Sunday, April 03, 2011

DOE fines Virginia Tech for shootings response

Virginia Tech will have to pay the maximum $55,000 fine for violating federal law by waiting too long to notify students during the 2007 shooting rampage but will not lose any federal student aid, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday.

Department officials wrote in a letter to the school that the sanction should have been greater for the school's slow response to the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, when student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and faculty, then himself.

The $55,000 fine was the most the department could levy for Tech's two violations of the federal Clery Act, which requires timely reporting of crimes on campus.

"While Virginia Tech's violations warrant a fine far in excess of what is currently permissible under the statute, the Department's fine authority is limited," wrote Mary Gust, director of a department panel that dictated what punishment the school would receive for the violation.

The university avoided the potentially devastating punishment of losing some or all of its $98 million in federal student aid. While that's possible for a Clery Act violation, the department has never taken that step and a department official said Tuesday it was never considered for Tech.

University officials have always maintained their innocence and said they would appeal the fine, even though it's a relatively small sum for a school of more than 30,000 full-time students and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. The amount would cover tuition and fees for one Virginia undergraduate student for four years, or two years for an out-of-state undergrad.

"We believe that Virginia Tech administrators acted appropriately in their response to the tragic events of April 16, 2007, based on the best information then available to them at the time," spokesman Larry Hincker said in a statement.

The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal student financial aid to report crimes and security policies and provide warning of campus threats. It is named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old university freshman who was raped and murdered in her dormitory in 1986. Her parents later learned that dozens of violent crimes had been committed on the campus in the three years before her death.

The Education department issued its final report in December, finding that Virginia Tech failed to issue a timely warning to the Blacksburg campus after Cho shot and killed two students in a dormitory early that morning in 2007. The university sent out an e-mail to the campus more than two hours later, about the time Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty, then himself.

That e-mail was too vague, the department said, because it referred only to a "shooting incident" but did not mention anyone had died. By the time a second, more explicit warning was sent, Cho was near the end of his shooting spree. "Had an appropriate timely warning been sent earlier to the campus community, more individuals could have acted on the information and made decisions about their own safety," the department said in its letter.

A state commission that investigated the shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner. The state reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims' families. Two families have sued and are seeking $10 million in damages from university officials. That case is set for trial this fall.

Virginia Tech argues that, relying on campus police, it first thought the shootings were domestic and that a suspect had been identified so there was no threat to campus. The university argued that the Department of Education didn't define "timely" until 2009, when it added regulations because of the Tech shootings.

Hincker, the university spokesman, outlined six other serious incidents at other college campuses before and after the Tech shootings in which notifications were not given for hours, or in some instances the next day, and the schools were not punished.

"The only reason we want to appeal this is that it gives us the process to explain how a notice given on one campus can be OK if it's this long, and a notice given on another campus is not OK if it's this short a time period," he said. "As best we can tell, it's whatever DOE decides after the fact." The education department rebuffed that argument, saying officials should have treated it as a threat because the shooter was on the loose.

Through its appeal, Hincker said the university hopes to find out how the department came to its conclusion. School officials were never interviewed, he said, and the department refused to share materials or respond to Freedom of Information requests sent by the school. If the school loses the appeal, it could fight the fine in court.

Several victims' family members maligned Tech for saying it would appeal. "This is in black and white," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured in the shootings. "They're going to spend more money appealing it than just paying the fine, because they do not want to admit they did anything wrong."

Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was shot but survived, said she was not surprised by the maximum fine. "I feel like it's par for the course, if you will, for what they are allowed to do," she said. "I think it is a woefully, woefully, woefully sad amount of money for the staggering loss of life."

Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin also was injured, said even a smaller fine would have accomplished a purpose. "The bottom line is just having a monetary amount points out what they did was wrong," he said. "There's really no way you can replace 32 people, or even seek to equate that with money. I'm not too worried about the amount. Even if they charged them a dollar, it would have done the same thing."

Only about 40 schools have come under review for Clery violations in the 20 years that the law has been in place. The largest fine to be levied was $350,000 against Eastern Michigan University for failing to report the rape and murder of a student in a dormitory in 2006.

S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security On Campus, a nonprofit organization that monitors the Clery Act, said it's "a shame" the department had only really began fining schools for noncompliance in 2005. "If the Department of Education had sent a stronger message about having to follow the law and that something faster would be expected sooner, the shootings at Virginia Tech may have never happened," Carter said.


Hanky-panky to make a government school look good

Rhee was hornswoggled

In just two years, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its "shining stars."

Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes' students scored "proficient" or "advanced" in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.

Because of the remarkable turnaround, the U.S. Department of Education named the school in northeast Washington a National Blue Ribbon School. Noyes was one of 264 public schools nationwide given that award in 2009.

Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes' staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000.

A closer look at Noyes, however, raises questions about its test scores from 2006 to 2010. Its proficiency rates rose at a much faster rate than the average for D.C. schools. Then, in 2010, when scores dipped for most of the district's elementary schools, Noyes' proficiency rates fell further than average.

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

This is a series of documents obtained by USA TODAY through public-records requests. It details a back-and-forth between two District of Columbia agencies on test-score investigations.
Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That's more than half of D.C. schools.

