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Sheriff Fires Richland Deputy After Altercation With Student

By Avery G. Wilks, The State (Columbia, S.C.) (TNS)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Richland County Sheriff’s Department Senior Deputy Ben Fields was fired Wednesday, two days after an altercation between him and a female student at Spring Valley High School was caught on video and posted online.

Three videos, shot by students, show Fields throwing the student to the ground and dragging her across the classroom floor. The videos sparked national outrage and a civil rights investigation by the FBI and U.S. Justice Department. The videos circulated widely online and on television.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said the internal investigation involved whether Senior Deputy Fields followed protocol when asked to remove the student from the classroom at about 11 a.m. Monday.

He did not, Lott said.

Criminal charges, if there are any, would come from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, Lott said. On Monday, he asked them to investigate. Those agencies announced Tuesday they had opened a civil rights investigation into Fields’ actions.

Lott said the girl was on her cellphone and not participating in class. He said she was asked by a teacher, and then by an administrator, to leave the classroom but didn’t. That’s when the deputy was called and asked to remove her, he said.

Lott said Wednesday that the teacher and the administrator said they didn’t think the deputy used excessive force.

Still, he said, Fields did not follow protocol.

“I have a problem with that,” he said.

It wasn’t a hard decision, he said.

“Deputy Fields did wrong,” Lott said. ” … When he threw her across the room, that’s when I made my decision.”

Schools are for learning, Lott said. School resource officers are in schools to help students learn, he said.

“But, sometimes, deputies do wrong,” he said. ” … He should not have thrown the student.”

Still, the student disrupted that school and that class, Lott said.

“Let’s not forget that. What she did doesn’t justify what our deputy did. But she needs to be held responsible.”

Some procedures could change, he said.

“We’re going to talk to the school districts so they understand that when they call us, we’re going to take a law enforcement action,” Lott said. ” … Should (the deputy) ever have been called there? … We’re going to look at that.”

Lott said he learned that all of the work he and his deputies have done in past years helping to build community — with churches, with schools, with residents — means that people expected him to do the right thing and that the community will be strong going forward.

“People expect us to do the right thing. … Citizens should use their cellphone and police the police. That’s their job,” Lott said.

The girl’s lawyer, Columbia’s Todd Rutherford, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that the student suffered arm, neck, back and head injuries.

Lott said Tuesday he thought she might have suffered no more than a rug burn.

Fields has had three lawsuits filed against him as a deputy. In one, involving an excessive-force allegation before Fields worked in schools, a federal jury found in his favor. Another case was dismissed, The Associated Press reported. The third suit, which is ongoing, alleges Fields wrongly pushed for a Richland 2 student’s expulsion.

Photo: Richland County Sheriff’s Department Officer Senior Deputy Ben Fields is pictured with Karen Beaman, right, Principal of Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School after receiving Culture of Excellence Award at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina on November 12, 2014. Fields has been fired by the school district after throwing a student at her desk. REUTERS/Richland County Sheriff’s Department/Handout

Moving From Punishing Students Who Misbehave To Understanding The Causes

By Claudia Rowe The Seattle Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — For years, Franky Price terrified his teachers.

As a third-grader, he pantomimed killing other students by sliding his finger across his throat. In fourth grade, he swore at anyone who angered him. The worst moment came one month into fifth grade, after Franky wrote down his violent fantasies.

He never planned to act on any of them, but the behavior alarmed educators enough to get him suspended from elementary school, then expelled — placing him among the thousands of children statewide and across the country who are removed annually from elementary-school classrooms.

To Franky, the punishments barely registered. Raised in a family of drug users and dealers, he wandered with them from one dingy apartment to the next. Often, there was no bed to sleep on and nothing but plastic covering the windows.

Franky never told anyone. He knew it would mean foster care.

Instead, he acted out, finally scrawling his inner world onto a piece of notepaper that another student showed their teacher.

