A Heartbreaking – And Preventable – Death

The official records note Rebecca Sedwick’s death as a suicide.  There’s no disputing that the 12-year-old jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Florida, on September 9, but what happened to her requires new terminology.  Perhaps we should call it “peer-icide” or “peer-slaughter” to convey what killed Rebecca, who had been “absolutely terrorized on social media” by 15 middle school girls for over a year, according to the Sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd.

Preventing tragedies like this requires more than vigilance by parents and educators. Anti-bullying campaigns can’t hurt, but unless schools are proactive in their use of technology so that the energies of young people are engaged in meaningful ways, idle hands (and thumbs) will continue to do the devil’s work.

‘Mean girls’ are not a new phenomenon.  What is new and frightening are the weapons at their disposal, an array of apps that allow users to post and send messages anonymously.  Rebecca’s mother singled out ask.fm, Kik Messenger and Voxer as three the girls had used to send messages like “You’re ugly,” “Can U die please?” and “Why are you still alive?”

Rebecca is one of the youngest children to die in what is reported to be a growing number of victims of cyberbullying.  About 20 percent of young people have been victimized, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. About 15 percent of teens admit that they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing and other websites, according to the Center.

“It’s now 24-7. It’s not just something you can escape after the school day,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told the Orlando Sentinel

Rebecca and her mother, Tricia Norman, fought back.  Ms. Norman told the New York Times that she closed down Rebecca’s Facebook page and monitored her cellphone use.  She changed the cellphone number and kept tabs on her social media footprint.  Rebecca changed schools, and, for a while, her life seemed to have turned around.  Then she began using the new Apps, setting off a new round of cyberbullying.  (Apparently her original ‘offense’ was showing interest in a boy that one of the other girls liked.)

“I don’t want parents to wait for a tragedy to have those conversations,” Cherie Benjoseph, Co-Founder of Boca Raton-based KidSafe Foundation, Inc told WPTV. “We’re all still pretty naive on many levels,” she said. “We’re all still crossing our fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen to our children.”

Benjoseph said that Sedwick’s suicide should be a wake-up call to all parents to demand to know what their their kids are really doing online. Keeping computers and phones out of a child’s bedroom is another good move, she says, because what teens do online must not be off-limits to parents. “Our children sometimes lead double lives,” she said.

It probably makes sense to have certain ‘device-free’ times at home, especially at meal times.  It’s difficult to know what’s going on in your children’s life if they are always looking at screens.

Bedrooms should be device-free.  I know parents who’ve placed a basket at the foot of the stairs, and everyone (including the adults) is required to leave their phones in the basket when they head upstairs to bed.  The phones recharge downstairs, the humans upstairs.  Computers and tablets belong in common spaces, not in bedrooms.

Getting all parents to adopt sensible policies and practices is unrealistic, particularly in a time when a lot of parents seem to negotiate every decision with their children, no matter how young they may be.  But even if all parents were to adopt these practices, little will change unless the schools do the right thing.

Schools are where most children are, and adults there can set the tone and–more importantly–determine what kids do with their devices. I often hear adults describing today’s young people as ‘digital natives,’ usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help,” is the general message I hear.

That kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s truer now because apps like ask.fm, Kik Messenger and Voxer allow kids to ‘go nuclear’ without fear of being identified.  Kids who spend hours every day on their devices are unlikely to develop empathy for others, and it’s a lack of empathy that seems to fuel cyberbullying.

Photo Credit: Susan Landmann

Some experts say that kids spend ninety percent of their tech time consuming, and perhaps one percent doing creative work.  If that’s accurate–texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, sexting and cyberbullying 90 percent of the time–then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty of obsessing over our devices.

A central function of schools is what’s often called ‘socialization.’  It might be more useful to substitute ‘developing empathy’ for ‘socialization.’  As Catherine Steiner-Adair notes in her new book, The Big Disconnect, “Empathy might seem a ‘soft’ skill when compared to reading, writing, and math, but it is actually a neurological phenomenon as well as a soulful one,” adding “The development of empathy comes from direct experience…”

Cathy Davidson of Duke says much the same thing: “The brain is what it does.”

Both are echoing the timeless wisdom of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.”

