Expand Public Charter Schools?

Exclusive to AWildDuck . . .

This week, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education awarded 3000 new charter school seats across the Commonwealth. It increases the number of students that can be educated at new or existing charter schools in the Commonwealth.

While this is exciting news for students and families, Massachusetts has again reached a legal cap in Boston and is close to a cap in Holyoke and Lawrence, such that no new charters can be awarded in these communities until the Legislature votes to lift the cap.

It’s not just Massachusetts, of course. Across the United States, a debate is raging over the legality and wisdom of the publicly-funded charter school model. Many, are puzzled over the debate. Why are there statutory caps? Who stifles what works?! But it’s not that simple…

Publicly subsidized charter schools draw from the same tax dollars that fund incumbent districts. Charters often hire from industry instead of teaching colleges and they often ignore the pay scales that were negotiated in good faith with collective bargaining units in the communities served. In fact, their very existence breaks covenants entered into with unions. For these reasons, the public-charter school model is fighting against some who feel strongly that it is not in the best interests of students or their communities.

If today’s post were like the many that appear under my name, the title of this post would end with an emphatic “Hell Yes!”. After all, I am biased. This Blog is all about bias—and as chief editor, I often use it as my personal bully pulpit.

I support the public charter school model. But I have tended to avoid the public debate, because my chief reasons are anecdotal or the product of an outside bias:

  • I live next to a fantastic charter school, serving pupils from 70 communities
  • Our local school district is constantly in danger of losing state accreditation
  • My daughter transferred from the local public school to the charter school. She thrives in her new environment, just like pupils at both ends of the spectrum
  • I generally dislike and distrust unions *
  • Our charter school principal is talented, engaged, motivated and has a pas-
    sion that demonstrates an unfettered interest in the success of every student

* I generally avoid debating the merits of charter schools (from the perspective of student and the perspective of taxpayer). That’s because my general anti-union bias was baked in by a father who directed operations at a manufacturing plant during my formative years. It’s difficult to see unions as anything other than money grubbing, self-serving organizations unto themselves (not their constituents) when you have seen negotiations between management and the Teamsters or any local machinist or electrical workers union.

The high school in my public school district is constantly in danger of losing state accreditation. Standardized test scores are near the bottom of the heap. And yet, our community also hosts the top middle/high charter school in the state. My daughter has transferred to this fantastic charter school in my own backyard. Using the same tax dollars but with a keen financial disadvantage (despite popular conception), the difference is like night and day. Our charter school consistently tops state scores and – more importantly – real world metrics. In fact, with freedom from onerous union contracts and a principal whose incentives are fully aligned with pupils, your charter school can excel too.

A few months ago when discussing our pre-election analysis of Barak Obama, I pointed to his failure to strongly support a public charter school model. I was wrong. Shortly before that post, Obama was interviewed by NBC News correspondent, Savannah Guthrie. The US president not only demonstrated strong support for charter schools, he also put the teachers’ unions on notice by supporting pay for performance.

But enough armchair analysis! A reader responding to our Barack Obama piece is an analyst with more experience than me in politics, market economics, law and education. He strongly disagrees with my position on charter schools. He not only feels that they have an unfair advantage, he believes they undermine a public school system that deserves more public attention and support.

Today, he represents one side in our counterpoint editorial for and against expansion of the public charter school model. During preparation for today’s column, I have given both sides access to each others’ drafts. Nothing has been withheld.

Arguing for expansion of the public charter school model, Marc Kenen, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Making a case against expanding public support for charter schools is James Tenser, an analyst, journalist and author from a family of public school teachers.

An Argument For and Against
Expansion of the Public Charter School Model

Read the arguments side-by-side

Charter School-s


High Performing Charter Schools Should Be Allowed to Expand
By Marc Kenen – February 2013

America was founded on what was then the radical idea that a society could be a meritocracy in which ideas that succeed can flourish. The creation of charter public schools has spurred the kind of educational innovation that should be allowed to thrive not only through the expansion of charters, but also the extension of charter-like reforms to district schools.

President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative provided incentives for states to enact various public school reforms, including removing restrictions on the growth of charters. Nearly 20 states responded by eliminating all caps on charter growth. But many states across the country still impose arbitrary caps. And many urban school districts bound by unyielding teachers’ union contracts have not been able to enact meaningful reforms.