“He took one look at me and said, ‘You need to go,'” recalled Price, now a senior at Chief Sealth High School. “Honestly, I’m surprised [Child Protective Services] wasn’t called — how does a fifth-grader even know about the things I was writing? I wish someone would have pulled me aside and asked: ‘Why do you feel this way?’ I mean, I was only 10 years old. But it was just ‘Go, get out of here.'”

Franky’s experience is not uncommon. In Washington, school suspension starts with kids as young as 5 years old, often beginning a downward spiral. Data show that certain children are punished again and again — missing weeks of class without a noticeable change in behavior. A third-grader from Seattle’s Highland Park Elementary, for example, was suspended nine times last year.

Such trends, only recently tracked, are raising serious concerns among legal advocates, parents and others who say schools rely too often on punitive discipline, especially for the very young.
“They’re whole children and they have behaviors,” said Jennifer Harris, policy analyst for the Education Ombuds, a state agency that mediates between families and schools. “That’s what we’re supposed to be teaching them — that there are rules. But instead, we’re tossing them out of school. I’ve got a 5-year-old being written up as a sexual harasser. I know about 5- or 6-year-olds who’ve hit their teacher’s wrist and that’s cast as assault.”

In general, elementary-school suspensions follow the same pattern as discipline for older students: a surprising number of kids sent home for lesser offenses like disrespect, and black children suspended at rates that far outpace their enrollment.

Explanations for the latter fall, roughly, into two camps: those who say African-American kids, like Franky, more often flout schoolhouse norms; and those who insist that mostly-white educators frequently escalate misunderstandings into punishment.

But when it comes to suspensions, growing research suggests there is a less contentious — and more productive — way to handle students, one that views misbehavior not as a personal attack but as a language signaling children’s neurological state.

Teaching through this lens has given educators a powerful new tool for handling difficult outbursts, and it is getting results in schools from Boston to Los Angeles, including 12 in Washington state. Teachers in at least one Spokane school have watched suspensions drop by half.

Such an approach could have been transformational for Franky. Because for all the fear he caused in teachers, it is teachers he remembers most fondly. Compared with his life outside of school, they were the safest people he knew.

Put simply, certain experiences — including events as common as divorce — can be traumatic for children and harm their prefrontal cortexes, the part of the brain in charge of self-control and abstract reasoning. As a result, kids who grow up in chaotic or unstable homes may appear unfocused in class or react to off-the-cuff remarks as threats, precisely the sorts of behavior coded “disruptive” or “disrespectful” on school discipline spreadsheets.

“It’s as if their hair’s on fire, and you’re asking them to write their name,” said Kristy Wilkinson, who teaches third grade in Spokane, where research suggests at least 45 percent of students are growing up in homes riven by alcoholism, mental illness, domestic violence and other types of family dysfunction.

The light bulb came on for Wilkinson when she learned that kids from such households exist in a simmering state of emergency, which shows up in school as impulsivity, edginess and aggression.
“I realized that my students’ behavior wasn’t about me — it was about their story,” she said. “Taking that personal aspect out of the equation was huge.”

Wilkinson’s epiphany came not via feel-good theorists, but brain science spurred by the findings of two physicians who in 1997 discovered a link between what they called Adverse Childhood Experiences — or ACEs — and adult health problems.

The original study, by Drs. Robert Anda, with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Vincent Felitti, of Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, focused on 17,000 patients — most of them white, middle-class and educated, who reported rates of childhood trauma that surprised investigators: Nearly two-thirds had experienced at least one ACE (often, parental divorce), and 22 percent noted three or more, including substance abuse and domestic violence.

Those findings intrigued Chris Blodgett, a public-health researcher at Washington State University, who began examining school results through the ACEs lens, and believes racism could also be added to the child-trauma list. Poverty, too, is absent from the nine life events officially tracked. But it often exists alongside them.

Either way, the upshot was clear: Trauma interferes with brain systems essential to learning, and the more ACEs, the more trauma. In 2014, Johns Hopkins University published similar results.