In my experience,  the education community uses technology 90 percent of its time to control, and perhaps 10 percent to create.  I mean ‘control’ broadly, everything from keeping the school’s master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.  That’s the complete opposite of what should be happening.

Because an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically.

Students ought to be using today’s technologies to create knowledge and to find answers to important questions. If they aren’t doing that, then those idle hands and thumbs will be doing the devil’s work, as those girls in South Florida were doing.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You and I went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1 Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That’s creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it’s real work, not ‘homework.

2. Students could use their smart phones’ cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. (I wrote about this in more detail here.)

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity — how cloudy the water is — is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river’s water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

(The rest of the curriculum ought to be designed to engage learners, of course.  Project-based learning makes sense to me, if the projects are genuine explorations of meaningful topics.  Working together toward real goals is one avenue to developing empathy.  And I think it goes without saying that educators need to pay more attention to the social and emotional needs of students.  I’ve been in schools which set aside a period a day for the school equivalent of a hospital’s grand rounds: everyone who has Rasheed or Anita in class has the opportunity to talk about how those individual kids are doing–and not just in subject matter mastery.)

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of most education today.

And it’s a zero-sum game: The hours they spend on projects like these are hours they cannot spend consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create, they will not be bored–and will be less likely to use technology’s power negatively.  Stronger in their own sense of self, they will probably be less likely to feel the need to cyber-bully others.  Had Rebecca Sedwick’s schools taken this approach, she might be alive today.

We cannot wish today’s powerful technology away or keep it out of our children’s hands.  It’s naive to think that anti-bullying campaigns and posters will be sufficient.

Technology, which is value-free, can be used for good or ill. How it is used in schools depends in large part on us.

On Michelle Rhee, Cyber Bullies and Teacher Pay: Excerpts from John Merrow’s The Influence of Teachers

Dear Friends,

This is a big week for us at Learning Matters, because of the unofficial release of The Influence of Teachers. It has received some wonderful advance praise, but I thought perhaps you’d like a sneak peek at what’s inside the book.

Below are excerpts from a few of the 17 chapters.

The book is available exclusively on Amazon, right here; I hope you consider going and getting your own copy.  I am donating 100 percent of the royalties to Learning Matters.



From Chapter Ten, “Following Leaders”

“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” the young superintendent said. “Do you want to see that?”

In our world, see means videotape. Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was actually inviting us to film her as she fired one of her employees.

My colleagues Jane Renaud and Cat McGrath had spent the morning in Chancellor Rhee’s office, filming her meeting with parents, community groups and principals. A dynamo, Rhee moved easily from meeting to meeting, seemingly unaware of the presence of our camera.

Jane and Cat were stunned by her invitation, but not so much that they didn’t accept on the spot. As Jane recalls, “She told us to come back at a specific time, and so we got a sandwich, returned to her office, set up the equipment and shot the meeting.”

That event, shown on national television on the NewsHour, helped create the media persona of Michelle Rhee: the fearless and determined reformer who puts the interests of children first.

From Chapter Six, “Paying Teachers”

Picture the typical salary schedule for teachers.  It’s probably just a page of small boxes. One axis notes years of service; the other denotes academic credits beyond the basic Bachelor’s degree; as you go up in years and out in credits, you make more money.   In the upper right hand corner, in the last box, is the maximum you will earn.

It’s like having a crystal ball, because on your very first day on the job you can look well into the future and see just how much (or how little) you will be earning 25, 30 or 35 years from that moment; it won’t matter whether you’re the best teacher or the hardest working teacher — or the converse, the worst and laziest.  Your salary is set.

From Chapter Nine, “Leadership’s Revolving Door”

Just as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball seem to play musical chairs with their coaches/managers, search firms recycle superintendents. No matter how long and hard these companies search, they inevitably seem to turn up the usual suspects: career educators, most of them white men.

In the fall of 2004, for example, only 16 of the superintendents in the 63 largest districts were women. Five years later, in the 2009-2010 school year, the needle had barely moved: Women were leading just 18 of the nation’s 66 largest big-city school districts. According to Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, “This percentage is actually way above national averages. While women are still a minority among urban superintendents, they are even more underrepresented in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas.”

