sex, comedy, music, attempting to be perfect, computer games, driving fast, etc. All these attempts are hollow, for they rarely ever provide a pathway to being truly heroic( ” I truly matter.”)

Given an American culture that has been in a stunning transformation over the past 50-60 years, there exists no clear pathway to seeing yourself as important…that your existence matters. Where is there anything that is stable, consistent, predictable? I experienced firsthand in my office the loss of almost any certainty in the lives of the teens I counseled. The impact: young men no longer need to be mentally ill to commit horrific acts. Since Columbine, shooting up your school has become a pathway to becoming visible and valued…for the demonic rage that is being expressed is a rage against their impotence and unworthiness. ” NOW you will have to pay attention to me. I will not be ignored! My existence matters!”

Their actions reflect back to us as adults that we have failed to support them in their search for personal meaning. They are the symptom…we are the problem.

Steps To Take: 1) Double the number of school counselors. Offer them on-going training and supervision as they provide a sanctuary for today’s youth. don’t burden them with responsibilities for testing, etc. Presently, most school counselors are not allowed to truly work with students and their families. 2) Personalize, not mechanize, the educational process. Presently, students feel like objects that are expected to produce desired outcomes for their parents and teachers/ the school system. 3) Establish peer programs at every school. train and supervise these youth throughout the school year. NO SCHOOL SHOOTING TAKES PLACE WITHOUT OTHER TEENS KNOWING THAT THEIR SCHOOL BEING ATTACKED IS A REAL POSSIBILITY. TEEN BOYS TALK TO OTHER TEENS. There will never be enough adults to prevent this from happening. Only the kids can do this. They have access to the social media, etc. They know the rumors.

As I have written before, we do know what to do! We choose not to do what we know. Until adults and adult social institutions begin being responsible and consistent, young people will continue to cry out for help…by any means necessary. This is on us…not on them. They will struggle mightily, and more will die needlessly, until we grow up.

Will Miami’s New KIPP Charter Be Different??

KIPP in Jacksonville has not been a success story to brag about. KIPP Jacksonville charters expanded, but the school grades fluctuate up and down. The KIPP national spokesman acknowledged problems there.

Superintendent Carvalho says the Miami KIPP will operate differently. For one thing, it will co locate within a district-run school, Poinciana Park elementary. It will pay $1 in rent. Therefore, KIPP will receive the same funding as traditional schools without the same facility costs. Improvements in the KIPP side of the school are supposed to benefit all students, but nothing in the lease agreement guarantees it. It’s a ‘verbal agreement’. Board members fear it will be a “stark symbol of inequity“.

Poinciana was an ‘F’ school in 2016. Now it is an ‘A’ school even though only about 25% of the students scored at the proficient level on the English FSA exam. So what is to be gained by adding KIPP to the school? In a way, KIPP will operate as a magnet school, but with its own management and instructional methods, within Poinciana. Parents can apply to have children attend.

Absent in the discussion are the consequences of the well documented ‘no nonsense’ strict behavioral and instructional strategies of KIPP schools. For example, studies of KIPP policies indicate that grade 5 attrition is higher than at feeder district schools even though it drops later on. Moreover, KIPP tends not to replace students who leave. When new students are admitted, they have higher achievement scores than those initially admitted.

The net effect is that KIPP schools have fewer free and reduced lunch students, fewer students with exceptionalities, and somewhat higher achievement scores simply because of the selection and attrition policies. Moreover, the attrition rate for KIPP fifth grade students is nearly twice than in district feeder schools, according to a Mathematica study.

The children who remain in KIPP are with others whose parents want them there and will tolerate the highly structured, test driven curriculum. The Atlanta school district reports that KIPP students are in school from 7:30 to 5pm weekdays and select Saturdays. They also have two weeks of instruction in the summer. They tend more often than similar students to start college, but they have trouble completing college.

What is the KIPP difference? Push kids hard, give them more time in schools, and test scores go up. So, will this new school within a school be like a magnet school for struggling children? Kids will be separated into those whose parents aspire for their children to go on to college and those who do not.

The State cannot or will not support additional instructional time for all students. The result is that these ‘no nonsense’ schools pay the cost of providing more instructional time for students by continuously hiring inexperienced teachers. They compensate by reducing teachers to be drill sergeants; it is a business strategy.

Additional resources come out of teacher salaries and benefits. Teachers leave at twice the rate as district schools, but the rigid KIPP instructional method trains new teachers over and over again.

