Articles in the School Security category

Don’t wait for the press — look into your finances now

If you’re a school board member looking to protect taxpayer dollars, you can learn a few lessons from the Dallas Morning News about school district spending.

Speaking at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Chicago last month, reporter Kent Fischer shared some eye-opening tips about how his newspaper uncovered millions of dollars of questionable spending within the Dallas Independent School District (DISD)—just by looking at records available to the public.

Imagine what you could do with the records available to you as a board member.

You could start by examining what’s being purchased with district credit cards. After looking at more than 150,000 credit card transactions over two years, Fischer and his colleagues uncovered millions of dollars in purchases that the newspaper claimed “violated state procurement laws or district policy.”

All of these purchases had been buried and lost in vast amounts of paperwork. But, citing Texas’ open records law, the newspaper requested electronic records on purchase orders, written checks, credit card bills, payrolls, and other financial data, including budget program codes and purchase order numbers.

By cross-referencing data, Fischer said lots of interesting transactions popped up, including purchases of blanket and pillow sets, Star Trek DVDs, iPods, and a subscription to an online dating service. One former district employee already has been sent to prison.

Another fertile area for scrutiny is employee stipends, Fischer said. The newspaper discovered that the school district had, as one article last fall reported, “doled out millions of dollars a year in stipends and extra pay not included in the district’s compensation manual.”

“Look beyond the ‘average teacher’s salary’ and look at stipend and supplemental pay,” he said. “Get overtime itemized.”

One story cited a high school band director who “collected nearly $40,000 between 2003 and 2006 for long hours on band trips that should not have qualified for extra pay.” Meanwhile, school police ran up $2.5 million in overtime for three years straight—yet kept budgeting only $250,000 for overtime.

Questions also might arise about employee travel stipends, he said. Thousands of employees were receiving such stipends, including those whose job descriptions didn’t demand travel. One secretary received a $1,200-a-year car allowance, and she didn’t have a driver’s license.

Fischer said it also pays to look closer at contract language. One multimillion-dollar computer contract was written so strictly—demanding a specific internal processor, for example—that only one product could meet the bid specifications. In another contract, school administrators arranged free entry into a major golf tournament.

When exposed on the front page of the local newspaper, such discoveries are a public relations nightmare for a school board. Indeed, DISD leaders spent much of last year modifying their financial processes in response to headline after headline of bad news.

But why leave it to your local paper? You represent your community. Why not look for such improprieties yourself? Through their example, the Dallas Mornings News and Kent Fischer perhaps have done you a favor.

Just follow this last admonishment that Fischer shared with his fellow journalists: “Follow the money—what is spent, not [just] what’s budgeted.”

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 8th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, School Security|

How’s your school climate?

Have you ever wondered what people are really thinking? As a principal, counselor, administrator, school board member, or teacher, a lot of faith is put into the idea that we are doing a good job and the people we work with feel the same way. But sometimes those perceptions are wrong, sometimes our perceptions aren’t those of our key stakeholders, and sometimes the educators need to be educated.

NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) recently conducted a study led by Dr. Brian Perkins (along with recommendations from the PTA) regarding school climate. What We Think, surveyed more than 10,000 urban parents in 17 different states to find out their opinions about bullying; teacher/student respect; safety; and expectations, to name a few of the topics.

NSBA and CUBE have previously examined student perspectives on school climate (Where We Learn) and teacher and administrator perspectives (Where We Teach). The third study came to some interesting conclusions, including:

~ Slightly more female parents (76.7%) indicated visiting the school to support its activities than did their male counterparts (72%).
~ Parents overwhelmingly believed that their child was capable of high performance on standardized tests (84%).

~ Most parents felt respected by the teachers at their child’s school (87%).

~ Parents with children in the middle grades (6-8) indicated that their children were bullied at least once per month more than parents at other grades (13%).

~ Generally, parents who used self-experience as their primary source of information about their school held more positive views about safety (76.1%), while parents who used the newspaper as their primary source of information about their school held more negative views about safety (12.5%).

Take a look for yourself. The study (as well as the first two) is available on CUBE’s website and the results are sometimes surprising. Our friends at Education Daily and Public School Insights already have, and there’s no disputing the fact that parents have an important insight into our schools and are crucial to their success.

Erin Walsh|May 1st, 2008|Categories: Announcements, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Boards, School Security, Student Achievement, Teachers|

Silence can battle bullying of gay students

How do you honor a 15-year-old boy who was killed because of his sexual orientation?

GLSEN — the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network — says silence.