“If this data was coming from middle-class white adults, we knew we had it in our schools,” said Wendy Bleeker, director of student support in Spokane. “It’s clear that kids are experiencing trauma. It’s clear that it’s affecting their attendance and learning. So it made sense for us to get ahead of it.”

The notion of Adverse Childhood Experiences resonated loudly at Bemiss Elementary, in Spokane, which is largely white and sits in one of the poorest ZIP codes in Washington. Until recently, Bemiss suspended more than 100 kids each year.

“Suspension was huge here,” said Jen Moore, a school psychologist. “It was just, ‘Get this kid out of my class.'”

In 2008, Bemiss became one of Blodgett’s early laboratories. First, his team educated teachers about the effects of early trauma, then helped them come up with ways to mitigate it.

Predictability, they learn, is helpful for kids with chaotic lives. At Bemiss, this shows up as daily schedules posted with large, colorful letters; student-behavior charts that progress from “super job” to “think about it” to “parent contact”; and secluded corners where children can sit and calm themselves.

You are more than your mistakes, says a poster in the quiet area just outside Wilkinson’s classroom.

Forging genuine relationships — among teachers, and between students and adults — also works. That may sound obvious, acknowledged Principal Jennifer Keck, but in many teacher-training programs it comes as an afterthought.

“So much is focused on instructional strategies — how to teach reading, how to teach math or science — but I firmly believe if we haven’t built the relationships, you won’t have instruction as rigorous as you want,” she said.

After five years of incorporating these and similar approaches, Keck watched suspensions drop by 33 percent in 2014, without forcing teachers to simply endure disruptive students. Indeed, school records show that defiance plummeted between September and April this school year.

That climate is evident in Bemiss Elementary’s cheery hallways, where teachers routinely throw an arm around students — even the most obstreperous. While test scores have bounced up and down, Bemiss is the first high-poverty school in Spokane to make it to the state finals in robotics last year.

Keck and her team walked a long road to get to this point. It took four years of monthly training and a team of teachers willing to collaborate on trauma-sensitive approaches.

“Early on, they used to ask: ˜Give us that silver bullet. Show us what to do.’ But it was not about me as a school leader deciding that,” Keck said. “It was about coming together as a staff and pooling what we knew about kids. It takes a while.”

That’s not to say that Bemiss students no longer challenge their teachers.

A fourth-grader sitting outside Keck’s office — arms crossed hard across his chest, hoodie zipped over his head and body pretzel-twisted into a tight little line — provided a recent example. He was a bottle-rocket about to explode, a live wire of rage.

Years ago the boy almost certainly would have been suspended. He had scribbled on another child’s work, thrown a marker at his teacher and stormed from the classroom.

Peggy Slotvig, who knew the child and happened to be on a break, did not immediately grill him about why he’d been sent out of class. Instead, she ushered the youth upstairs, away from front-office traffic and into an empty classroom where the two sat close together.

“We were just messing around,” he began in a high voice, describing his fight with the art teacher. “Then she said, ˜That’s no way to get a girlfriend,’ and it set me off.”

“Very good — it did set you off. Because it embarrassed you,” nodded Slotvig, aware that the student had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and no longer speaks to his mother.

“She started it,” the youth insisted, rocking slightly in his chair.

“You know what? I’m going to agree with you — she did start it,” Slotvig said. “But not to be mean. She was trying to be funny. She just didn’t know your triggers.”

It would be the boy’s responsibility to explain them, just as he had with the librarian and gym teacher, and to answer for losing his temper. Consequences are essential, notes Natalie Turner, a trainer on Blodgett’s team who worked with the Bemiss staff.

“There is a place for suspension,” she said. “There has to be accountability. But too often, that response is purely reactive. It’s not about problem-solving.”

