Briefly Stated: October 6, 2021

October 05, 2021 9 min read
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School Boards Group Seeks Federal Help to Stem ‘Terrorism’

A group representing the nation’s school boards says the federal government should review violence and threats involving schools to see if they violate federal statutes about domestic terrorism and hate crimes, amid ongoing tension and anger about COVID-19 policies.

In a letter to President Joe Biden last week, the National School Boards Association says statutes like the Gun-Free School Zones Act and the USA PATRIOT Act, a law passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks designed to halt terrorism, should be enforced if necessary against crimes and acts of violence targeting K-12 officials. The school board group says the classification of these acts could be “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

The group also told Biden that the U.S. Postal Service should intervene against cyberbullying and threatening letters that have targeted students, teachers, administrators, and others.

“These threats or actual acts of violence against our school districts are impacting the delivery of educational services to students and families” as schools attempt to address the pandemic’s effects on learning, the school boards association writes.

The NSBA letter also cites anger about critical race theory as another factor fueling disruptions and venom toward educators.

Asked if his group thought arrests and charges by local law enforcement were an insufficient response to the situation, Chip Slaven, the interim executive director and CEO, said that “safety and deterrence” are NSBA’s main goals in seeking federal assistance. The circumstances call for a coordinated response at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure school officials can focus on their jobs, he said.

“These incidents are beyond random acts. What we are now seeing is a pattern of threats and violence occurring across state lines and via online platforms, which is why we need the federal government’s assistance,” Slaven said.

The request for help from Washington is the latest signal that education groups are deeply concerned about backlash to such policies as mask mandates and mandatory COVID-19 quarantines.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has also called on the federal government to protect school leaders from threats and violence.

Federal Government Investing Funds to Ease Pandemic-Caused Crunch on Feeding Students

Some federal help is on the way to alleviate the pandemic-related supply-chain and labor challenges that are causing major headaches in K-12 cafeterias across the nation. So dire is the situation in some cases that students are going hungry and schools are contemplating a return to fully remote learning.

The federal government announced last week that it will invest up to $1.5 billion this year to ease supply-chain disruptions, funding challenges, and staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.

Administrators at Mitchell Elementary School in Philadelphia, meanwhile, had to scramble to order pizza, water, and juice to feed 400 students after food deliveries fell through and cafeteria staff weren’t available one day last month, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Some pizzas never arrived. That wasn’t the first time this school year students went hungry, nor was it the only school where it has happened.

New Visions Charter High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., suspended all school lunches through Oct. 15, citing staff shortages.

COVID-19 is obstructing the school meal process at every stage. In schools themselves, cafeteria workers are regularly out sick or forced to stay home to quarantine after exposure to the virus. Delivery-truck companies are struggling to find workers to shuttle food and cafeteria supplies, such as gloves and cutlery, to school buildings. Factories are streamlining their production processes to account for diminished staffing, causing shortages and price hikes for key ingredients that schools need in bulk, including dairy, whole grains, vegetables, and meat.

The result is fewer food options for students, heightened chaos and turmoil behind the scenes in cafeterias, and distress and anxiety among school finance officials.

Throughout the pandemic, the federal government has given schools flexibility to offer free meals to all students and loosened regulations that dictate what meals must look like and how they must be delivered. This school year, more than 95 percent of school lunches have been free, compared with slightly less than 70 percent in the months prior to the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to federal data.

Courts Allow Vaccine, Mask Mandates to Move Forward in N.Y.C., South Carolina, and Arizona

Courts are having their say, and they’re coming down on the side of safety—at least for the time being.

New York City’s school district can immediately impose a vaccine mandate on its teachers and other workers, after all, a federal appeals panel decided last week, leading lawyers for teachers to say they’ll ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

The district said the mandate was to go into effect at the end of last week, so that all teachers and staff would be vaccinated by the beginning of this week.

The three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan issued a brief order that lifted a block of the mandate that a single appeals judge had put in place a few days earlier.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in August that about 148,000 school employees would have to get at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination by Sept. 27. As of that date, 87 percent of all employees had been vaccinated, including 90 percent of teachers, he said.