Erasures are detected by the same electronic scanners that CTB/McGraw-Hill, D.C.'s testing company, uses to score the tests. When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student.

In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

"This is an abnormal pattern," says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.

A trio of academicians consulted by USA TODAY — Haladyna, George Shambaugh of Georgetown University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University — say the erasure rates found at Noyes and at other D.C. public schools are so statistically rare, and yet showed up in so many classrooms, that they should be examined thoroughly.

USA TODAY examined testing irregularities in the District of Columbia's public schools because, under Rhee, the system became a national symbol of what high expectations and effective teaching could accomplish. Federal money also was at play: Last year, D.C. won an extra $75 million for public and charter schools in the U.S. government's Race to the Top competition. Test scores were a factor.

USA TODAY initially looked at Noyes only because of its high erasure rates. Later, the newspaper found that Wayne Ryan, the principal from 2001 to 2010, and the school had been touted as models by district officials. They were the centerpiece of the school system's recruitment ads in 2008 and 2009, including at least two placed in Principal magazine.

"Noyes is one of the shining stars of DCPS," one ad said. It praised Ryan for his "unapologetic focus on instruction" and asked would-be job applicants, "Are you the next Wayne Ryan?"

In response to questions from USA TODAY, Kaya Henderson, who became acting chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools after Rhee resigned in October, said last week that "a high erasure rate alone is not evidence of impropriety."

D.C. "has investigated all allegations of testing impropriety," Henderson said. "In those situations in which evidence of impropriety has been found, we have enforced clear consequences for the staff members involved, without hesitation."

Henderson, who was Rhee's deputy, said the system would identify only schools where violations of security protocol were found. "For the majority of schools" investigated, there was "no evidence of wrongdoing," she said. Out of fairness to staff members, she said, she declined to identify all the schools that were investigated.

There can be innocent reasons for multiple erasures. A student can lose his place on the answer sheet, fill in answers on the wrong rows, then change them when he realizes his mistake. And, as McGraw-Hill said in a March 2009 report to D.C. officials, studies also show that test-takers change answers more often when they are encouraged to review their work. The same report emphasizes that educators "should not draw conclusions about cheating behavior" from the data alone.

Haladyna notes, however, that when entire classrooms at schools with statistically rare erasures show fast-rising test scores, that suggests someone might have "tampered with the answer sheets," perhaps after the tests were collected from students. Although not proof of cheating, such a case underscores the need for an investigation, he says.


Lefties, not Etonians, are closing British libraries

Zadie Smith is wrong about libraries – and the BBC were wrong to let her broadcast her attack on the 'cuts', writes Simon Heffer

Just as some of us believe in Father Christmas or the Lone Ranger, I have long believed there is no institutional political bias in the BBC. I have made many programmes for the corporation over the past 20 or so years and have never encountered any blatant example of it. I know some senior BBC executives who I think might even vote Conservative – not that that signifies a freedom from Leftism these days. However, one contribution to the Today programme this week made me think I might be wrong.

It was the piece-to-microphone by Zadie Smith, a novelist, about the closure of libraries. For five minutes she was allowed to broadcast an attack on the “cuts”, and the effect they were having on these institutions. She did so with her assertions, prejudices and misinformation going unchallenged.

Miss Smith happens to be a woman, a Leftist and a member of an ethnic minority. I fear there are some people in the BBC for whom that formula signals the need to suspend disbelief. No man of the Right from the ethnic majority would ever be given such a platform to make such assertions. The editor responsible should be the subject of the most rigorous inquiry, to say the least.

Miss Smith and I would agree that libraries are good. We would disagree about why they are closing. She says it is because the Cabinet is full of people from “Eton and Harrow” who simply don’t care. Not a single member of the Cabinet went to Harrow. Only one, the Prime Minister, went to Eton. Two other OEs, Sir George Young and Oliver Letwin, attend Cabinet but are not members of it. The BBC seems not to mind that she says these dishonest and unpleasant things. Had someone spoken in the same way about homosexuals, Muslims or even Jews, the world would have ended.

Libraries are closing not because of “cuts”, or because of a callous, privately educated clique whose bookshelves are so capacious and well-stocked that they have no need of public provision – they are closing because mischievous Leftist councils of the sort supported by Miss Smith choose to close them rather than make savings elsewhere.

If you sack diversity officers or lesbian outreach workers, that merely makes sense, since the productivity and social value of such jobs are minimal. If you close a library, you harm children, the elderly and the intellectually curious poor who are already betrayed by our dismal education system. The political point made is therefore far more satisfying. (Miss Smith seemed to think another purpose of libraries was to be somewhere from which her mother could steal books, but let that pass.)

The BBC is making “cuts”, because the Government feels the revenue from generous licence-fee settlements past has been squandered or badly deployed. The BBC should not have diversified into the guide books business nor given an £18 million contract to one rather ordinary presenter. There long ago ceased to be a link between funding and quality in the BBC: look at the job of informing, educating and entertaining that Radio 3 does on very little money.

So the BBC is touchy about “cuts”, and Miss Smith was a suitably high-profile voice to articulate this anger. But she was also wrong. There is another side to the coin, and in the interests of impartiality I trust we shan’t need to wait too long before seeing or hearing it.


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