Even if this military style disciplined approach to learning and teaching produces higher test scores for students who survive it, does it produce the creative, problem solving, self regulated people our society requires? Each of us must ask if this is the learning experience we want for our own children, or is it just something to do for ‘other kids’? There are better ideas out there, but are we willing to pay for them?

What are the societal costs when children face double segregation by race and income in their neighborhoods and then face additonal discrimination in their schools? It must be a world that says over and over No Access.

Can’t Bully Kids into Learning

These Achievement First ‘no excuses’ charters are learning; they found out that they are not teaching kids how to learn. Achievement First charters discovered that their students, who learned how to pass state tests or left the school, could not succeed in college. Students have to be able to learn on their own, just as they are expected to do in college and as adults.

Achievement First runs 34 charters enrolling 15,000 students. Their highly structured discipline approach to behavior and learning is not working. The students are not engaged in school. In 2016, students at one school tried to tell them. They staged a walk out demanding fairer discipline and a more diverse staff. In 2015, parents filed a lawsuit claiming the Achievement First used inappropriate discipline and failed to provide needed special education services to children.

After seeing their alumni struggle, Achievement First is trying to make students more independent. They are running a couple of pilot tests in middle schools. Three times a year the students have an online expedition to explore their own interests for two weeks for three hours a day. Better than nothing. They are using something called the Greenfield model.

These no excuses charters can train students to pass tests, but students are not robots. The real key to success is to engage students through group based projects. These don’t have to be in every subject every day. They do, however have to be real-world problems that students can tackle together. This is how learning becomes meaningful.

Survival of the Fittest in New York City?

Who succeeds at New York’s Success Academy charter schools? The New Yorker provides some clues. The first high school graduating class at New York City’s Success Academies has made it through years of strict discipline and mind control. There is even a correct placement for your pencil when it sits on your desk. Suspension is ‘one tool in the toolkit’ and is used often, not to punish but to increase awareness of expectations. Only seventeen students made it to graduation, but their accomplishments are notable. Even the teachers tend not to last; an average of twenty-five percent leave every year.

The environment for learning attracts parents. Success charters receive large donations from the business community. There are well equipped classrooms and field trips. Instruction is both very directed toward skill mastery and somewhat more progressive. Teachers, however, do not develop their own lesson plans. They teach what the ‘network’ demands. Teachers and students alike operate within tightly controlled boundaries and frequent assessment, according to the authors.

The recipe for Success Academy is high expectations, strict and intense behavioral control, and formulaic teaching strategies. Test scores for those who last are excellent. Most do not last, and after second grade, new students are not added. By high school, enrollments are small.

College enrollment for graduates is high, but then something happens. Students do not complete college.

John Dewey’s educational philosophy gives a hint to what could be happening at Success Academy schools i.e. “The society for which a child is being prepared…should be replicated in a simplified form within the structure and culture of the school itself’. In other words, if a school prepares students in an authoritarian manner, then the students will expect to function in an authoritarian world as adults. They may well have problems, as students at a Success Academy high school experienced, when they were given the opportunity to structure their own time and academic activities. They simply did not know how.

We all have to ask ourselves what is important about education. Is it measured by test scores or is there something more fundamental? These are not simply philosophical questions. There is a constitutional amendment proposed in Florida to define the purpose of education the development of the intellect and preparation for the workforce. What’s missing in this definition?

NPE: Charter Management Exposed

The Network for Public Education summarized the dangers inherent in charter school practices that hurt children and communities. They give detailed examples. Here’s a quick list of problems and an important list of recommendations to manage the chaos that the choice system has created. Adherence to a free-market, no regulation philosophy is not necessary to have reasonable choices for children. Unregulated school choice is creating a monstrous problem with:

Charters that are not free public schools.
Charter students who need not attend school to graduate.
Charters for the wealthy..
Charters with secret profits
Seedy charters in storefronts.
Charters paying kids.
Religious charters.
Charters for political parties.
Charters faking achievement data.
Charters shedding students.
Shady charter business practices.
Charters that exacerbate segregation.
Charters that exclude students with disabilities.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE. The NPE list of recommendations represent a growing consensus:

Impose a moratorium on charter expansion.
Ban for-profit charters and charter chains.

Make charter management companies’ accounting systems transparent.
Ensure students’ due process rights in admission and dismissals.
Ensure enrollments are representative of community demographics.
Require openly disclosed bidding processes.
Review property leases and bond issues for appropriate costs.
Revert ownership of closed charter facilities to districts.
Strengthen local district authorization and oversight of charters.

