Published Online: December 9, 2014
Published in Print: December 10, 2014, as Blogs of the Week

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| NEWS | District Dossier

St. Louis-Area Schools to Tackle Civil Unrest, Race Relations

While schools in the St. Louis area reopened following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of a black teenager, educators planned on ways to tackle such issues as civil unrest and race relations.

Educators in Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings, Riverview Gardens, and Hazelwood, among other districts, confronted similar issues at the start of the school year, after the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The shooting led to days of protests and a widely criticized militarized response by police.

In preparation for the grand jury action, the Clayton district added a link for staff, parents, and the community on its website on how to talk to children about civil unrest. And Riverview Gardens devised a grade-specific game plan on how to deal with the unrest when students returned to school.

For K-2 students, for example, educators planned to use Peter Rabbit for a discussion on handling conflicts, character conflict, and conflict resolution. Students were to have the opportunity to express their feelings through art therapy, said Bonita Jamison, the district’s assistant superintendent of student-support services.

Writing activities were also planned, in which students would be given the opportunity to write about the events from the point of view of those who were affected—for example, of a police officer, a community member, or a student, Jamison said.

Older students could analyze articles on the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles and compare and contrast what happened there to the present-day events in Ferguson.

Since September, principals and teachers have received professional development on how to address the civil unrest and provide support for students, Jamison said.

Students are also protesting the grand jury’s decision. High school students in Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, and Kirkwood walked out of classes Dec. 2 to express their displeasure.

–Denisa R. Superville

| NEWS | Digital Education

Use of E-Learning on Snow Days Raises Concerns Over Web Access

Kentucky and Pennsylvania are among the states creating opportunities for districts to deliver online instruction to students who are homebound because of inclement weather, but some observers are concerned about the plans.

The Associated Press reports that Kentucky’s plan to let 13 districts replace snow days with a setup in which students receive instruction at home, mostly via the Internet, has “caused a new set of challenges.”

“Some students don’t have computers or home Internet access,” the story says, and “districts that opt to use the home-school option would lose state transportation dollars and federal money for free and reduced lunches.”

Kentucky also ranks 46th out of 50 states on the availability of high-speed Internet, says the article, creating potential barriers for some students, especially those living in poor and rural districts.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the Sentinel, a news organization for Cumberland County, reports that connectivity is also a major concern.

Despite the challenges, it’s likely that both states—and others—will continue their push to leverage technology to reduce the amount of instructional time lost to bad weather.

–Benjamin Herold

| NEWS | Time and Learning

Tonight’s Homework Assignment: Prepare for Disaster

It’s one thing when government officials set education policy, but for some students in Michigan, the government is giving them homework that could save their lives.

Since 2012, more than 9,000 Michigan 5th graders have taken part in a disaster-preparedness program developed by teachers and sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Student Tools for Emergency Planning program teaches students how to prepare for emergencies and common weather-related natural disasters in their communities, such as wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

For homework, students have to teach their families what they learned in school and develop family-evacuation and -communications plans.

The program is available to 5th grade classes across the country. Each student receives a backpack stocked with blankets, whistles, flashlights, extra batteries, and other basic emergency supplies.

Teachers who commit to a one-hour base lesson receive free lesson-planning materials, including DVDs, disaster game cards, and student handouts. Another eight to 10 hours of supplemental lessons are online.

–Kathryn Baron

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Education Department Gives Guidance On Schools Offering Same-Sex Classes

Schools that want to offer single-sex classes need to have a good educational reason for doing so—and they need to give parents a chance to “opt in” to the single-sex model and offer a similar co-ed option on the same subject, according to new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

Such schools must steer clear of gender stereotypes and avoid considering gender when selecting faculty members to lead these classes, the guidance out last week says. They also must conduct regular reviews of the classes to make sure they are complying with Title IX regulations, which prohibit sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funds. They also must make a clear case that offering a single-sex class will boost student achievement.

The guidance also requires schools to treat transgender students in a manner consistent with their chosen gender identity.

But the guidance doesn’t apply to public single-sex schools, only to public schools that want to offer single-sex classes in a particular subject. (There are other regulations for single-sex schools.)

The guidance marks the first time that the OCR has weighed in on single-sex schooling since 2006. It would seem to address concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has questioned the reasoning behind single-sex classes in states including Alabama, Maine, Mississippi, Virginia, and West Virginia.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | The School Law Blog

School Threats Made on Social Media Subject of Arguments at Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court last week took up the question of threats made on social media, with justices grappling with when school administrators might need to respond to such content and the standard for evaluating whether threats are serious.

The case involves a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, who was 27 in 2010 when, after separating from his wife and losing his job, made threats on Facebook that included rap-lyric-style musings about shooting up an elementary school.

Mr. Elonis was convicted of violating a federal statute against making threats across state lines for the school rap and other Facebook postings, including violent language aimed at his estranged wife and at a female FBI agent.

During the Dec. 1 oral arguments in Elonis v. United States (Case No. 13-983), Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. quoted from the school posting, which included the line, “Enough elementary schools in a 10-­mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever.”

Suppose, Alito asked Elonis’ lawyer, John P. Elwood, “that this was altered a little bit, so at the bottom he puts, ‘just kidding, just kidding, laughing out loud.’ And at the top he puts, ‘Tone Dougie, aspiring rap artist.’ Okay? What’s a jury to do with that under your theory?”

Elwood replied that juries must wrestle with such state-of-mind questions all the time.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pressed Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben, who was defending the federal government’s conviction of Elonis, on the proper context for evaluating threatening statements. “Is it a reasonable person, ... or is it a reasonable teenager on the Internet?” he asked.

“It will depend on to whom he is communicating the statement,” Dreeben said.

A decision in the case is expected by June.

–Mark Walsh

| NEWS | State EdWatch

With Governor’s Race Now on Horizon, Sen. Vitter Flips on Common Core

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., now says he opposes the Common Core State Standards, roughly four months after he publicly praised them, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported last week.

Vitter announced in January that he plans to run for Louisiana governor in 2015. In August, he called the common standards “strong, significant, and positive.” But on his website, Vitter now says that conversations with parents, teachers, and others in the state have helped changed his mind.

In addition to representing an inappropriate level of federal involvement in public schools, he says the common core is also “causing deep frustration and worse in many classrooms and homes” by hampering teachers and keeping students from learning effectively.

Vitter pledges that, as governor, he will ditch the common core and direct a new commission to develop standards and tests.

–Andrew Ujifusa

Vol. 34, Issue 14, Pages 6,17

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