AMSA Charter School, Marlborough MAMassachusetts enacted a limited cap lift in 2010 – allowing charters to double the number of seats they offer in low performing districts and reserving new charters for operators that had a proven track record of success.

Recently filed legislation in Massachusetts would allow charters to expand without limits in the state’s lowest performing school districts. This would provide parents in those districts with more public school choices and their children with high quality educational opportunities.

Throughout their history, charters have attacked head-on the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor kids, particularly in urban areas. Their primary mission is to provide high quality educational options for disadvantaged families and they have historically concentrated in urban areas to attract children who are poor, minority and far behind where they should be academically.

Charters generally provide hundreds of additional hours in the classroom, through longer school days and longer years. They establish a culture of excellence setting high standards for their teachers and students and providing the additional supports they need to succeed.

Academic Performance

While charter performance from state-to-state varies, there is no doubt they have been a success in Massachusetts, which provides a good model of how strict oversight and high levels of accountability can breed success. Independent national organizations have rated Massachusetts charter system among the best in the nation and it shows in the academic results.

Charter public schools in Massachusetts are proving that children from these urban communities can achieve at the same high level as children from affluent suburbs.

The vast majority of charter public schools dramatically outperform their host district schools, and have lower dropout and truancy rates.  Last year, 24 charters ranked first in the Commonwealth on various MCAS tests and academic improvement rankings. Many urban charter public schools with mostly low-income and minority students outscore even affluent suburban schools on MCAS.

Charter schools also rank high in the state’s new academic accountability system, which ranks how well schools close race-and-income-based achievement gaps.


Lift the Cap

Given their performance, it’s not surprising that demand for charter public schools across the country is through the roof.  In Massachusetts, just over 29,000 students are enrolled in charters, but another 45,000 are on waitlists. Most of the waitlisted children – 35,000 – live in one of the state’s lowest performing districts.

Given the track record of performance and the incredible demand for new seats, states should not place restrictions on charter growth.

In Massachusetts, the recently filed legislation would eliminate charter caps in districts ranked in the bottom 10 percent statewide, which educate nearly one-third of all public school children. Seven-out-of-ten students in these districts are low-income, 60 percent are African-American and 63 percent come from families in which English isn’t the first language.

The bill would also allow charters to open on an expedited basis in districts that have been placed into receivership, and require municipalities to make space in unused public buildings available to charters.

Financial Impact Exaggerated

Misinformation is the best tool charter opponents use against expansion.

Money has long been at the core of opposition to charter public schools, but the financial impact on districts is grossly exaggerated. First of all, charter schools are public schools, so there is no loss of public education funding in those communities. It’s simply allocated to a different type of public school.

States have different ways to fund charters, but the Massachusetts model seems fairest. It provides charters with the same amount of money the districts would have spent if the children had stayed in their classrooms. Since districts no longer educate these students, they no longer keep the funding.

Massachusetts is unique in that it also provides some financial assistance to districts that lose students to charters – recognizing that not every penny that “follows the student” can be saved in district budgets. The state reimburses districts for funds lost to charters – districts get more than double their money back (225%) over the six-year period. Districts receive every penny back the first year, and then 25% in each of the next five years. It is the most generous reimbursement policy in the country.


Opponents try and dismiss this academic success by claiming charters “select” only the best students. But, charters are open to all students, and enrollment is determined by random lotteries. On a statewide basis, charters serve a far higher percentage of minority and poor children, and a similar percentage of special needs children. And while district schools serve more children who either cannot speak English or struggle with it, recent efforts to attract immigrant families are changing that. Three new charter schools in Massachusetts focus on teaching English-language learners and others have opened in neighborhoods with high immigrant populations.

Private? No. Independent? Yes

Recently, teachers unions and other charter opponents have accused charters of “privatizing” public education. But, charters are public schools; they are founded by local citizens and are overseen by local public boards. They operate independent of local school districts, report directly to the state department of education, and are not required to collectively bargain with teachers unions. They are not “private” in any way. The unions are confusing “private” with “non-union.”

Opponents also claim that charters are “not accountable to anyone,” simply because they do not report to local districts or local school boards. But that’s the point. Charters are designed to be independent of the local bureaucracy.

No aspect of education reform has been more successful than charters.  In a meritocracy, they have earned the right to expand and meet more of the overwhelming demand for schools that provide a world-class education to the neediest children.