With little or no oversight, abuse is given free rein. Which is the greater evil, reasonable rules or exploiting students and families for personal gain?

Mom Guilt: Are charters a good choice?

A quote from the Tampa Bay Times article on the movement toward charters: “You don’t want to be the mom who made the wrong decision”. What is behind this concern:

  1. Children are leaving Lutz elementary, a well thought of district school, because they want to be first in line for a charter middle school.

  2. Why a charter middle school? Middle schools draw from a larger areas and parents are concerned that discipline problems increase during those years. The big take away is that some parents worry that district schools are less ‘safe’. Charters can dismiss students which parents can use as a warning to their own children.

Other parents and educators see the impact of choice on their communities. As one parent said, “I know we are not going to be a great city without great public schools.”

The choice system extends divides by class, race, opportunity and ideology. The public district choice options are to offer magnet programs and magnet schools. The advantage is that there is district planning and oversight which reduces fraud, abuse, and other mismanagement problems. It makes district planning more cost effective. It does not, in its current form, solve the equity problems for less affluent families. It’s only a step in the direction of equal access to high quality education.

I just read a column in the New York Times where David Leonhardt came down on the side of charter schools based in part on his reading about the positive impact in Florida for students who graduate from charter schools. I posted three summaries of studies re Florida charters:

  1. Charter High School Long Term Effects. Interesting that in Florida, the data from the study were from charter students entering high school back in 2002.  Those charter school 8th graders who went on to a charter high school were more affluent, less likely to be black, more likely to be Hispanic and not have an ESE designation (p.16).  Soooo, the conclusion is that charter school students who graduate from a charter high school do better on most out come measures e.g. college attendance, income etc. than 8th graders from charters who did not graduate from a charter high school.   To put it another way, in South Florida which has a high proportion of Hispanic students in charter schools, these students do better in the long run than lower income black students who return to district high schools.  Should this surprise anyone?

I also posted these additional studies:

  1. CREDO Urban Study shows in 5/7 Florida cities, charters did less well than comparable public district schools. Charters performed better in only one city.

  2. National Alliance of Public Charter Schools reports that, “despite consistent growth by charter schools in Florida, the schools have lagged on quality, diversity and innovation.” 2016.

Academic achievement aside, many decisions are about feelings. What do we do about the uncertainties we all face? I remember the famous saying from President Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. At the time, there were riots, food lines, and the looming prospect of war. Plenty to worry about. We made it then; we will make it through this time.

How Choice Works: A True Story

I am creating a ppt. presentation for Leagues to use all over the state.  This is the suggestion I just now received for an ending slide: It is a true story based on an interview a couple of months ago with a charter principal in another county. My friend comments:

“I usually explain choice by how a charter school principal demonstrated it to me.  She said in a series of comments over the course of a visit”. 

  1. She gets to choose her teachers.  They serve at will. 
  2. She gets to choose her parents.  If they have difficulty with any of her decisions, she invites them to “choose” another school for their children.  
  3. Lastly, she gets to choose her students.  If a student is “not a good fit” she chooses to ask them to leave and choose another school.  

She does not choose to deliver ESE services except of the most basic type.  Parents of this school “choose” to volunteer a set number of hours a month.  Only students whose parents can “choose” to transport them can get to the school.  You see how easily “Choice” works?

Racist Rant or Reality Speak?

What are the driving forces behind school choice and privatizing education? In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers points to Betsy DeVos. Gartner says school choice is about “racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and homophobia”. Harsh words flying about.

For those of us who lived first hand through the integration of schools in the early 70’s, it’s impossible not to recognize all of those ‘isms’ that Gartner uses. We heard them and felt them. There’s no doubt that some groups now capitalize on somewhat ‘buried’ feelings of those who use choice to escape integration. There’s simply more to it.

Money comes to mind. Choice was supposed to save money. The private sector, according to some, could drive down costs. How? Breaking the teachers unions, for one. Unions have helped keep teacher retirement and health benefits. Charters and voucher progrBams don’t have to provide benefits, and most do not. School facilities are expensive, and the private sector can build them without directly going to taxpayers. The cost for facilities is hidden from the public unless people look at the financial audits. The money going into charter facilities comes out of teacher salaries and benefits and, of course, fewer services to students.