GLSEN is holding its 12th annual “day of silence” on Friday in remembrance of Lawrence King, who was shot by a 14-year-old classmate in a computer lab at his Oxnard, Calif., high school in February. King, who lived in a group home, was constantly harassed because he was openly gay and had begun wearing makeup to school, according to media reports. His killer reportedly came from a troubled home and is being charged as an adult for the crime.

They’ve asked students to take a vow of silence for all or part of the day to remember King and bring attention to the harassment of gay, lesbian, and transgendered students. GLSEN estimates that more than 500,000 students at schools and universities have taken part in such events.

Students participating in the event are asked to distribute cards to their teachers and classmates that read, in part: “Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. This year’s DOS is held in memory of Lawrence King, a 15 year-old student who was killed in school because of his sexual orientation and gender expression. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward building awareness. Think about the voices you are not hearing today.”

More information on the event is available at www.dayofsilence.org. GLSEN offers a wealth of information on preventing bullying and harassment of gay students, and May’s ASBJ features an interview with filmmaker Debra Chasnoff, who produced “It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in School.” The video is being re-released with a new, 140-page guide for schools.

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|April 23rd, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, School Security, Wellness|

Magna: The source for best practices

I ran a roundtable session for National Affiliate members at NSBA’s annual conference in Orlando at the end of March. One new board member who attended had a story that will sound familiar to many of you.

He was having a problem with another board member. Whenever this member wanted to stonewall an idea, she asked, “is it best practice?”

The gentleman at my session asked, half-jokingly, if a “best practices” manual existed somewhere.

We at ASBJ hope that our Magna Awards program can serve as a starting point toward finding those best practices. For 14 years, we have been recognizing excellence in board and district programs on nearly any topic you can come up with.

Want to know how a district is dealing with dropouts? Magna has it. Want to find out how to engage Spanish-speaking parents with the schools? Magna has it.

Each year, we ask an independent panel of judges to evaluate the 300 or so entries we receive each year and find the standout programs. The entries are in three enrollment categories: under 5,000, 5,000 to 20,000, and over 20,000. This way, districts are competing against other districts of the same size.

We honored the 2008 Magna Award winners at the School Leaders’ Luncheon at NSBA’s annual conference in Orlando. The three grand prize winners took home checks of $3,500 each; all of the winners are featured in a supplement to ASBJ that ran in April.

Look online at the 2008 winners; then browse through the past winners. You’ll find the contact names and e-mails of the district contacts so you can get more details about their wining programs.

While you’re on the site, consider applying for a 2009 Magna Award, so you can add your programs to our growing “best practices” list.

Kathleen Vail, Managing Editor

Kathleen Vail|April 21st, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Budgeting, Curriculum, Educational Research, Governance, School Security, Student Achievement, Wellness|

Aw, nuts!

BoardBuzz was shocked to learn that bullying has reached (yet another) new height. It seems that, according to this article via ABCNews.com, some students are exploiting students food allergies to make their lives miserable. Now bullies aren’t just picking on the smallest or weakest kids in class–they’re ganging up on children who have severe food allergies.What will they think of next?

“There was a group of five girls … and they decided they didn’t want me sitting at their lunch table anymore,” said [Sarah] VanEssendelft. To get her to leave, they all brought in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

For VanEssendelft, it might as well have been arsenic.

Two weeks later, a boy in the back of her class opened up a peanut butter cup. The smell was enough to trigger VanEssendelft’s peanut allergy and send her to the emergency room with breathing problems.

“My throat felt tight and my lips were getting really swollen, really fast,” said VanEssendelft. “I looked like Angelina Jolie.”

On the one hand, mean tricks or sneaking candy looks like mild behavioral problems to school administrators. On the other hand, given VanEssendelft’s serious peanut allergy, those sandwiches might very well have been weapons.

And how can schools protect kids from this kind of attack? Who would consider a PB&J sandwich a weapon?

While it appears that school violence has decreased, unfortunately bullying increasing. “Between 1999 and 2003, the NSSC reported an increase of the student population who were bullied across grades 6-12.” Troubling news for school districts.

And it seems that even though the students are hatching these ever-more-creative plots to torment other kids, they aren’t thinking of the consequences.

“I think a lot of times kids get wrapped up in the experience and they don’t think,” said Susan Swearer, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Actually, it’s true they don’t think — they’ve done studies, the whole myelination in the brain is not complete.”

The best way to tackle the thinking problem in adolescents, Swearer explained, is to repeat conversations. “Say it 500 times: someone can die of a peanut allergy.”

School districts often have their hands tied — some may say they aren’t doing enough to help these students, and others who might say schools are overreacting. Either way, someone is going to second-guess what schools are doing to deal with this kind of issue.