Photo: Teacher Lauralee Klingler’s third-grade class at Bemiss Elementary School in Spokane, Wash., can be relaxed enough for a student to read lying down. Teachers have been using a trauma-informed approach to school discipline for years. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/TNS)

Some School Food Program Recipients Ineligible, Audit Finds

By Michael Doyle, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — School districts in California, Florida, and Texas are providing free or low-cost meals to ineligible students, Agriculture Department auditors warn in a new report.

The failures cost taxpayers millions of dollars in benefits provided to children from households whose income was later found to be excessive or unsupported, auditors say. With 97 percent of the assisted households not double checked at all, the full cost is unknown.

Auditors suggest it might be time to require more proof of poverty from families applying for free or low-cost meals.

“The act of turning in income documentation with applications may discourage applicants from being dishonest about household income levels,” the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General noted in the report made public this week.

But while USDA officials acknowledge the room for improvement and say they have the legal authority to require income documentation, they also resist imposing new application barriers.

“Significant other legal, policy, and operational concerns remain,” the department’s Food and Nutrition Service stated.

Requiring applicants for free or low-cost meals to submit proof of income “could create barriers to participation for eligible children (and) cause significant administrative and record-keeping burden for participating schools,” the agency stated.

Elyse Homel Vitale, a nutrition policy specialist with California Food Policy Advocates, added in an interview Wednesday that the most “administratively efficient” means of checking applicants is “direct certification.” Instead of requiring separate applications and documentation, families already found eligible for other federal food or cash assistance programs are automatically enrolled in school meals.

“Having schools take additional steps to verify eligibility may not be the best use of their resources,” Vitale said.

The National School Lunch Program operates in more than 100,000 schools and institutions nationwide; the newer School Breakfast Program serves somewhat fewer. Upward of 31 million children eat free or low-cost meals every day, at an annual cost of some $15 billion.

Texas and California lead the nation in participation, with 3.3 million and 3.2 million children, respectively, served under the school lunch program. In Florida, 1.6 million children benefited last year.

Within each state, some regions in particular rely on the federal aid. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, as many as 78 percent of schoolchildren in certain counties are eligible for the free or low-cost meals. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, more than half a million children participate.

Auditors examined school regions authorized to operate nutrition programs that included 17 schools each in California and Texas and 26 schools in Florida. The individual districts and schools were not named. Schools were also examined in Delaware, Rhode Island, and Wyoming, where participation rates are much lower.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, while those at or below 185 percent of the poverty level can get reduced-price meals. Currently, families can simply attest to their income and need not show proof. Districts, in turn, must take small samples to verify eligibility.

Often, there are errors. A separate study released by the Food and Nutrition Service this week found that roughly ten percent of school lunch or breakfast program payments were improper, a combination of underpayments and, mostly, overpayments amounting to about $1.5 billion.

“Reducing errors in our school meal programs is a top priority for USDA,” Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said in a statement.

The Office of Inspector General auditors noted that in one large, unnamed California district, 886 out of 1,020 sampled households turned out to be ineligible for the level of meal aid received.

“Based on these results, we conclude that it is likely that other students receiving free or reduced-price meals may not be eligible for them,” auditors stated.

In Texas, auditors found a district where 796 out of 1,198 sampled households didn’t respond to a request for documents. In Florida, auditors found a woman who had submitted a pay stub indicating she was married, even though her meal application said she was single.

“FNS is at risk for improper payments because there is no assurance that household self-reported income is accurate,” auditors cautioned.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr

How Much Student Testing Is Too Much?

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If it’s springtime, it must be standardized testing time in schools across the country.

It’s also when the debate over whether students are inundated with too many tests becomes hot.

Experts say testing is up. Parents who want their children to skip the tests say their ranks are growing. Lawmakers say they’re hearing a loud message about too much unnecessary testing.

The Common Core, a set of tougher classroom standards adopted by more than 40 states, has further inflamed the critics.

But new legislation might change the school testing landscape.

Congress will debate education this spring as lawmakers attempt to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the law spelling out the federal role in public education. Passed in 2002, it mandated annual testing and attached severe consequences for schools whose test scores didn’t show enough progress.