I go back to my professional life when I worked on critical thinking and problem solving skills. Sometimes there is no single correct answer to a question. Racism and all those other ‘isms’ are real for some people. Profiteering using fear tactics is also real. Simple greed is real. The answer to some of those critical thinking questions was often ‘All of the above”. Didn’t you really dislike those types of choices? Nevertheless, in real life, sometimes they are the correct answer. And then you ask, ‘Now what’? I have some possible answers, and I would like your suggestions.

Why schools close: Palm Beach Example

The School Board in Palm Beach will close Odyssey Middle School. It is a ‘B’ school, but the ‘word is out’ it is not a good school. The enrollment has dropped in half. The building will become a charter, and the district will build a new school in a more popular area of the district.

Some blame the district. The school is in a mixed income area. Some sections are high poverty; others are middle class. The district did not do enough to satisfy requests for more advanced courses, and parents left. It would be good to know more about that side of the story.

The school opened in 2001 with a high percentage of children from low-income families. It took some time to get the discipline problems and school culture turned around, but it did. Nevertheless, it was not enough. So, Palm Beach will close a school, give the facility to a charter, and build a new school somewhere else? This is an expensive solution to a social problem. How could it have been done differently?

Hopefully, parents and communities will begin to be aware of the social and economic costs of a lack of attention to equity issues and the need for a community approach to solving them. What does this mean? It means thoughtful planning for zoning areas and program offering. It means tackling problems in areas rather than ignoring them and allowing them to get worse. It means understanding that charters don’t solve these problems. People do.

I remember when Gainesville schools were integrated. Schools located in between black and white areas tended to be closed. Some said the district did not want to have these schools integrated. Only one elementary school, located in a black neighborhood, had a zone to include students in a white area. Those white families joined together to support that school. White families are still there because the district turned the school into a magnet. Gainesville still has problems with concentrated poverty in some areas. There are glimmers of hope that the community is willing to work together to solve them.

How do you balance schools and maintain high quality programs to which all children have access? How do these more balanced schools create a school culture that is respectful, safe, and welcoming? If students are segregated by race and income, equity is lost. No easy answers to these issues, but if we don’t ask the questions, we will just see a bad situation become worse. I worry that school choice is like the ostrich who puts its head in the sand.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/education/palm-beach/fl-schools-odyssey-middle-closing-20170718-story.html

Charter Media Hype Analysis: Inspire or Require?

This is an unusual study. It does not analyze charter schools but rather the hype in the media about charter schools. How are charters and their programs depicted in reputable newspapers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times over a ten year period? Published in the Teachers College Record ‘Brilliant, Bored or Badly Behaved’ is illuminating.

The researchers found that media reports indicate that charter and traditional public schools serving middle income students are very similar in their pedagogical approaches. Yet, charters are depicted in a more positive way. The same media hype for charters serving low-income students exists but is more troubling. The charter hype is there, but the instruction is different and perhaps troubling.

The researchers report:

“This is not the first time that researchers have suggested that schools either treat their low- and middle-income students differently, or treat their white students and their students of color differently. As Anyon (1980, p. 90) and many others have explained, schools frequently “emphasize different cognitive and behavioral skills” and facilitate the “development in the children of certain potential relationships to . . . authority” based on students’ class and/or race. However, our study offers two new, and potentially troubling, insights about charter schools.”

  1. First, our findings suggest that charter and alternative schools’ approaches to educating low-income students and/or students of color are neither new nor progressive. Our study suggests that charter schools might very well be operating on outdated assumptions about low-income students and students of color, assumptions that were disproven long ago.

  2. Second, our study suggests that charter schools might be actively “reproduce[ing] racial categories” and class categories “while ostensibly repudiating them” (Winant, 1998, p. 762). This is especially troubling given advocates’ insistence that charter schools have the potential to close the educational achievement gap in the United States.

The study indicate that schools for middle income students emphasize abstract reasoning, critical thinking and writing skills necessary for success in college. In charters, it appears from media reports that rote learning and test prep is prevalent for low-income students. Moreover, these children are taught to defer to authority which promotes feelings of distance, distrust, and constraint.

The alternatives are teaching strategies directed toward intrinsic motivation. In other words, how do you structure activities that make children want to be involved rather than top down strategies that force compliance. The end result, the study posits could be very different.

The study is based on media reports by reliable newspapers. The conclusions raise questions, but cannot be generalized. They can, however, be examined. The issues are legitimate and important to pursue.