From Chapter Thirteen, “Making Schools Safe”

Cyber-bullying can be stopped. Adults have to set the right tone in a school; they have to intervene instead of standing on the sidelines. They have to empower children rather than simply shutting down computers, for example. Above all, they must pay attention. And in order to know what to watch for, parents must understand that in many ways the face of bullying is changing.

Schools are supposed to be safe havens: physically, intellectually and emotionally. We don’t need anti-bullying laws (although about 40 states now have them) because of laws already in force that require school leaders to act.  Bernice Sandler, one of the forces behind Title IX (1972) holds that view. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment, and most bullying falls into that category, she explains.

“Most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying, as well, include sexual references. Girls are called ‘sluts’ and ‘hos,’ boys are called ‘fags’ and other sexual names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent.”

Dr. Sandler says Title IX requires schools to act, no matter where the cyberbullying occurs.

MOVIE REVIEW: Where Do I Stand?

I have a new favorite film about education. This one is NOT about school but rather about the moral dilemmas we all face, in this case a matter of life and death.

Where Do I Stand? captures the reactions of seven young people living in South Africa during the xenophobia attacks of 2008 in which 62 foreigners were murdered and about 100,000 driven out of their homes.

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Adolescent Connections

What causes young people to decide to end their lives?  That’s an important question, of course, just as suicide prevention programs and crisis hot lines matter.  But it’s equally important to examine the environment, to map the terrain that almost all of our adolescents occupy, because that environment may be harmful—and sometimes fatal—for our children.  I believe that some of our organizational structures, not just our behavior, are negative influences on children.  My particular concern is the way we isolate our children by age and grade, from kindergarten through senior year of high school.

Teen SuicideI’ve spent the last week in and around Palo Alto, California, where five high school students have ended their lives violently in the past two years—and more than a few others have been prevented from trying, often at the last minute, by observant adults.  That community is in shock but is determined to find out all it can and make whatever changes are needed to keep tragedy away.  Experts are conducting an in-depth ‘forensic audit’ of the community’s strengths and weaknesses, with that report due in next spring.

Palo Alto is a high-achieving community, and many parents expect their children to do as well or better than they did. Many kids face the pressures so powerfully depicted in “Race to Nowhere,” the film I recently reviewed here.  In one sense, that film is a “call to inaction” because it says to schools and parents, “’Back off!’ You are endangering your children’s health.” Continue reading

Schools and Cyberbullying

In late June Jan Hoffman of the New York Times explored the tough issue of cyberbullying and the schools. She led her provocative piece with an anecdote about parents asking their 6th grade daughter’s principal to intervene in a particularly difficult situation involving abusive and sexually suggestive email from a boy. They didn’t want to involve the police, and they knew the boy’s parents socially. The principal’s response was cut and dried: “This occurred out of school, on a weekend. We can’t discipline him.”

CyberbullingAt first I thought that was a legalistic, hair-splitting response—until I read about a principal who did get involved, was subsequently sued by the angry parent of the offending child, and lost. That’s horrifying, but it’s the reality.

My takeaway, however, is not that schools are right to split hairs and decline to get involved. Instead, I think we need some redefinition, some fresh thinking.

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Time to Stand and Deliver

Two recent events put the best and worst of public education in sharp relief. The first was the death of America’s best known schoolteacher, Jaime Escalante, made famous in the 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver.” Jaime EscalanteIn that movie, Edward James Olmos brought to life Escalante’s inspiring story of his firm belief in the abilities of his inner city students at Garfield High School. He did what our best teachers do–he stood up for students, challenging them to strive. Escalante, 79, had bladder cancer.

The second event is a figurative cancer, the inexplicable and disgraceful inaction of an unknown number of teachers and administrators at a public high school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who were—according to the district attorney–aware of the harsh bullying of a 15-year-old girl by a handful of students and yet did nothing. Multiple felony indictments of nine teenagers were announced last week, all classmates of Phoebe Prince, who hung herself in January. No adults were charged.

Jaime Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who, after they passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam, were accused of cheating. As Elaine Woo wrote in the LA Times, “The story of their eventual triumph — and of Escalante’s battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students — became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America.” Mr. Olmos, who helped raise money to defray the teacher’s medical costs, said, “Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives’.

The teachers and administrators in South Hadley also changed lives, one permanently. Continue reading