Marc Kenen is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.


Confessions of a Charter School Skeptic
By James Tenser – February 2013

Questioning the charter school movement in America feels like a touchy business. There are powerful forces in play within our governments and communities. There are powerful people channeling impressive sums of private money to fund their progress. There are powerful emotions in the hearts of parents who sincerely and appropriately want what is best for their children.

I think there are two main areas of discussion regarding charter schools. The first is the relatively straightforward matter of education consumption that parents confront every school year in every community in the nation: “Where shall I send little Amanda so that she receives the best possible education in a safe environment that nurtures her talent and self image and enables the best possible future?”

It’s natural for any parent to want their kids to receive an ideal education. We may define “ideal” in any number of ways, according to our beliefs, preferences, prejudices, desires and fears. If a nearby charter school represents that ideal option (or at least the best available one), we will move heaven and earth to get Adam or Amanda enrolled. We feel it’s our responsibility and our right to do so.

If freedom of choice were there only issue raised by charter schools, this critique might end here and now. Charter schools would simply thrive or fail based on their ability to provide an attractive option. But the second area of discussion is far less straightforward. For me it raises darker concerns about how we model the future of our society and even the motivations of some of the individuals who advocate most strongly in favor of the Charter option.

“Old School” Nostalgia

Public education has for generations been a foundation of the American way of life. It’s been our way of preparing young people for the workforce, for military service, for participation in the political and cultural affairs of our nation. In a nation of immigrants, public schools have been a primary engine for acculturation and assimilation of new arrivals. They have been the places where our traditions of meritocracy, fair play and social equality have been inculcated and reinforced. They have been the places where the ambitions and intellectual contributions our young people have been identified, honed and brought to the surface.

Charter_School_3sThe old public schools were far from flawless. In too many corners of the country they were manipulated to help institutionalize unfair social practices and outright discrimination. They have too frequently perpetuated inertia and apathy that lowered educational quality standards in some communities and harmed America’s academic competitiveness on the world stage.

No wonder the charter school concept had immediate appeal when the idea was first floated by Prof.  Ray Budde of U. Mass. Amherst in 1988. The idea was to operate autonomous, publicly funded schools, which were freed of certain procedural burdens and oriented toward student performance outcomes. For concerned, motivated parents in underperforming districts, this option was a godsend, an affordable chance for their children to escape mediocrity and even danger at some public schools.

I write this from Arizona, a state that has since been a leader in charter school creation. According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, our state “is home to 535 charter schools that enroll 142,368 students in the 2012-13 school year. Fully at least 25 percent of the state’s public schools are charter schools, and 13.5 percent of all public-school students are enrolled in charter schools — the highest percentage for any state, and second only to Washington D.C.”

Full disclosure: I am also married to a middle school math teacher in the Tucson public schools (Tucson Unified School District), who is dedicated beyond reason and who delivers top student test performance year after year. She and I and a number of her colleagues have had thoughtful discussions about how the rapidly expanding charter school movement may be creating both intended and unintended consequences.

Bright Flight

One troubling unintended consequence is micro-economic in nature. When a large, diverse, urban school district loses student population to competing charter schools, the district budgets can become distorted, to the detriment of remaining students. As noted above, motivated parents make individual decisions to move students to charter schools for generally sound reasons. When this happens in large proportion, it amounts to what I call “bright flight” – the departure of the most educationally motivated families first.

A consequence of bright flight is that the school buildings and administrative infrastructure remain, along with their many fixed costs. Payrolls must inevitably be cut. Students who stay behind experience cutbacks in services, including elimination of non-core subjects such as arts, music, shop, phys. ed., sports teams and extra-curricular activities.

I wrote an essay about this issue in 2010, in which I compared the over-schooling of some communities to the over-storing of America. Too much capacity chasing too few consumers is a formula for collapse – which may be healthy, but certainly painful too.

Districts are eventually forced to close and consolidate school buildings – as in Tucson Unified, where 11 schools were designated for closure by the board last December. In a large district, fewer buildings means more remaining  students travel greater distances by bus, further diverting funds out of the classrooms.

The shifts can be demoralizing for teachers and students left behind, who can sense that structural financial issues are overwhelming the mission to educate.

Changing the structure of our public educational system through the widespread implementation of charter schools brings other potential consequences that may amount in some respects to social engineering.  This could be a good thing if we agree on the objectives and have confidence in the means.

