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Student Well-Being Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

October 22, 2019 8 min read

Here’s a quick breakdown of high-profile news stories you may have missed during the week.

What Schools Don’t Know About Scope Of PCBs Can Hurt

Ignorance can be bliss—until it isn’t.

The Environmental Protection Agency and lawmakers have quietly abandoned efforts to rid schools of toxic PCBs, leaving districts—especially in poor areas—with a difficult choice: Look for the long-banned chemicals, which could trigger a costly cleanup, or simply clean buildings as well as possible.

Many older buildings have caulk, ceiling tiles, floor adhesives, and paint made with PCBs, sometimes at levels far higher than allowed by law. And millions of PCB-containing fluorescent light ballasts probably remain in older schools and day-care centers, where they can leak, smolder, and catch fire.

Yet the EPA never tried to determine the scope of PCB contamination or assess potential health risks because of a lack of funding, political pressure, and pushback from industry and education groups, according to dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of documents examined by the Associated Press.

Members of Congress who promised three years ago to find money to help schools address PCBs and other pollutants never introduced legislation. At the EPA, a rule to require schools and day cares to remove PCB-containing ballasts moved slowly under the Obama administration and then was quashed by President Donald Trump as part of deregulation efforts.

Tom Simons, a now-retired EPA regulator who worked on the rule, said getting rid of ballasts was the least the EPA could do to protect children. “We thought it was a no-brainer: There are millions out there,” Simons said.

PCBs have been linked to increased risks of cancer, immune and reproductive impairment, and learning problems. A 2004 study by Harvard University health professor Robert + estimated that up to 26,000 buildings and 14 million students could be affected.

Instead of requiring—or urging—schools to test for PCBs, the EPA recommended thorough cleaning and ventilation. Current EPA officials say the agency’s recommended precautions are usually effective, but those steps might not adequately reduce exposure in every school. They also said the agency is “actively identifying” money for a program targeting school environmental hazards.

Children and Adolescents Are Dying By Suicide at Ever-Increasing Rates

Grim is the only way you can describe the revelations of two studies out last week on children and suicide.

First, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Suicide rates for teenagers and younger children increased at an alarming rate over the past decade.

For teenagers between 15 and 19, suicide rates jumped by 76 percent between 2007 and 2017. And the rates for 10- to 14-year-olds nearly tripled over that same time period, according to CDC data.

It’s a sharp reversal from the previous period— 2000 to 2007—when the suicide rate had been stable for the 15-to-19 age group and had even declined for 10- to 14-year-olds.

In the second study, by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the rates of self-reported suicide attempts among black teenagers rose sharply between 1991 and 2017, particularly among black girls.

Though still relatively rare, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among 10- to 19-year-olds.

Accidents top the list, while homicides rank third, according to the CDC.

Increasing suicide rates are part of an alarming trend of rising mental-health issues among schoolchildren. Schools often struggle with limited resources and expertise to deal with the wide range of mental-health needs that teenagers and younger children are now experiencing.

Still, experts say teachers, principals, coaches, and other school staff members are critical players in preventing suicide by recognizing those children who may be at risk of harming themselves, and then connecting the students with resources and support and building relationships throughout the school so that students have multiple people to turn to if they need help.

It’s unclear why mental-health issues are increasing among children and adolescents, although researchers are exploring a number of explanations, including the rise of smartphone and social-media use, as well as the wider prevalence of bullying in the digital age.

School Districts Wear Ransomware Targets On Their Backs

Name one of the last things school districts want to spend their money on. Too much to choose from?

In one ugly word, ransomware.

To say that computer-system hijacking is on the rise for schools is an understatement. Five hundred have been victimized so far this year, says a recent report from the Armor Threat Intelligence Briefing. That’s a huge uptick from 2018, says the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, when schools experienced 119 cyber incidents for the whole year; only about 10 percent involved ransomware.

Ransomware can lead to big headaches for schools.

Case-in-point: In the summer, two districts on New York’s Long Island—Rockville Center and Mineola—were held hostage. Rockville Center paid $88,000 to get its data released. Mineola had a backup server that wasn’t compromised by the attack.

Seven Connecticut districts, translating to 104 schools, have been the victims of ransomware so far this year. And at least two districts—Monroe-Woodbury in Central Valley, N.Y., and Flagstaff Unified in Arizona—delayed the start of the school year because of attacks.

Congress has taken notice. It’s working on legislation that would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to help state and local governments and school districts respond to cyberthreats and restore infrastructure after an attack.

Write Rape-Awareness Note, Get Suspended for Bullying

Whistleblowers come from all age groups and, apparently, the young may be just as likely to face blowback as adults.

Take the case of Aela Mansmann, a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School outside Portland, Maine. Officials suspended her for bullying after she tried to draw attention to what she believed was an unaddressed problem of sexual assaults involving students at her high school. Now, she’s taking the school district to court.

Mansmann got in trouble after posting a note in a restroom that said: “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” She and two others who left similar notes were ordered suspended.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a motion last week asking for a temporary restraining order against the district.

The ACLU’s filing says that Mansmann has taken a “public stance as an ally for victims and survivors of sexual violence.”

Citing the lawsuit, district officials declined to comment.

In a letter to the community, Principal Jeffrey Shedd said that a male student believed he was the target of the note campaign and that he felt unsafe at school in the wake of the notes.

That’s not the case, argues the ACLU: Mansmann posted the note to raise awareness of a general problem in the school community about sexual assault. She said she did not allege that she was a victim or mention any accusers or abusers by name.

The two other suspended students have not come forward publicly. The suspensions led about 50 students at the 550-student school to walk out of classes one day this month.

Mansmann appealed her suspension, which has not taken place yet. It was unclear whether the other two students had appealed or served their suspensions.

Emma Bond, a staff attorney with ACLU Maine, said the organization isn’t aware of any other cases it has handled in which a student was suspended after sounding an alarm about sexual abuse. Districts across the country, though, have grappled with how to handle sexual-assault allegations as the #MeToo movement grows.

Newly Formed City Can Now Try to Set Up Own District

It’s doubtful this is what the Supreme Court had in mind in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Residents of an affluent suburb in Louisiana’s East Baton Rouge Parish have voted to form their own city, with the notion that they can then create their own school district that would be much wealthier—and whiter—than the one currently served by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

“We’re going to try new things and keep our tax dollars at home,” Andrew Murrell, a spokesman for the incorporation effort, told the Advocate newspaper after the results of a community vote were announced.

Critics, though, see the vote as one more example of a growing trend of affluent areas splintering off from larger districts, leaving behind school districts that have fewer resources and more economically disadvantaged children.

East Baton Rouge analyzed the potential impact of a St. George—the new city’s name—school system, finding that it would drain $85 million from the district’s coffers. And the percentage of black students would grow from 73 percent to 77 percent, while the percentage of white students would decrease from 12 percent to 8 percent, the newspaper reported.

The analysis also noted that if all the children currently attending school within St. George’s boundaries stayed, the district would be 44 percent black and 35 percent white, with the remaining students Hispanic and Asian. The new city itself is about 70 percent white, so the demographics of the new school system could change.

The community had failed in 2012 and 2013 to form a school district. This time, residents switched tactics to form a new municipality first.

A report published by the American Education Research Association found that seven counties in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee accounted for 18 of 47 new school districts formed nationwide between 2000 and 2017.

Briefly Stated Contributors: Associated Press, Alyson Klein, Arianna Prothero, and Christina A. Samuels. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 2019 edition of Education Week

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