Monday, May 21, 2007

Threatened student gets no help

WSB-TV Atlanta, May 18 2007

A Henry County high school student said he was the victim of persistent threats that were reported to the school administration. But now he's the one being punished.

"I'm just outraged and appalled that something like this could happen," said father Rob Sims.

"It's not an uncommon concern for parents to be upset and concerned about their child being disciplined," said Tony Pickett with Henry County schools.

"I'm a good student, I just want to make friends," said student Bryan Sims. Bryan Sims said he is a member of the wrestling team and film club at Luella High.

He said for two weeks he thought about what to do after repeated threats from a fellow sophomore. He said friends told him about numerous threats from the other student to kill him.

"When I did approach him and said, 'Why do you want to shoot me, are you really saying this,' he just looked at me and smiled," said Sims.

He said he told his dad and his father went to the school administration about the threats.

"I said, 'I expect this to be resolved, if it's not resolved, I'll have to be back here in a couple weeks and we'll have to have a different conversation, up to and including, if I have to withdraw my son from school because I feel he's not safe," said Rob Sims.

Rob Sims said he heard nothing back and days passed. Finally, Bryan said the other student shoved him and made menacing remarks so Bryan waited until after his next class and then he retaliated.

"I threw a punch and I nicked him really, in the back left corner of his head. I wrapped my arms around him and I brought us both to the ground. I put him in a painless submission hold and said, 'Okay, now that you're down there, listen to me," said Bryan Sims.

Lawyer Scott Key said Bryan Sims was charged with four administrative charges and a school tribunal found him guilty of one -- physical abuse. In a hearing Friday they suspended him for the rest of the year.

"I understand that there should be some sort of punishment," said Bryan Sims. "Our responsibility everyday is to keep students and staff safe and secure," said Pickett.

Bryan Sims said he is the victim. The mother of the other student called Channel 2's Mark Winne and said her son has been picked on all year. She said the principal told her there was no evidence that her son did any of the things Bryan Sims accused him of, but she also said she's not happy with the school's handling of the situation either. She said her son had to go to the emergency room.

Incidents like this one happen all the time, everywhere... it's happened to almost all my friends. It's not just the nerds, geeks, dweebs and dorks that get picked on, it's pretty much anyone who isn't in the 'popular' cliques. That includes all the brightest and best minds and personalities and future leaders who will go on to earn twenty times as much as the bullies after high school; an economic vengeance. But this is little consolation to the student going about their day to day lives trying to make it through the school day without being harassed.
Marge Simpson: 'I thought you said, 'The law was powerless!'
Officer Wiggum: 'Yeah. Powerless to help you, not punish you.'
Administrators need to take these issues seriously, because they seriously affect their students. When, regrettably, school shootings do occur, it's when the students are tired of being victimized, tired of having no relief, tired of dealing with school officials and parents and trying every option open to them to fix their problems, and they resort to violence.

Resorting to violence to solve a problem represents a breakdown of communications between parties involved; in this case Bryan Sims took whatever action was necessary, went through proper channels, talked to his father, talked to school officials, and in despair took matters into his own hands. This is vigilante justice and it takes place when corruption, bureaucracy, incompetence or apathy halt the systems in place to administer legal justice. It represents a failure of the system.

I can't make blanket recommendations of how school officials should have handled this situation, but it is clear they had opportunities to head off the confrontation. It takes a lot of courage for students to not take things into their own hands and to share their feelings and experiences with parents and teachers, and if a parent expresses as much concern as Mr. Sims had the school has an obligation to their charges to look into it. These are rarely trivial matters; scientific consensus is that they affect children deeply and permanently and shape their future outlook and personalities. Let's make sure our school officials do their job properly, in loco parentis.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Readers Digest comments on Zero Tolerance

An article in the May 2007 Readers Digest discusses some of the more heinous applications of Zero Tolerance policy, including one that's eerily parallel to the story of Elliot Voge I posted on earlier this year:

On a chilly December morning in Houston, Eddie Evans's 12-year-old son hurried out the door in shirt sleeves on his way to the bus stop. Feeling the cold, he ducked back into his house to quickly grab a jacket. It wasn't until he'd gotten inside the school building that he remembered his three-inch pocketknife was still in his coat. Why would a sixth-grader carry a knife? Because he was a Boy Scout and he'd brought it to his last Scout meeting.