But strangely our national debate has not confronted the vision or motives of education reform advocates very vigorously. One might infer that there is a power play afoot, driven by ideology. Philanthropies run by Gates, Waltons, Broads and others have poured billions of dollars into support of the education reform movement over the past several years, including many charter school operations, and the Race To The Top competition. So it’s not unfair to press them on why and what they hope to accomplish. Even where hearts are pure, methods may be suspect.

Charter America?

I harbor another, theoretical, concern – that charter schools might be somewhat self-segregating, by class, ethnicity, or belief. Students who attend them may miss a chance to be exposed to people with differing backgrounds. Already we see charter schools that advertise their points of difference on television. One is focused on sports excellence; another on music and theater; a third on science and math; a fourth promises Christian values; one other promises “no bullying”! I worry this may be culturally regressive – not by design, but in practice. Is the demise of the community school socially, culturally, politically desirable? Is it good for businesses that hope to hire graduates one day? We have yet to confront this as a reasoned public debate.

Of course, some critics have suggested that charter schools are disruptive to unions – threatening disintegration of their power base. Many will shed no tears over this, but once again, we need to ask ourselves if how this change best serves our public school students. Unions are sometimes justly accused of obstructionism, but some union leaders have also been staunch advocates of charter schools.

Education reform in general – and charter schools in particular – bring consequences for our fundamental conception of America. What kind of society are we striving to be? How do we want to prepare our young people to participate in it? What is the proper role for power and influence in our educational system? How can we best define merit for students, teachers, schools, and our nation’s competitiveness?

I would stipulate that these addressing these questions may be fundamentally different from the very personal debate we individually face for and against sending ones’ own child to a charter school. I leave this discussion with food for thought: If we truly had a handle on our institutions of public education, would the charter choice even be necessary?

In addition to being the product, son, brother and husband of talented public school teachers, James Tenser is a retail industry analyst. A former journalist and author, Mr. Tenser pens his own Blog, tenserstirades.com. He is a frequent commentator at RetailWire.com and Chief Analyst at The Center for Advancing Retail Technology.

Culture of Violence: Are games & media part of the problem?

This is the 4th and final Wild Duck editorial related to the Newtown school
massacre in December 2012. Scroll down to view these articles:

■ Logan’s Guardians: Poignant Sandy Hook back story
■ 3-Prong Approach to School Security Avoids Lockdown
■ Few tributes to killer’s mother? Don’t feel guilt
■ Violence in Games & Media: Not part of the problem

Liza Long has become an internet sensation of sorts. Her Blog post “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  [alternate site] went viral in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. Of course, she is not Nancy Lanza. The shooter’s mother was the first victim of a calculated rampage that left 28 dead in all, including 20 first-grade students and 6 staff members.

Mrs. Long’s 13 year old son exhibits periodic, aggressive and threatening outbursts. This violent behavior alternates with longer periods of high-performing academics and true remorse over the violent episodes. As you can imagine, the boy has had numerous diagnoses. Brief episodes of aberrant behavior interspersed by apology or confusion could be a symptom of mental illness, a tumor, or even a trauma. It could relate to his food, his family environment, or even religious delusion (In this case, none of these are among the various diagnoses of mental illness).

But the article is not an analysis of the boy. It is a sharing of the enormous effort and anguish of being parent to a teenage child with mental illness and, as Liza explains in follow-up interviews, it is a plea for help and also an expression of her opinion that identifying and treating mental illness may save more lives than gun control.

Mrs. Long is one heck of a great writer! Her story column is among the most compelling and persuasive editorials I have ever read. I could learn from her communication style: captivating, thought provoking, and very clearly articulated.

I suspect that both issues factor into the number of mass murders: mental illness and easy gun ownership & transfer. But some pundits, including the current head of the National Rifle Association are pointing to America’s culture of violence, especially the violence depicted in Hollywood films, on TV and in computer and video games.

I would not be quick to ban violence in films or in fiction (TV and video games). It is a slippery slope that easily leads to banning Roadrunner cartoons (Wiley E. Coyote frequently blows himself up or falls into canyons). What about non-fiction? Why not ban guns and bombs in historical documentaries? What about War and Peace? What about Disney? (the beginning of Bambi or Finding Nemo). What about the Bible? That’s probably the most violent book ever written!

