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EduLege Tracker 6-12-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 34
June 12, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

“Great leaders and great nations have emerged out of the ashes of some of the greatest tragedies.”

-- Santa Fe High School principal Rachel Blundell, at commencement exercises for 328 graduating seniors, two weeks after a lone gunman killed eight students and two teachers on her campus.

With each passing day it appears less-and-less likely that Governor Greg Abbott will call Texas legislators back to Austin before the new school year begins to address his laundry list of recommendations for improving school safety.

So far, the governor has not been enthusiastic about calls for a special legislative session following the May shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two faculty members dead—a sharp contrast to the response in Florida following the February high school shooting there that killed 17 people.

Florida lawmakers, who were already in session, passed a gun-control package three weeks later, thanks in part to a lobbying campaign led by student survivors of the attack.

Here in Texas, Governor Abbott has called for schools to have more armed personnel and says that they should place greater focus on identifying students with mental health problems—but he has suggested only a few small restrictions on guns.

In Texas, any attempts to restrict gun sales is likely to be met with outright animosity in a Republican-controlled Legislature that has expanded the rights of gun owners in recent years, and which has made it easier and cheaper to be licensed to carry a handgun.

For example, the governor has announced his support for ensuring that firearms are safely stored to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Those discussions will likely focus on public-awareness campaigns and not tougher criminal penalties. Anything further can expect to face opposition from gun rights advocates, according to State Representative Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler.

“It is not the government’s business how you store legally owned guns in your home,” Representative Schaefer maintains.

Following the Santa Fe shooting, the governor convened three days of largely-private discussions on school safety, gun owner rights and mental health issues, and subsequently released a 43-page report, which he billed as the “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan.”

At the heart of the governor’s plan is “hardening” schools like Santa Fe, both by guarding them with increased police presence and by persuading more school districts to join existing state programs for arming school staff.

The governor also placed heavy emphasis on “preventing threats in advance,” largely through expanded mental health screening programs and on-campus counseling.

For example, Governor Abbott proposes to expand a mental health screening program that is already operated through the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. He hopes to "eventually" make that program—which is currently operational in 10 school districts—a statewide system, and said he recommends Texas fund it with $20 million.

Some of the governor’s recommendations are voluntary—and some would require changes to state laws that would need approval from the Legislature—which doesn’t come back into session until January 2019.

The latest gun poll…

Texas voters aren’t nearly as keen on placing guns in the hands of more teachers and school officials as they are placing more security personnel on school campuses.

“The tragedy at the Santa Fe school south of Houston changed few opinions among Texas voters about gun control,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll. “While 51 percent of Texas voters want to arm teachers and other school officials, (more) voters want armed security officers in the schools.”

In fact, 87 percent of those polled said they are in favor of having armed security officers in schools.

At the same time, 64 percent of Texas voters say they support holding parents legally responsible if their child commits a crime with the parent's gun, and 64 percent support laws requiring that all guns be kept in a locked place.

And 49 percent of Texas voters say they support stricter gun laws, which is down from 55 percent who expressed support in April.

But Texans for the most part are united in requiring background checks for all gun buyers, as 93 percent of those polled noted.

The poll was conducted May 23-29 and surveyed 961 Texas voters. The margin of error for the poll, which contacted voters through both landlines and cellphones, is 3.8 percent.

Study time…

Texas House and Senate leaders have ordered legislative committees to study ways to limit shootings and increase protections in Texas public schools before students return in August.

Outgoing Texas House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, both Republicans, have directed legislators in their respective chambers to study many of the proposals outlined in the governor’s school safety plan.

Speaker Straus charged several committees with seven items, including reviewing schools' emergency operations plans and targeting mental health strategies for students.

He also pushed for a greater focus than did Lieutenant Governor Patrick on possible gun regulations, asking House members to look at ways to ensure safe firearm storage, “including enhancing the penalty to a felony when unauthorized access results in death or bodily injury.”

