Every Breath They Take, Honoring the Fallen, and Reno’s Grammy Crusade

By Rich Shea — February 18, 2005 3 min read
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Evidently, not all publicity is good publicity—at least in the eyes of one tech company that pulled out of a deal to supply a California school with radio frequency ID badges for its students. Paul Nicholas Boylan, the school’s attorney, says that InCom Corp., a local outfit which had given the badges to Brittan Elementary School in mid-January, blamed the backpedaling on intense media scrutiny: News of the badges, which can track students’ movements, hit Web sites and newspapers last week. InCom also worried, Boylan adds, that families opposed to the badges were damaging them.

The business deal alone raised a few red flags. InCom was co-founded by the parent of a former Brittan student, and the company had paid the K-8 school several thousand dollars to test its product, set to be promoted at a national convention next month. But the parents’ biggest complaint was that the technology is Orwellian. Brought into the school without parental consent, the badges-worn, like backstage passes, around the neck-were meant to simplify attendance-taking, reduce vandalism, and improve safety, according to principal Earnie Graham. Brushing aside privacy concerns, he added: “You know what it comes down to? I believe junior high students want to be stylish. This is not stylish.” But Michael Cantrall, one of several displeased parents, insisted it came down to not treating a child “like a piece of inventory.”

Teens in Colorado prefer to be treated like adults, but Governor Bill Owens and the state’s health department apparently don’t concur. When it comes to sex ed, they’re promoting a single option in school districts: abstinence. A handout in one Boulder high school classroom is titled “It’s OK To Say ‘No Way!’ Sex Can Wait.” Included on the card is the state’s official stamp of approval and a list of “10 reasons to wait.” (Number 6: “There is no condom or contraception that can protect you from a broken heart or shattered dreams.”) While there’s nothing wrong with state officials suggesting to students that abstinence is one option, to pretend that “safe sex” alternatives do no exist seems downright, well, juvenile.

In Maryland, 40 so-called juveniles are engaged in a Herculean effort. Hoping to show her two visual arts classes how art can be relevant, Linda McConaughy suggested that each 8th grader create a portrait of an American soldier killed in Iraq. Those 40 works, titled Fallen Heroes: The Cost of War, now hang in Parkville Middle School’s media center. But the students decided to go further—by creating nameplates (with name, age, hometown, and circumstances of death) for the more than 1,600 casualties to date. At 300-plus, McConaughy asked the kids whether they wanted to stop, and they said no. The latest count is about 500, and the nameplates now snake out of the lobby and down adjoining hallways, a sight that’s reportedly brought tears to teachers’ eyes. It has also affected the kids. “I used to support [the war],” one 13-year-old said. “Since we started doing this, I changed my mind. It’s not fair that people have to die, and it’s so many.”

One Bush administration department that doesn’t appear to be at war these days is Education, where new U.S. Secretary Margaret Spellings is garnering praise for playing nicely with state and local officials. Regarding NCLB in particular, Spellings’ conciliatory leanings have helped end a long-running dispute over recognizing 4,000 qualified teachers in North Dakota and preventing overcrowding triggered by school choice in urban areas. Whereas Rod Paige was considered a harsh disciplinarian by many, Spellings claims she wants to balance local control with the feds’ attempt to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. “That’s the most important thing I’m going to do,” she said, “to thread the needle of that balance.”

Threading her way through the Grammy Award VIP crowd this past Sunday was former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. It seems Reno was trying to recruit some big names for an upcoming project that would trace U.S. history, from 1620 to now, through music. The elegantly attired Reno slipped into the pop-celeb event on the arm of her collaborator, David Macias, who co-produced Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, which took home the Grammy for best traditional folk album. Both want the upcoming album, slated (along with a teaching guide) for a spring 2006 release, to feature well-known artists performing songs in a variety of musical genres. “There are so many students who just tune American history out,” Reno explained. “But if they had music with it, I thought they could have an understanding and appreciation for our history.”

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