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EduLege Tracker 7-30-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 42
July 30, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Don’t stereotype…

Placing the blame for mass shootings at school campuses on mental health issues and violent video games oversimplifies the issue, and could lead to stereotyping and unfair stigmatization, a panel of experts recently told a State Senate committee.

“We cannot make mental health the boogeyman,” said Dr. Jeff Temple, Director of Behavioral Health & Research at Galveston's University of Texas Medical Branch.  “They need our help; they don’t need our finger pointing.”

Dr. Temple, who is also a member of the Galveston school board, was among more than a dozen mental health professionals who were invited to address the special Senate Committee on Violence in Schools, which was formed in the wake of the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School.

The hearing at the State Capitol did not address such hot topics as whether to restrict firearms sales or whether to arm teachers. Instead, the committee's nine senators looked at issues ranging from anger management to social isolation to video games.

The Senate panel was also told that sleep deprivation can affect mental health and lead to aggressive behavior in young people.

Andy Keller, who heads the nonprofit Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Dallas, testified that his research shows that only a tiny percentage of people who experience mental health challenges are at a high risk for violent behavior.

The key, Mr. Keller said, is to develop ways to identify those students who might have violent tendencies because of a variety of factors.

"You have to have multiple layers of detection," he told senators.

The committee is studying the school violence issue, and will determine whether legislation is needed to better deal with it when the Texas Legislature again convenes in January.

In May, Governor Abbott unveiled a range of recommendations that include strengthening the school marshals programs to arm and train more teachers and school staff, encouraging cooperative relationships between school districts and law enforcement agencies to bring more of a police presence to campus and taking steps to keep guns out of the hands of children 17 and younger and from those who have been judged to have a mental illness that would disqualify them from buying firearms.

Lower rate of return…

Retired teachers are now looking to the Texas Legislature to provide them with better benefits after a vote by the Teacher Retirement System last week that could change how much retirees will see in their pension checks in the future.

The TRS Board voted on Friday to lower the expected rate of return on its investments, meaning the agency is predicting that it will earn less money to help pay for retiree benefits.

The board's decision to lower the expected rate of return could signal a potential decrease in pension benefits and contribution rates, which are set by the Legislature—and retirees are looking to state legislators to help offset the new expected rate, said Monty Exter of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

“The burden is now on the Texas Legislature to step up and provide the necessary funding to ensure actuarial soundness of the pension fund, and give educators peace of mind that they will not face cuts in their pensions,” Mr. Exter said.

The decision to lower the rate of return was based on estimates from TRS financial experts who predict how the board’s investment portfolio will perform in future economic situations. Mr. Exter acknowledged that the board has a “fiduciary duty” to make decisions on the fund based on advice from experts.

“We have looked at a variety of forecasts,” said TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie.

Despite the board's decision, Ted Raab of the Texas Federation of Teachers said he's confident state legislators will provide additional funding for retirees—many of whom have already experienced a drastic decline in the state’s share of their health insurance benefits. 

“We've known for many months that it was very likely that the board was going to lower their assumed rate of return,” Mr. Raab said. “We're going to be taking our message to the Legislature that they need to make a substantial increase to the state contribution to the pension fund, and also to health care for retirees and for other teachers.”

Rising objections…

Four thousand more families reportedly chose not to vaccinate their school children this past year, according to a new state report. 

The Texas Health and Human Services Department reports that the parents of 56,738 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade have filed conscientious objections to having their children immunized. For the 2016-2017 school year, the number of unimmunized students was 52,736.

The rise in objections is attributed to families who filed conscientious exemption affidavits when their child was in kindergarten.

The rising number of unimmunized students has doctors worried.

"Unfortunately, it puts at-risk children who cannot be vaccinated who are entering this school environment," said Austin pediatrician Kimberly Avila Edwards.

Dr. Edwards says childhood diseases that had once been virtually eliminated, like whooping cough and the measles, are returning. When more people are not vaccinated on schedule, she warns that it impacts children with weak immune systems.

“We not only put our own children at risk by not vaccinating them, but we decrease what's called herd immunity, or protecting the entire community,” Dr. Edwards said

But are parents actually not vaccinating their students—or are they just not telling the school district and the state that they are?

“What we're hearing is not necessarily that we don't want to vaccinate, but we want to keep these medical decisions between us and our chosen medical providers,” said Jackie Schlegel, Executive Director of Texans for Vaccine Choice. “Or they're on a delayed schedule and they're spacing them out.”

Audit them all…

After a grading glitch incorrectly ranked one of its high school valedictorians as the No. 2 student in her graduating class, Austin school officials have decided to hire an independent auditor to review the final 2018 class rankings at all 13 of the district’s high schools.

Officials are soliciting bids for the work, and anticipate that the audit will be complete by October.

Naomi Lands actually graduated at the top of her 2018 Austin Reagan High School class, but a programming error mistakenly lowered her grade point average and rankedher No. 2. Ms. Lands was honored as Reagan’s salutatorian at the school’s graduation ceremony. The district didn’t discover the error for weeks, and notified Ms. Lands a month after graduation that she was, in fact, the school’s valedictorian.

District officials say no employee was to blame, and describe the inaccuracy as an error in the algorithm that calculates grades. 

Ms. Lands says she still doesn’t understand how the blunder could have happened and wishes the district had corrected its error sooner.

Still, she’s pleased the district is conducting an audit of the other high schools, to make sure something similar didn’t happen to another student on another Austin campus.

Kudos…

Comal superintendent Andrew Kim has been named the 2018 Texas Parent-Teacher Association Superintendent of the Year at the organization’s annual meeting. 

One of Superintendent Kim’s nine nominations reads, “He listens. He teaches. He empowers. I’ve never met a more passionate superintendent who stays in touch with the parents as much as Mr. Kim.”

Superintendent Kim attributed this recognition to the great relationship that the Comal school district has with its PTAs across the district.

“The Comal Independent School District is successful because of the relationship with our PTAs,” Superintendent Kim said. “This relationship is very precious to us.  I want to thank our PTA Council and all of our PTAs and members. Not only do you make me a better educator, but more importantly, a better person.”

Superintendent Kim has led the Comal school district for six years. 


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.