It might be tempting for schools to do away with peanuts altogether, but [Dr. Kathy Sheerin, of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic], who is also a mother of a child with a tree nut allergy, has different ideas.

“I think it’s great that day cares and up to kindergarten are peanut-free,” said Sheerin. “But the mall isn’t peanut-free, the movies aren’t peanut-free, your next door neighbor’s house isn’t peanut-free. The kids are going to have to learn to deal with it.”

Most kids, in fact, want other kids to learn to deal with it, as well.

How does your school district deal with this kind of issue? And how can we continue to educate our children about the effects of bullying against others? Leave a comment here and tell us about it.

Erin Walsh|April 17th, 2008|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Security, Student Achievement, Wellness|

Violence prevention hits home

BoardBuzz was interested and concerned by this story from CNN. As the anniversary of the violence at Virginia Tech approaches and other incidents of school violence come to light, school officials, parents, teachers, and community members are as concerned as ever about school safety and violence prevention.

What makes this story stand out, though, is that the parents of the student involved recognized some pretty scary behaviors in their son and acted to prevent the violence.

Elaine Sonnen found out about her son’s plan during a conversation with him. She ordered him to write down the names of the eight students he wanted dead and then gave the list to his caseworker the very next day. Later, he added a teacher and his own mother and sister to the hit list.

She took immediate action and had her son committed to an Idaho mental institution. Over the next 16 months, he received treatment at several mental health facilities throughout Idaho.

“There, I opened up. I felt better. I moved on with myself,” Richard said.

“They felt at that point … they had done everything they could do for him,” added Elaine Sonnen. “He was doing great. He could make it on his own. They had no question.”

During NSBA’s Conference last month, experts addressed the issue of violence prevention in schools in a session and at a press conference. NSBA’s Senior Staff Attorney, Lisa Soronen was also interviewed on the subject. You can watch her interview by clicking here. For more information about disaster preparedness, check out this article in ASBJ.

Erin Walsh|April 11th, 2008|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Security, Student Achievement, Wellness|

Stop the bullying now

I just finished reading Jodi Picoult’s book, Nineteen Minutes. If you have anything to do with education, or if you’re a parent, you need to read this book — now.

Picoult’s 2007 bestseller chronicles a horrific school shooting incident and its aftermath. A meticulous researcher, Picoult imbues the shooter, a brutally bullied boy named Peter, with a sense of humanity that seems almost impossible, especially considering that he goes to school one day and guns down 10 classmates.

The hardest parts of the book to read were the passages about Peter’s relentless torment at the hands of his fellow classmates, starting in the first day of kindergarten when one of them throws his Superman lunchbox out of the school bus window. In fact, I wanted to skip those passages entirely.

In this impulse, I’m like most adults, probably. We don’t want to believe our children are capable of this cruelty, so we look away.

Of course, it is happening. Read the recent New York Times article, “A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly,” about a young man in Fayetteville, Ark. Elements of his daily torture were sickeningly similar to the fictional Peter’s abuse.

In an interview with ASBJ in January, Picoult said: “As a mom, I saw all three of my kids face bullying—and it begged the question: In a post-Columbine world, why haven’t we figured this out yet?

School officials will point to their bullying policies, of course, and every district should have them. But these policies are a starting point, not the end. During the shooter’s trial at the end of Nineteen Minutes, the defense lawyer memorably demonstrates why. No matter how air-tight your policy is, it’s utterly meaningless when adults — whether they secretly identify with the bullies, they not-so-secretly don’t like the bullied child, or because it reminds them too much of their own childhood torment — turn the other way when a child desperately needs help.

Is bullying occurring in your schools? Are you willing to take a hard look – and not turn away if you see something that makes you uncomfortable, if you see something you know is wrong?

The bullied kids can’t look away. They live with this every day. If you don’t protect them, no one will.

Why haven’t we figured this out yet?

Kathleen Vail, Managing Editor

Kathleen Vail|March 25th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, School Law, School Security, Wellness|

Vice President removed from office

No, not the Vice President. A class vice president in New Haven, Conn. And you’re not going to believe why. The story has all the makings of a real political scandal, that’s for sure. BoardBuzz had to chuckle when we read the story on CNN.com. It seems one student’s Skittles craving has landed him in hot water.

Michael Sheridan was stripped of his title as class vice president, barred from attending an honors student dinner and suspended for a day after buying a bag of Skittles from a classmate.

School spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo said the New Haven school system banned candy sales in 2003 as part of a districtwide school wellness policy.