Only a day after the New York City ruling, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing a rule that banned districts from requiring masks for students.

Parents of children with disabilities, helped by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the state saying the ban discriminated against medically vulnerable children by keeping them out of public schools as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The mask ban has been forcefully backed by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and GOP lawmakers who said parents should decide whether students wear masks, not school officials.

The ruling wasn’t even a close call, U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis wrote, stopping the state from enforcing a one-year ban placed in the budget. She compared the General Assembly preventing mask requirements to telling schools they can no longer install wheelchair ramps.

While the New York and South Carolina cases were decided by federal courts, even the conservative state supreme court in Arizona got on board with safety measures. On Sept. 29, it declined to immediately reinstate a series of new laws that include measures that block schools from requiring masks and remove the power of local governments to impose COVID-19 restrictions.

Broward Officials Blasted by Panel on School Safety

Three and a half years after the deadly shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Broward County district remains slow to address safety issues and needs more oversight, the chairman of the commission investigating the tragedy said last week.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County blasted the Florida district multiple times during a meeting of the safety commission formed after a former student killed 17 people at the school on Feb. 14, 2018.

Gualtieri said the district is violating a state law by refusing to share information with law enforcement related to students who attend an alternative-to-arrest program.

What’s more, he said the district is still failing to properly conduct threat assessments of students at risk of harming themselves and others. A recent audit found widespread problems with timeliness and follow-up for students at risk.

Gualtieri also said the school board approved a plan on how families were notified in the event of a school shooting only two weeks ago, after he called and asked for a copy.

“To say it’s unacceptable is an understatement. It’s mind-boggling,” Gualtieri said. “All of this tells me there has to be ongoing oversight to produce the right amount of accountability.”

Most of the commission’s complaints involved decisions made during the tenure of former Superintendent Robert Runcie.

The commission has been highly critical of the district’s response to the tragedy and efforts to improve safety. Members complained it was slow to investigate administrators for their role in the tragedy, slow to enact a districtwide lockdown procedure, and slow to implement spaces in schools where students could hide if a shooter came.

Commission members were especially concerned about the district’s resistance to sharing information with law enforcement and the state attorney’s office. State law says diversion programs must enter student information into a state website so that police can see if a child committed a crime on campus but wasn’t arrested.

Self-Harm Flagging Tech Risky, Privacy Group Says

If it were only that simple. Unfortunately, it’s not, warns a new report about popular software tools that scan students’ online activity and flag children at risk of self-harm and mental-health crises.

“No independent research or evidence has established that these monitoring systems can accurately identify students experiencing suicidal ideation, considering self-harm, or experiencing mental-health crises,” according to the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “Self-harm monitoring systems introduce greater privacy risks and unintended consequences for students.”

The reach of such systems is growing, thanks in large measure to the COVID-19 pandemic. Popular ed-tech company Gaggle, for example, now claims 1,500 school district clients and counting.

Amelia Vance of the Future of Privacy Forum stopped short of saying K-12 leaders should forgo such systems altogether but warned educators to do extensive diligence before adopting them.

“Schools should not employ self-harm monitoring unless they have robust mental-health resources established and common-sense data protections in place,” said Vance.

The new report describes self-harm monitoring systems as “computerized programs that can monitor students’ online activity on school-issued devices, school networks, and school accounts to identify whether students are at risk of dangerous mental-health crises.”

When content is flagged, alerts are typically sent to school or district administrators, who sometimes take the information to third parties such as law enforcement.

The companies that make such tools regularly tout hundreds or thousands of lives saved and catastrophes averted.

Still, the Future of Privacy Forum suggests it’s unclear whether self-harm monitoring systems can accurately identify a high percentage of at-risk students while avoiding “false flags.”

Even when self-harm monitoring systems do work as advertised, it’s not clear that merely flagging students’ digital content reliably leads to an appropriate mental-health intervention.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Benjamin Herold, Contributing Writer; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Tribune News Service; and Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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