Saturday, January 15, 2011

Students’ rights weighed as colleges try to assess threats

A growing majority of colleges nationwide are keeping tabs on students through "threat assessment teams" charged with identifying dangerous students, causing debate to erupt over how much power the schools should have as they try to flag disturbing behavior.

Two states — Virginia and Illinois — now legally require such teams and 80% of colleges nationwide have started them since the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech that left 32 people dead. At Pima Community College in Arizona, a Behavior Assessment Committee identified alleged gunman Jared Loughner as a person of concern months before a weekend massacre that killed six and injured 13 others, and the school suspended him.

Questions are now being raised about the appropriateness and effectiveness of the teams. In the wake of the Arizona shooting, some experts are questioning whether the school could have done more to help Loughner, or to alert authorities beyond campus borders. "There's a dangerous person put out in the community," says Stetson University College of Law professor Peter Lake.

Other critics say administrators may try to use threat assessment teams for their own purposes. In a case involving a student dismissed from Valdosta State University, a federal judge ruled that the former president improperly called for an investigation into the student's mental health, employment and grades mostly because the student opposed plans to build a campus parking garage.

Since April 2007, news reports show that at least 67 people have been killed and 69 others injured in attacks by U.S. college students.

Threat assessment teams, also given softer names such as "behavioral intervention" or "student of concern" committees, spread quickly after the Virginia Tech tragedy, where various officials each noticed red flags but didn't connect the dots in time to stop Seung Hui Cho from going on a rampage.

Nobody tracked threat assessment teams before 2007, but experts such as Brett Sokolow, past president of the National Behavior Intervention Team Association, say about 20 colleges had them before Virginia Tech. The association estimates about 1,600 campuses have them today.

United Educators, which insures 1,160 schools and colleges, recommends such teams as a way to identify students who may pose a risk on campus, gather information to assess the situation, and determine whether there is need for an intervention. That could involve, for example, an evaluation for disability services, a referral for medical treatment, a call to parents or suspension.

Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to submit confidential reports detailing concerns about behaviors they've seen. The reports go to a committee, which meets regularly to discuss cases and intervene when necessary. "We try to look at each case objectively, to see whether we're dealing with a goofy, immature kid, or someone who's truly a danger," says Patricia Lunt, head of Campus Assessment, Response and Evaluation (CARE) Teams at Northern Virginia Community College, which enrolls 78,000 students.

Last year, the first year the school began tracking students, 130 reports were submitted, about half involving "concerning" behaviors such as verbal threats, erratic or disrespectful behavior or talk of suicide. Fewer than five students were dismissed, Lunt said.

Pima Community College, which suspended Loughner and steered him toward mental health treatment, has been praised for following standard policies. "The school did what they were supposed to do, which is protect their school, require an evaluation," says Brian Van Brunt, president of the American College Counseling Association and director of counseling at Western Kentucky University.

Some mental health officials argue that suspension is inappropriate. "The fear is that rather than using (teams) as a vehicle to support students, they're using them as a vehicle to get rid of them," says Karen Bower, senior staff attorney at Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an advocate for mentally ill people.

"Colleges are in a unique position to engage students and work with them, support them to get them the help they need …They are in an environment where people can reach out and make a difference." She says the existence of threat assessment teams might discourage students from getting the help they need.

Students' rights groups say administrators are infringing on students' free-speech rights. "Putting innocent outbursts into a campus database is a chilling way to police discourse on campus," says Adam Kissel, vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "In the name of security, behavioral intervention teams are encouraged to go far beyond what they need to do."

Advocates acknowledge colleges face complicated decisions. "No one wants to be the college who fails to react. But no one wants to be the college that overreacts," Sokolow says. "The key is do due diligence."


British Labour Party's showpiece school closes after only two years

In good Leftist fashion, its design brief was to ‘rip up the rulebook’ -- and it did. It paid no heed to its potential clients and arrogance got its just reward. Parents just didn't like it and refused to send their kids there

A flagship secondary school championed by Labour is to close just two years after it opened – but the taxpayer will be paying for it for another 23 years. Christ the King in Huyton, Merseyside, was held up by former education secretary Ed Balls as a shining example of what the defeated government had done for pupils.

The school, which cost £24million to build and set up under the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI), was meant to transform the prospects of children in one of the most deprived areas of Britain, and its design brief was to ‘rip up the rulebook’ and inspire ‘awe and wonder’ in pupils.

But it has become the first school opened under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme to close because not enough parents will send their children there.

The joint Roman Catholic-Church of England school should have 900 pupils but has been half-empty since it opened because Catholic parents want their children educated at a full faith school and are prepared to send them up to four miles away.

Yet because it was built under the PFI, its private sector builder and owner will be paid millions for the next 25 years.

Private Finance Initiatives allow the government to build schools and hospitals without raising any public money up front. They were introduced under John Major’s Tory administration in the early 1990s, but taken up with huge enthusiasm by Labour.

Under PFI a private company constructs the building, and then leases it to the government for, typically, 25 or 30 years, before it reverts to public ownership.

In theory it sounds like a good way to invest in infrastructure, but in reality the taxpayer ends up paying far more over the long term. As Chancellor Gordon Brown regularly used PFI to keep spending off the public books and stay within his strict borrowing rules.