In my opinion, banning violence in media provides a false panacea. Research demon-strates a connection between fictional violence and immediate attitude. I acknowledge this. For example, when kids play military “kill” games, they are more likely to react to an innocent bump as if it were intentional—and they are more likely to escalate the interaction.

While I do not dispute these findings, I believe that the reaction is temporary and superficial. The Japanese culture is filled with horrific violence in both games and fiction. Hentai cartoon books are a popular staple in subway kiosks and snatched up by business commuters. They depict rape, gore and dismemberment. Yet, the incidence of real violence, including violence directed toward woman and children, is almost non-existent. It is far, far below the statistical rate in America.

In fact, a contrary force may actually correlate violent media with peaceful coexistence. I suspect that fictional violence provides a personal release for aggressive tendencies and therefore reduces violent interaction in the real world.*

If I am correct (that fictional violence offers a relief valve), then the real question is what mechanism or what types of individuals cross the chasm from imagination to practice? Certainly, easy availability to weapons can play a role in transforming a moment of intense passion or rage into an act of aggression. So, introducing gun control is very likely a good thing. But guns will never be impossible to obtain, and so we must also explore the roots of mental illness and more importantly, the mechanisms or identification of individuals who may “cross the chasm”.

Some people choose to commit suicide by jumping into the Grand Canyon. Because of this, the National Park Service briefly fenced off every lookout point in the mid 1980s. I was incensed! They were taking away from every citizen and visitor the privilege and majestic view! It just didn’t make sense. I was relieved when they buckled to an outraged public reaction. After all, someone bent on suicide could step in front of a car or slice open a vein. I see the removal of violence from media not as an overreaction, but as completely ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive. (Imagine outlawing Terminator, Rambo, or a World War documentary).

* I believe that the same is true of pornography. Fortunately, an increasing number of feminists have dropped a tired, outdated argument that pornography debases {name a gender, race or socio-economic class} and subtly alters a consumer’s attitude toward the characters depicted. But I dasn’t mix venues. It is a separate issue.

Ellery Davies clarifies the intersection of Technology, Law and Public
Policy. He is a contributor to Yahoo, CNet, ABC News, PCWorld and
The Wall Street Journal. He is also Chief Editor of A Wild Duck.

Few tributes to Nancy Lanza? Don’t feel guilt

In the wake of the Newtown Connecticut school massacre, there were many tributes to the 20 students and 6 teachers who were slain by Adam Lanza. The number of victims, 26, was repeated by news media, bloggers and even the US President as they honored the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School and shared in a nation’s collective grief.

Shedding a tear for 26 victims

But Adam Lanza killed 28 indivi-duals on that day. In addition to killing himself, the first shooting victim is absent in this count. She wasn’t at the school. Having re-turned from a resort vacation, she was still asleep on Friday morn-ing. As he set out to decimate a community, Lanza started the day by shooting his mother, Nancy Lanza, four times in the head. Minutes later, he parked at Sandy Hook Elementary School and entered the building, commando style. The rest of that morning is etched into our collective psyche by the sheer enormity of its evil.

Today, CNN anchor, Carol Castello asked viewers how Adam Lanza’s mother should be remembered. Specifically, should she be part of the many moving tributes to the victims of her son’s massacre? After all, with 4 gun shots to the head in her own bed, was she not also a victim?

Regular readers may notice that this posting has no photo of Mrs. Lanza. Adam Lanza’s mother is certainly a victim. There is no doubt. But deserving of a nation’s collective grief and the outpouring of homages to the school victims? Hardly! Grieving or honoring her life is a personal decision. Anyone can offer a tribute or honor her memory as a victim. But I certainly don’t think of her in the same light as the slain students & staff in Newtown.

Hers, is an individual story of a woman killed by a family member. I place it in the realm of domestic violence, even though, in this case, the violence came about as the result of mental illness and easy access to weapons—rather than at the hands of an abusive spouse.

But the children and staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School were murdered by a stranger and on a massive scope. By any definition, they are the “innocents”. They present a tragedy of national interest–­not just because of our collective grief, but because they raise such important questions about our safety, views and laws… Questions that are finally being debated in earnest by the electorate.