Lieutenant Governor Patrick directed the nine-member Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security to evaluate the benefits of “red flag” laws, which allow for the temporary removal of firearms from someone who poses an immediate danger.  

The Senate committee will also study placing more armed teachers and police officers in schools, identifying students who are at high-risk of causing violence and changing the design of Texas schools to be less susceptible to mass shootings.

Senators began two days of discussions Monday, with architects and public safety officers presenting their ideas.

Time and time again, the expert witnesses countered the options of arming teachers and installing metal detectors, prioritizing mental health services, instead.

* * *

Soon after Governor Abbott released his school safety proposals, Lieutenant Governor Patrick began airing a radio ad that offered his own school safety recommendations.

Mr. Patrick said in the ad, "The root cause of school violence is a culture that has removed God from our schools, devalued life through abortion, the break-up of families and violent video games and movies that desensitize our kids to violence.”

While “liberals” want to get rid of guns, Texas’ arch-conservative Lieutenant Governor said in the minute-long radio spot that he wants more armed teachers in Texas schools.

The Texas State Teachers Association strongly objects to that idea.

“Teachers are trained to teach and to nurture, not double up as security guards,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria said.

Trauma recovery grant…

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded the Santa Fe school district a $1 million grant to help students and faculty recover from the tragic high school shooting.

The funding is part of the department’s Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) grant program. It provides critical funding for school districts, colleges and universities that have experienced significant traumatic events and need resources to respond, recover and re-establish safe environments for students.

There are two types of Project SERV awards: Immediate Services and Extended Services.

Santa Fe received an Immediate Services grant, and the district says that has already begun increasing the security presence at each of its four school campuses.

The district also says that it wants to hire more counselors to identify Santa Fe students who exhibit signs of mental health disorders, while flagging other students who appear prone to violence.

Who wants it?

Educators, state legislators and testing critics will all be watching to see what happens when the Texas Education Agency receives the next batch of bids to administer the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness tests to millions of Texas students.

This is the third year that the Education Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey, has administered the STAAR tests. ETS also oversees student testing programs worldwide, including the SAT for college admission and other acceptance exams for graduate school programs.

ETS’ contract to administer the state’s massive state testing program—originally worth $280 million—runs through August 31, 2019.

The first three years of ETS administration of the STAAR have been error-plagued, to say the least.

Most recently, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that he will discard at least 71,000 STAAR test results this year, after thousands of students experienced glitches with online testing this spring.

More than three million Texas students in Grades 3-12 were administered the battery of STAAR tests this year.

But Commissioner Morath also acknowledges that the number of test exemptions could go higher once TEA receives more detailed reports from ETS on exactly how widespread the computer problems were this spring.

It’s not a new headache for Commissioner Morath and TEA.

In 2016, about 14,200 students had their STAAR answers erased by the ETS testing system, and school districts across Texas encountered a variety of other problems, including shipping issues, grading errors and even test questions with no correct answers.

As a result, ETS ended up paying the state $5.7 million in penalties, and was directed by Commissioner Morath to spend $15 million to improve its testing systems.

Because of the latest round of ETS problems, Commissioner Morath says that results for the affected tests won't count on the state's new academic rating system—unless doing so will result in a higher rating. This year is the first time that all Texas school districts will receive an A-F grade, which the Legislature devised based largely on student test results.

Additionally, Commissioner Morath says schools can waive grade promotion requirements for 5th and 8th grade students who were affected by this year’s test glitches. State law requires that students in those grades must pass the STAAR tests before being promoted, unless a placement committee gives its approval. The commissioner says the committees won't be necessary for those students.

About 19,000 of the students impacted by the testing problems this spring were enrolled in Special Education. Most of the tests were for 5th- and 8th-grade math; 4th- and 7th-grade writing; and high school End-of-Course English I.

Other ETS administrative glitches in May primarily affected 3rd- through 8th-grade Reading tests.

* * *

TEA is also investigating how more than 100 students at George Ranch High School in the Lamar Consolidated school district received zeros on their English I and English II essays.