While in power Labour created 544 PFI projects, mostly schools and hospitals, which will end up costing taxpayers almost five times the original sum.

Under the original plans, the projected cost was expected to be £3,100 a year for every family in the country. But now, according to Treasury estimates, the PFIs will cost a total of £245billion by 2047-48 – or £14,800 for every household.

Labour had planned to rebuild or refurbish all 3,500 secondary schools in England by 2023 at a total cost of £55billion, but the Coalition scrapped schemes which had yet to get under way.

At last year’s Labour Party conference, Mr Balls hailed Christ the King as ‘magnificent’ and said it was a ‘tragedy’ that his successor Michael Gove had scrapped the school-building scheme.

But the Christ the King project, drawn up by Labour-run Knowsley Council, appears to have been deeply flawed from the start. The council closed the area’s two Catholic secondaries to make way for it.

But Catholic parents, who form the majority locally, have shunned the new joint-faith school and sent their children to Catholic schools miles away in Liverpool and St Helens. As a result, around half the 180 available places are unfilled in the current academic year.

Ian Smith, Lib Dem leader of Knowsley council and a former teacher, blamed Labour’s ‘social engineering’. ‘There are two different communities in Huyton – Church of England and Catholic – and they do not mix,’ he said. ‘The council steamrollered over them to grab Government money. Now it has blown up in their face.’

The closure of Christ the King School confirms everything this paper has argued for years about the Private Finance Initiative — a scheme monstrously abused by Labour to conceal reckless spending from the Treasury’s books.


The rise of soft courses: Half a million British students fail to hit High School target

More than 550,000 pupils failed to achieve five passes in traditional subjects at GCSE because they were signed up to take easier options such as hairdressing, league tables revealed yesterday. Only one in six youngsters achieved the standard which is now expected of them by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

Mr Gove believes this leaves them lacking basic academic skills and ill-prepared to enter the workplace or further education.

The findings are the result of a controversial new ranking system for secondary schools – called the English Baccalaureate – which Mr Gove says exposes the shift under Labour towards ‘soft’ courses such as hairdressing salon services.

To meet the Education Secretary’s new measure, all pupils are expected to score A* to C in the five core GCSE subjects of English, mathematics, science, languages and humanities. But just 15.6 per cent of pupils passed the threshold last summer.

In more than half of state secondaries – some 1,600 – fewer than 10 per cent achieved this. And in 270 schools, there were no pupils who achieved it.

Mr Gove wants this measure to be one of the statistics parents use to judge the value of schools. But his plan has sparked a major political row and provoked furious reaction from headteachers and teaching unions.

Yesterday Andy Burnham, Labour’s education spokesman, accused Mr Gove of telling youngsters they can ‘study Latin but not ICT’. Teaching unions claimed he was ‘relentlessly elitist’.

But Mr Gove maintains the toughening up of standards is necessary to reverse more than a decade of downgrading of core subjects in favour of easier alternatives. He is furious that poorer children are being fobbed off with easier subjects because they are not seen as capable of tackling harder ones.

Under Labour, there was an astonishing 3,800 per cent increase in uptake of non-academic GCSE-equivalent courses, including sports leadership and computer skills.

In 2005, 15,000 so-called ‘soft’ GCSEs were taken. This soared to 575,000 last year. Mr Gove said yesterday: ‘Labour got its priorities wrong and said kids from poor homes could not do difficult subjects.’

He added that previous ranking measures encouraged ‘many great schools and great heads to offer certain non-academic subjects rather than more rigorous subjects’.

Parents can now view results based on the English Baccalaureate measure (A*-C in the five specified core subjects) and on how many pupils gained five A*-C grades including English and maths. They can also see financial information to judge if their head is making the best use of his or her resources.

However, Mr Gove was forced to defend himself during an interview on BBC Radio 5 live. A caller said: ‘Children go to school to work out who they are and what they want to study. ‘My guess is that this just reflects your own personal, narrow experience of education ... I’d just ignore your silly English Baccalaureate.’

He replied: ‘You are free to use the information published today to produce your own findings.’

Chris Keates, of teaching union NASUWT, said: ‘The Coalition Government is pursuing a relentlessly elitist approach to education, condemning schools to live or die by the narrow range of subjects identified in the English Baccalaureate.’

Grammar schools cemented their dominance of league tables, taking nine of the top ten places. Of the top 50 schools, 80 per cent are grammars.

The results will prompt calls for the Coalition to increase the number of grammars, which on average receive more than five applicants for every pupil place.

David Cameron has said that he will not increase the number of grammars, although Education Secretary Michael Gove has said they will be allowed to increase in size.

World-renowned independent schools criticised the new rankings after sinking to the bottom on a technicality.

Schools such as Eton, Harrow and Marlborough achieved lower results than some of ­England’s worst-performing comprehensives because they swapped conventional GCSEs for the more rigorous International GCSE, which is not recognised in the tables. The result is that the rankings showed 142 independent schools with no pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE.

Some 216 state secondaries face closure or take-over after failing to hit basic GCSE ‘floor targets’.


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