After asking a friend what he should do, the boy decided to keep quiet and hide the knife in his locker until the end of the day. But his friend mentioned the knife to a teacher, and school officials called the police. That afternoon, cops arrested the Evans child and took him to a juvenile detention center. "From that point on, my family's life was flipped on its head," the boy's father says.

The boy was suspended from school for 45 days and enrolled in an alternative school for juvenile offenders. Evans says the place was like a boot camp, where his son -- a good student, a youth leader in his church and a First Class Boy Scout -- was so miserable he talked about suicide.

It goes on to list a few recent incidents I've missed. "According to a report issued by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.:
  • A 17-year-old in Richmond, Illinois, shot a paper clip with a rubber band, missing his target but hitting a cafeteria worker instead. He was expelled.

  • A 12-year-old in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder, told others in a lunch line not to eat all the potatoes, or "I'm going to get you."
    Turned in by the lunch monitor, he was referred by the principal to the police, who charged the boy with making "terroristic threats." The kid spent several weeks in a juvenile detention center.

  • A 13-year-old in Denton County, Texas, was assigned in class to write a "scary" Halloween story. He concocted one that involved shooting up a school, which got him a visit from police -- and six days in jail before the courts confirmed that no crime had been committed.
The Evans case ended with the boy's parent getting involved in local and state politics to prevent just these sorts of abuses. He's even set up a website, Texas Zero Tolerance, to educate and activate parents on the issue. I'll be keeping a close eye on them and commenting on interesting stories I find.

Teachers stage fake gun attack on kids

Associated Press, May 13 2007

Staff members of an elementary school staged a fictitious gun attack on students during a class trip, telling them it was not a drill as the children cried and hid under tables.

The mock attack Thursday night was intended as a learning experience and lasted five minutes during the week-long trip to a state park, said Scales Elementary School Assistant Principal Don Bartch, who led the trip.

"We got together and discussed what we would have done in a real situation," he said.

But parents of the sixth-grade students were outraged.

"The children were in that room in the dark, begging for their lives, because they thought there was someone with a gun after them," said Brandy Cole, whose son went on the trip.

Some parents said they were upset by the staff's poor judgment in light of the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech that left 33 students and professors dead, including the gunman.

During the last night of the trip, staff members convinced the 69 students that there was a gunman on the loose. They were told to lie on the floor or hide underneath tables and stay quiet. A teacher, disguised in a hooded sweat shirt, even pulled on locked door.

After the lights went out, about 20 kids started to cry, 11-year-old Shay Naylor said.

"I was like, 'Oh My God,' " she said. "At first I thought I was going to die. We flipped out."

Principal Catherine Stephens declined to say whether the staff members involved would face disciplinary action, but said the situation "involved poor judgment."

How horrible! It may have only been a drill--but did that make the emotions any less real? There was no gunman--but did that make the children any less frightened? For these kids, in this situation, they feared for their lives. Ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds, believed that they would never see their parents again. And this 'drill' was done without their parents' knowledge or permission, and the kids had no reason not to believe their teachers.

Do we conduct fire drills by trapping kids in a burning building, even though the fire may be controlled? Do we teach kids how to dial 911 and give information by having their parents fake heart attacks? Absolutely not. Although these methods are powerful, they are also cruel. What must the kids think of these teachers who would do such a thing to them?

Since the original article was reported it has come to light that the whole incident was a prank at a school camping trip, intended to be in the same vein as spooky ghost stories. The people responsible have since been suspended. 'Poor judgment', indeed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Student banned for game map of school

Fort Bend Now, April 30 2007

Members of the area Chinese community have rallied behind a Clements High School senior who was removed from the campus and sent to M.R. Wood Alternative Education Center after parents complained he’d created a computer game map of Clements.

About 70 people attended the Fort Bend Independent School District’s April 23 meeting to show support for the Clements senior and his mother, Jean Lin, who spoke to FBISD Board trustees in a closed session.

While an agenda document does not specify details, the board is holding a special meeting tonight to address the boy’s actions and the discipline that was meted out as a result, sources close to the matter say. The boy’s name was not identified last week, and the district has declined to discuss his case.

Richard Chen, president of the Fort Bend Chinese-American Voters League and a acquaintance of the boy’s family, said he is a talented student who enjoys computer games and learned how to create maps (also sometimes known as “mods”), which provide new environments in which games may be played.

The map the boy designed mimicked Clements High School. And, sources said, it was uploaded either to the boy’s home computer or to a computer server where he and his friends could access and play on it. Two parents apparently learned from their children about the existence of the game, and complained to FBISD administrators, who investigated.