Michael’s suspension was reduced from three days to one, but he has not been reinstated as class vice president.

Ouch. And all for a sugar jones. To be sure, schools and states are targets of constant sniping from the other direction that they aren’t waging zealous enough campaigns against junk food. And the media often sensationalize stories like this that turn out to be more complicated when you know more of the facts. In this case, our friends at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education note, the state has a strong wellness law that provides schools with an opportunity to get some additional funding if the school or district has a policy of only allowing sales of food items—by anyone—that are on a state-approved list for nutritional standards.

But here’s the problem: It’s the degree of punishment that often makes for the embarrassing headlines. NSBA Council of School Attorneys board member Dean Pickett of Mangum, Wall, Stoops, and Warden in Flagstaff, Arizona said it best years ago: “Zero tolerance for the conduct doesn’t mean zero thinking about the consequences.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the article includes this tidbit, “Michael says he didn’t realize his candy purchase was against the rules, but he did notice the student selling the Skittles February 26 was being secretive.” Spoken like a true politician.

Erin Walsh|March 13th, 2008|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Security, Student Achievement, Wellness|

Kindergarten hair war

“A kindergarten student with a freshly spiked Mohawk has been suspended from school,” reports ABCNEWS.COM. “Surely,” query you Dear Readers, “You must mean a kindergarten student with a gun… or drugs… or who cracked open someone’s head with a blunt instrument?” No, no, gentle BoardBuzzers, you read correctly: The school suspended little Bryan Ruda for the offense of sporting a funky hair cut. (And, for the record, BoardBuzz saw the photograph of the 6-year-old offender, and, well, it was NOT spiked.) Even so, “”[t]he school said the hair was a distraction for other students [and] violate[d] the school’s policy on being properly groomed,” school Principal Linda Geyer said.”

Bryan’s mom, whose love for the avant garde apparently extends to decorative children’s hairstyles, was outraged by the schools decision, saying that while she understands the school has a dress code, “They can’t tell me how I can cut his hair.” Well, apparently, they can, and they did. “The school district’s dress code allows school officials to forbid anything that interferes with the conduct of education.”

But, if, Dear Readers, you surmise there’s more hair (ahem) than meets the eyes, you would be correct: This latest skirmish appears to be only one of several incidents in the quest for individuality between little Bryan’s mother and school officials in the Kindergarten Hair War at Parma Community School. “An administrator at the suburban Cleveland charter school first warned [the mom] last fall that the haircut wasn’t acceptable. The school later sent another warning letter to her reiterating the ban.” Wait, they sent a letter, too? And, she still didn’t get it? Talk about sacrificing for your art . . . er, hair.

That school finally lost its religion last week, when little Bryan’s “freshly shorn” hair caused a sensation of sorts and disturbed the general mirth.

Now the mom is changing little Bryan’s school rather that changing his hairstyle. What?!!! BoardBuzz is all about individuality, but we must admit that the choices some parents make are hard for us to sort out.

Erin Walsh|February 27th, 2008|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Security, Student Achievement|

Do harsh school punishments send students down the path to prison?

Does suspending misbehaving students—or sending them to alternative schools —set them on the path to prison?

That question is at the heart of a new report, Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline: Dropout to Incarceration, The Impact of School Discipline and Zero Tolerance, published by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest law center.

The title is overdramatic. But the conclusions are worthy of reflection: “The precursor for many young people’s involvement in the juvenile justice system [or prison] is disciplinary referrals in schools.”

That’s not to suggest that school officials allow students to run amok in the classroom. Nor does anyone suggest school suspensions are responsible for students turning down the path of crime and incarceration later in life.

What the report does suggest is that local schools must be thoughtful in their approach to discipline. Taking a hard line with students—with zero tolerance and harsh penalties—actually is counterproductive, undermining school climate and, instead of discouraging misbehavior, actually can encourage more misbehavior among rebellious youth.

Fact is, some school officials are too eager to crack the whip. Something is wrong when some schools are six times as likely as neighboring schools to suspend students or send them to an alternative education program.

Although the report lists numerous strategies for improving your school district’s disciplinary practices, its real value to local school policymakers is more basic: It reminds you that schools exist to help students.

And that help is needed right now. If all your schools do is punish misbehaving students —harshly and with no consideration to the reasons behind such misbehavior—then your schools aren’t really solving the underlying problem. And if a student ends up in an escalating cycle of misbehavior and punishment, then there is an increasing likelihood that imprisonment lies in that young person’s future.

The report can be found at www.texasappleseed.net.

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|December 20th, 2007|Categories: American School Board Journal, Educational Research, Governance, School Security|
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