ETS cannot explain what went wrong.

He’s unlikely to budge…

Texas' efforts to launch a comprehensive high school course on Mexican-American studies continues to create controversy, as advocates now say that an unexpected name change disrespects students—especially those of Mexican-American heritage.

Supporters of the proposed statewide curriculum say they plan to protest at the State Board of Education meeting this week, and will demand that the proposed course be entitled “Mexican-American Studies,” as initially proposed.

Many educators, historians, and community members have pushed for years for the State Board to adopt a Mexican-American studies course that would reflect the culture and history of many Texas students, the majority of whom are Latino.

After years of advocating, the State Board finally approved the basic curriculum standards for such an elective course in April. But a last-minute amendment changed the name of the course to "Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent."

Critics say that name change was an “ill-conceived,” muted attempt to water down the course, and was a “disrespectful” move.  

“Names matter,” said Roberto Calderon, a history professor at the University of North Texas who teaches Mexican-American studies courses. “This action was offensive and unacceptable...Mexican-Americans have the right to tell their own stories.”

The conservative state board member who pushed the name change says that he won’t budge from the new title of “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.

“I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive and almost reverse racism,” said David Bradley, R-Beaumont. “The more that they want to dwell on this and campaign on this, it is just hardening the resolve on both sides. They are being divisive.”

Walk this way…

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has now walked back her earlier comments that it’s up to individual schools to decide whether to report undocumented students to federal immigration authorities, following intense criticism from Democrats and civil rights advocates.

At a recent hearing, Secretary DeVos was pressed by Senator Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, on whether teachers and principals are permitted under federal law to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about students who are undocumented. Senator Murphy asked: “So they can’t call ICE?”

“I don’t think they can,” Secretary DeVos responded.

But at an earlier congressional hearing last month, Secretary DeVos said it was up to individual schools to decide whether to call ICE to report undocumented students.

“That’s a school decision. It’s a local community decision,” Secretary DeVos told a U.S. House Committee in May, adding that “we have laws, and we also are compassionate.”

Congressional Democrats and dozens of civil rights groups slammed her remarks, which they said contradicted the US Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe that guaranteed the rights of students to receive a public education regardless of their immigration status.

“Let’s be clear: Any school that reports a child to ICE would violate the Constitution.  The Supreme Court has made clear that every child in America has a right to a basic education, regardless of immigration status,” Lorella Praeli, the ACLU’s Director of Immigration Policy and Campaigns, said.

Under the Obama administration, then-education secretary Arne Duncan and Eric Holder, who was the Attorney General, issued a directive to all U.S. school systems, reminding them of their obligation to educate all children, regardless of immigration status. And those officials warned schools that they would violate federal law if they required things an undocumented immigrant might lack, such as a U.S. birth certificate or a Social Security number.

That’s a word?!!?

Karthik Nemmani didn't win his regional spelling bee. He didn't even win his local spelling bee. But he was still good enough to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The 14-year-old Mr. Nemmani outlasted better-known spellers and became the national champion after a dramatically abrupt end to the competition, when 12-year-old Naysa Modi misspelled the word "Bewusstseinslage" in the first championship round.

Mr. Nemmani then had to spell two words correctly to seal the title, which he did with ease, and the lanky, soft-spoken Texan stepped back and smiled as he was showered with confetti.

His winning word was "koinonia," which means Christian fellowship or communion.

Mr. Nemmani is from McKinney, and Ms. Modi lives in nearby Frisco. The two had competed earlier in the Dallas spelling bee, which Ms. Modi won.

“She's a really, really good speller. She deserved the trophy as much as I did,” Mr. Nemmani conceded. “I got lucky.”

Mr. Nemmani is the 14th consecutive Indian-American champion, and 19 of the past 23 winners have been of Indian heritage. In addition to a championship trophy, he receives more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.

Not just ‘happy news’…

Student journalists at Prosper High School are fighting a district policy that they say is unfairly restricting what they can and cannot write online.