“They arrested him,” Chen said of FBISD police, “and also went to the house to search.” The Lin family consented to the search, and a hammer was found in the boy’s room, which he used to fix his bed, because it wasn’t in good shape, Chen said. He indicated police seized the hammer as a potential weapon.

“They decided he was a terroristic threat,” said one source close to the district’s investigation.

Sources said that although no charges were filed against the boy, he was removed from Clements, sent to the district’s alternate education school and won’t be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies with classmates.

“All he did was create a map and put it on a web site to allow students to play,” Chen said. “The mother thinks this is too harsh.”

FBISD officials declined to comment on the matter Monday. “Our challenge is, people in the community have freedom of speech and can say what they want, but we have laws” covering privacy issues, especially involving minors, that the district has to respect, said spokeswoman Nancy Porter.

Speakers at the FBISD Board’s April 23 meeting alluded to the Clements senior’s punishment, and drew a connection to the April 16 shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, in which a Korean student shot and killed 32 people.

The Asian community “faces new pressures” as a result of the shootings, William Sun told board members. “We urge the school and community not to label our Asian students as terrorists.”

“We should teach our children not to judge others harshly” and not to target people as being a threat because of their race, said Peter Woo, adding that the school district should lead the way in such efforts.

But Chen said Monday he and other community members don’t consider FBISD’s actions in the case to be racially motivated, and don’t think they blew the incident out of proportion.

“They all think the principal has to do something – but how much? We do understand with the Virginia Tech incident…something has to be done,” Chen said. “Someone just made a mistake, and we think the principal should understand that.”

We need to start questioning student's motives and intentions before taking disciplinary action against them. A student mapping out their school in Counter-Strike is no more of a threat to the student who maps out their home in The Sims. Many students have done things like this; last year, a student who had modeled and textured a map of our campus for a Computer Science assignment converted it into a Battlefield 1942 map for himself and his friends. It was distributed on campus and received a positive write-up in the student newspaper. That student is no more likely to actually drive a tank into our student center than this student is to run around the halls with a machine gun, or for Sims players to lock the bathroom door and watch houseguests starve to death. Hell, I know people who replicated their hometowns in SimCity 2000 ten years ago and wiped out their schools with tornadoes. Why are there any adults in existence who would consider these things threatening, let alone in places of power?

It's called fantasy, and it's everyday part of human life. Administrators and officials need to exercise some common sense and judgment in determining what is harmless fantasy and what is legally threatening. People create with what they're familiar with; ever wonder why Stephen King writes so much about Maine? Representing familiar environments in interactive virtual worlds is actually an area of sophisticated research in universities today, looking for the next level of human interaction with their environments and recognizing the inherent differences therein.

There is a distinction to be made in how we exercise our First Amendment rights, at what point we cross the line from expressing an opinion (a basic right) and inciting panic and fear of violence (not protected speech.) Since the infamous Jack Thompson has made this the subject of his latest case against posters on a message board making disparaging comments against him, it's probably a good idea to present some examples:

"Jack Thompson deserves to be stabbed."
"Jack Thompson ought to be stabbed."
"Somebody should stab Jack Thompson."
"I should stab Jack Thompson."
"I am going to stab Jack Thompson."

Now at what point does this cross the line from hyperbole to threat? And even in the latter case, any prosecutor in a court of law would have to provide more than verbal evidence to prove intent to commit a crime. In the absence of any specific people, methods or means, this student hasn't done anything even remotely threatening. Although we may consider his act to be in poor taste it's certainly not criminal.

Meanwhile, it's apparently legal for the police to search your property if a 3D map of your school for a video game is attributed to you.

The fact that police seized a hammer--not a hobby knife, not a BB gun, not a model rocket engine, but a hammer--as a potential weapon and labeled him a 'terrorist threat' is deeply troubling. It reeks of totalitarianism, to be able to arrest an American citizen who had committed no crimes and legally be able to ship them off to a military prison without the right to defend themselves, thanks to the suspension of Habeus Corpus for 'enemy combatants' labeled as Terrorists by the government, even within our own country. And lest you have faith in our government and are of the attitude that only criminals and undesirables will be affected by these procedures, keep in mind that the government will be making that distinction, NOT YOU.
In the oft-quoted words of Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left
to speak up for me.
We as a society need to fight for the rights of minorities, because the smallest minority of all is YOU--the individual. Maintain awareness of these events and call out those responsible.