A bipartisan agreement in the Senate on its update of the education bill might reduce the pressure to test. It gives states, not Washington, the job of ensuring that schools are doing good work and deciding what to do about those that aren’t.

The legislation “should produce fewer and more appropriate tests,” according to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

That’s still down the road. What’s new this year is that for the first time most states are using new computer-based tests that require more critical thinking.

What’s not are the complaints. Some parents worry that schools base their lesson plans on what the tests focus on. Poor test-takers are at a disadvantage. Critics say too much money is spent on testing. The consequences of failure can mean closed schools, lost jobs, and an impact on student progress.

“We need fewer, better, and fairer assessments,” Susie Morrison, chief education officer and deputy superintendent at the Illinois State Board of Education, said at a recent meeting of state school officials in Washington.

Parents deserve to know how their children are doing, she said. Tests also are needed to help reduce the large numbers of students who graduate from high school but need remedial classes before college.

But not all tests are equally valuable, she said: “Some assessments used by local districts can and should go away, in our opinion.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who wants to maintain the federal role of holding schools accountable for student growth through annual tests, nonetheless has said that students, parents, and teachers have a legitimate complaint where there’s too much testing or test preparation.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were required to show “adequate yearly progress” or face outside intervention, which could result in school takeovers.

Waivers from the law’s requirements under the Obama administration came with conditions that schools base teacher evaluations partly on test scores.

“There’s always been a group of parents that don’t like testing,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education research center. “I think the reason it’s been brought to a rapid boil lately is because of these teacher evaluations.”

Tests that states require to measure progress in math and reading cover about 20 percent of teachers, Petrilli said. Many states have standardized tests in other subjects so that all teachers can be evaluated by the results.

“It’s not just the assessments that they actually take as part of the state assessment program, it’s the constant benchmarking and practice tests that take up a significant amount of students’ time,” said Scott Placek, president of the Texas Parents’ Educational Rights Network, a coalition of parents and attorneys that supports parents who don’t want their children to take the tests.

In North Carolina, the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee recommended ways to alleviate what it called the testing burden on the district level. It also found that the state had reduced the number of required end-of-course tests from ten to three in the past five years and had eliminated other state-required assessments.

Texas and Virginia passed laws that reduced the number of state-required tests.

In Florida, Rosemarie Jensen of Parkland, one of the national administrators of the United Opt Out movement, a group that opposes “test-centric educational practices,” said she’d seen big growth in the last year in the number of parents nationwide who’d been organizing in opposition to the tests and keeping their children from taking them.

In Florida, such groups have grown from a few to 26 this year. A map by Jensen’s group pinpoints parents who report they’ve refused to let their children take the tests. It shows them scattered nationwide.

“This is not a valid way to measure an entire child,” said Jensen, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher who’s the mother of two high school students. “None of this has anything to do with better education. This is about a lot of money being made on these tests, and on using the tests to grade schools and turn them over to charters and firing teachers and impacting their pay.”

In her own family, Jensen said, her son, a ninth-grader, is a good student but a poor test-taker. Her daughter, a senior, does well on tests.

“Her test scores can mask some not-so-good teachers,” she said. “My son’s make his teachers look bad, and they work so hard with him. That’s not fair.”

Debbie Veney, vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on students of color and those from low-income families, said too many tests were redundant, not aligned to standards, or just not useful.

“However, are tests necessary? Absolutely,” she said. “We believe it’s not enough to simply see what performance levels are. You’ve got to be able to do something when performance levels aren’t where they need to be.”

Stu Silberman, a former school superintendent who’s executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit group of advocates in Kentucky, said school districts must find a balance so that they could be accountable to the public without testing too much.

Silberman said he was a big believer in the informal tests teachers used all the time to see how students were doing, such as quizzes. These kinds of checks give teachers the clues they need to plan their lessons, he said.

But when tests get too formal, and too frequent, he said, “then it starts to feel like we’re doing too much.”

Photo: NCinDC via Flickr