The students were informed by Principal John Burdett that their editorials would not be published because they were “incorrect, not uplifting and did not voice all 3,000 students at their high school.”

“It's like he just wanted happy news out there," Neha Madhira, a junior and an assistant editor for the student publication Eagle Nation Online, said of Principal Burdett.

The students are also upset because the district has not renewed the contract of newspaper adviser Lori Oglesbee-Petter, who is barred by her contract from commenting on the reason for her dismissal.

Students have cited three incidents of censorship, including removal of an article about a senior class movie night that was canceled; an editorial disapproving of the removal of the John Knowles book A Separate Peace from the sophomore curriculum and an editorial that criticized the lack of organization behind a school bonding activity in response to school shootings.

According to district policy, school administrators and trustees have ultimate editorial authority over school-sponsored publications such as Eagle Nation Online.

But Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center, says he doesn't see any educational justification for censorship in the Prosper instances.

"He's made it very clear here that he's censoring because he doesn't like the tone and the image it's projecting on the school," Mr. Hiestand said of Principal Burdett.

Mr. Hiestand says that if the Prosper students don’t have their issues resolved, there are Texas attorneys who are willing to work pro bono to help challenge the district policy.

Censorship of another sort…

The microphone being used by a high school valedictorian in California was abruptly cut off by school administrators just as she was about to mention alleged sexual assaults on campus, and how the school allegedly failed to take victims' accounts seriously.

Lulabel Seitz, 17, was silenced during her graduation speech when she says administrators from Petaluma High School realized she was about to talk about alleged assaults—including one against her—and its treatment of victims.

Ms. Seitz will be attending Stanford University in the fall, and double-majoring in applied mathematics and economics.

“They made all these rules to prevent me from speaking," Seitz said. "So, I decided to use the opportunity to bring it up.”

So about four minutes into her speech, just as she was about to mention the alleged assaults, Ms. Seitz said administrators cut the mic.

Some in the audience chanted, "Let her speak!" Undeterred, Ms. Seitz kept going, finishing her speech without a microphone.

Ms. Seitz later recorded her full speech and posted it on YouTube.

He couldn’t come to her, so she went to him…

Before she received her high school diploma recently, Leslie Silva donned her cap and gown and walked across an international bridge separating Texas and Mexico, where she greeted her father and gave him a hug.

“He started crying,” Ms. Silva said. “I've never seen him cry.”

After being deported to Mexico, Mario Silva hasn't been able to attend any of his three daughters' graduations. So before Leslie Silva graduated from Eastlake High School in El Paso, she crossed the border in her cap and gown to celebrate with him.

She posted a video of their meeting at a border crossing on social media, where more than three million people have viewed it.

Ms. Silva says that she and her sisters and mother visit her dad often at his home in adjacent Juarez, Mexico.

Not what it’s cracked-up to be…

McKinney school officials say that construction flaws in the district’s new $69.9 million athletic stadium, which is still under construction, will be fixed—at no added cost to local taxpayers. 

The district has hired the engineering firm Nelson Forensics to examine cracks in the concrete foundation of its new stadium. The areas most affected are the home and visitor concourses, and the lower bowl wall.

Nelson Forensics had studied cracks in the $59 million stadium built by the neighboring Allen school district a few years ago. Repairs that time cost at least $10 million, an expense that was borne by the architect and contractor.

McKinney officials promise local taxpayers that they’ll get the stadium they approved—and that it will be safe and that it will come at no additional cost.

“We promised our community a first-class facility, and that is what we intend to deliver, even if it takes a little longer than expected,” Superintendent Rick McDaniel said.  “This project will serve our community for the next 50-plus years, so the long-term durability and integrity of the project is paramount.”

McKinney had hoped to open the 12,000-seat stadium by the start of the 2018 football season.

For them, it was an especially tough year…

Take a few minutes to read this report in the Texas Tribune on what it took for several Texas teachers to recover from Hurricane Harvey and survive the 2017-2018 school year.


EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.