Tuesday, August 01, 2017

UK: Scaring school children won’t keep them safe

Even though it’s almost 20 years ago now, I still vividly remember the moment when the young woman pulled back her sleeve and showed me the scar. The whole terrifying story was written there, just below the elbow.

On 8 July 1996, nursery teacher Lisa Potts and her group of four-year-olds were enjoying a teddy bears’ picnic in the playground of St Luke’s school in Wolverhampton, when a man vaulted the hedge and began slashing at them with a machete. Seven people, including three children, were injured as a result.

It could have been much worse. Lisa put her arm in the way to defend her class. I’ll never forget how she described to me calmly hurrying the children inside while trying to hide from them her almost-severed arm. And we’d do well to contrast Lisa, who was given the George Medal for her bravery, with those in education today.

In the wake of this year’s terrorist attacks and the Grenfell tragedy, staff at universities, schools and colleges have been receiving training in what to do in emergency situations. This has included cases of fire, even though schools are already required to have termly fire drills, and weapons incidents, even though school shootings in the UK are incredibly rare. Aggressive parents and, bizarrely, animal attacks are also being covered.

Now the NASUWT teaching union has ramped up the panic even further, calling on the government to roll out a coordinated strategy for lockdowns in schools.

To show what a lockdown might look like, a BBC TV crew visited Reinwood Junior School in Huddersfield. Tannoys relayed pre-recorded messages while pupils hid under tables and their teachers drew the blinds and switched off the lights. It looked like something from of the days of US Cold War paranoia.

What do headteachers think they will achieve by taking on the role of Panicker-in-Chief? Don’t they realise children can’t learn anything when they live in a climate of fear?

As we all know, attacks on schools are incredibly rare. Entering a modern school involves buzzer-controlled locked gates, double-entry reception areas and a Checkpoint Charlie-style security-clearance regime, backed up by CCTV and specialist security staff. Most corridors these days have swipe-pass doors and all staff wear photo-ID. Visitors are not even permitted to go to the toilet unaccompanied. It is also now routine for local police officers to pop in and walk around the building.

In short, our schools are safer than they ever have been, and the emergency services respond to the merest suggestion of an incident. A few bottles of nitric acid happened to leak at my school last month, and within minutes four fire engines, an ambulance and a dedicated crisis-management specialist turned up.

The likelihood of a serious, life-threatening situation involving school children is remote. The real danger here is of unwittingly teaching children that hiding in the dark is just part of life. We aren’t working to keep them safe, we’re inviting them into our worst nightmares.

As a teacher, I take my duty to protect my children very seriously. And while we’ll never be able to eliminate all dangers, we should be prepared to step up to ensure their safety. But we shouldn’t treat these things as routine. Rather, we should hope that, in those most grave and unlikely of circumstances, we’d show some of the bravery of Lisa Potts.


Betsy DeVos is right about Title IX

Campus sexual-assault investigations are deeply unjust

Campus sexual assault is back in the news. Last week, Betsy DeVos, the US secretary of education, came under fire for suggesting that federal law related to campus sexual violence needed to be reformed. Part of the outrage was due to the fact that, as well as meeting with anti-rape activists, DeVos reportedly met with some men’s rights groups who had been known to publish pictures of complainants online, calling them false accusers.

DeVos’ comments were focused on the use of a federal law known as Title IX. Title IX forms the basis of campus investigations into sexual-assault allegations in the US, which often begin after the police conclude there is insufficient evidence to progress a criminal investigation. Title IX has been criticised for creating kangaroo courts on campus that undermine due process. DeVos did not spell out specific plans but did say this was an area that the Department of Education was ‘not getting right’.

She has since been accused of failing to understand the extent of the campus rape problem. Critics point to FBI statistics which suggest only between two and 10 per cent of sexual-assault cases involve false allegations, and that Title IX enables victims to find redress where the criminal-justice system has failed. But these campaigners get it the wrong way around: Title IX has long worked to undermine justice, not deliver it.

Title IX, of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programmes or publicly funded institutions. Over the years, this has come to encompass investigating cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights, within the Obama administration’s Education Department, informed colleges that they should deploy a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard in campus sexual-assault hearings.

This dramatically lowered the burden of proof in these cases. If, under this standard, it is considered that there is more than a 50 per cent chance that a defendant is guilty, then he or she is guilty. These investigations are undertaken by university administrators, and lack the ordinary due-process protections which would be granted to a defendant in a criminal case. And a guilty verdict can come with huge consequences. If a student is expelled following a Title IX investigation, it will forever be on his or her permanent record.

There have been some seriously disturbing cases. In one, at the University of Kentucky, a Title IX proceeding began after two students had drunken sex, and a third student complained that the young woman was too drunk to give consent. This third party was not a witness to what actually happened. The two students concerned had been completely cordial with one another and had spent another night together later on. But following the third party’s complaint, the male student was suspended and had his college grant rescinded. In another case, at Boston College, a student was expelled for sexually assaulting a fellow student on a casino boat party, even though he was completely exonerated by a police investigation.

Given cases like these, how could anyone disagree that Title IX is broken? It has spawned a Kafkaesque network of campus courts that bulldoze the rights of defendants. We should remember that these cases often involve allegations of serious criminality. The idea that young defendants can be branded guilty based on an unfair investigation and a lowered standard of proof should concern anyone who cares about delivering genuine justice in these cases.

What’s more, these cases are far more complicated than campaigners would like to make out. The FBI’s statistics, that only between two and 10 per cent of sexual-assault allegations are untrue, actually refer to allegations that are provably untrue. Cases can be just as hard to prove untrue as they can be to corroborate. The idea that we should be relaxed about Title IX investigations, because so few allegations are provably false, is misleading and unjust. Throwing around simple statistics helps no one.

So good on Betsy DeVos. It’s time for a serious discussion about Title IX, and the injustices that have flowed from it.


Australia: Christmas cards and the word 'Jesus' could be BANNED in schoolyards in a bid to increase religious inclusiveness

The Queensland government are moving to ban Christian references from school events and playgrounds in sweeping changes to education practices.

The Department of Education have conducted a review into the system and educating students about religion.

Officials are concerned non-religious children are being exposed to and forced to immerse themselves in Christianity, with even references to Jesus to be banned from the schoolyard, The Australian reported.

The Department of Education's report stated the responsibility of the school 'to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in Religious Instruction are evangelising to students who do not.'

'This could adversely affect the school's ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive ­environment,' the report earlier this year stated.

Examples of evangelising, as explained in the report, including sharing Christmas cards themed with Jesus' birth and life, making bracelets to share 'the good news about Jesus' and making ornaments to give to each other.

Education Minister Kate Jones promised to clampdown on religious practices, and Christian groups are becoming increasingly concerned at the government's agenda to remove their influence from schools.

Neil Foster, a religion and law professor, told The Australian the government's changes are 'deeply concerning' and 'possibly illegal'.

Independent Studies research fellow Peter Kurti said it was a 'massive assault on freedom of speech and freedom of religion' and believes the government's fears are a total overreaction.

'I don't think that children have the maturity to comprehend let alone evangelise.' 


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