It is not clear to what degree that Mrs. Lanza bears responsibility for the actions of her son. But, the death of a mom who played a role in enabling her mentally unstable son is of less collective, emotional import than the death of 26 women and children who were so innocent of any involvement in Mrs. Lanza’s affairs. For me, this is the real reason that I will not be celebrating the memory of a killer’s mother.

3 Prong Approach to School Security Avoids Lockdown

This past Friday, we witnessed the aftermath of violence and tragedy: The murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. In the article before this one, AWildDuck shared a poignant and emotional story of Logan Dryer, a 6 year old boy who was protected from his fears by four victims of the massacre.

In the wake of tragedy caused by violence, it’s inevitable that politicians, pundits, and specialists rush to patch the security apparatus or call for new studies of mental illness. For many in the United States, it’s high time for more restrictive gun control laws, and certainly, something could be done to improve detection and intervention of individuals capable of massacring children. A national dialogue on meaningful gun control is certainly in order, but this won’t address the root of the problem and it certainly won’t solve the problem. It’s hard to imagine that criminals and high performing individuals with aggressive forms of mental illness will not get access to weapons.

Of course, a better understanding of mental illness would be a great leap forward, but we certainly don’t want a police state that incarcerates people because of what they might do.  In this moving Blog post, the mother of a 13 year old boy with mental illness explains the tribulations of dealing with her son. He has brief explosive bouts during which he presents a danger to anyone in the vicinity.

Improved school safety could definitely be part of a solution, but here – again – we don’t want our children studying in prisons that are inhospitable to pupils, educators and community participation.

Bob Strang: Importance of tightening security in school

Bob Strang, the CEO of Investigative Management Group is a specialist in threat-assessment. In a Fox News interview, he proposes addressing the effectiveness of all three areas: weapons, criminal psychology, and school security. His 3-prong proposal is designed to reduce the likelihood of a lethal school rampage like the one we witnessed this past week.

Mr. Strang suggests that we simultaneously change or reinforce these areas, not necessarily in major ways. For example, he does not propose that we ban civilian guns or prevent all unannounced visitors to a school. The first may be unrealistic and the latter may set a grim tone for socializing and learning.

  1. Gun Control:  For example, ban assault weapons, limit clips, end the gun-show loophole
  2. Mental Illness:  He has no specific suggestions, but I think he is hinting at better identification and preemptive intervention
  3. School Security: This is where it gets interesting . . .

Strang suggests that every school have an armed security professional, possibly recruited and screened from returning war veterans.

In my opinion, suggestion #3 has several problems.

  • I wonder if Strang envisions a sniper in a watch tower? I cannot imagine that a single officer in an interior office or even patrolling corridors could be very effective. I could see using armed guards at some inner city schools that struggle with violence daily.
  • And where would the money come from? Probably a reduction in teaching staff!
Elementary school of the future?

Elementary school of the future?

■ Most importantly, a subtle shift from an inviting campus to a restrictive campus has profound implications. The presence of armed guards contributes to an environment that feels more like a prison than a place for learning. It deters unannounced visits from parents and educators—even if the guard is undercover. It bakes into our daily routines an omni-present fear of terrorists and murderers and teaches children that strangers are inherently bad, rather than the judgment they need to develop personal safety habits and an ability to adapt. I prefer an inviting campus that does not have intimidating barriers to plays, concerts, sports events, community groups, and especially parent-teacher conferences. The presence of guards and guns puts a chill on all of these venues.

This led me to think of a slightly less apparent security apparatus and a less restrictive environment. I wonder if it could be effective. Rather than an armed sniper at every school, I wonder if this plan could be an effective alternative to part 3 of Mr. Strang’s suggestion…

3a)  A national school-safety czar. Not necessarily at the cabinet level, but under the auspices of our Department of Homeland Security. His role is to set coordinate studies, gather consensus, set policies and encourage standardized practices for drills, lockdowns, spotting suspicious activity, negotiation, etc.

3b)  An individual at each school (perhaps existing staff), who is liaison to the safety czar. She gathers intelligence (identify aberrant behavior, online threat absences, etc), investigates cause, implements a standards-based policy, verifies that cameras and perimeters are alert and secure, trains teachers & admins, avoid the complacency that comes with peaceful years on end.

She also works with local law enforcement to plan and practice response time,
review interior maps and perhaps install quick reacting defense, such as tear gas
or floor-level grease dispensers that can disable aggressors in access corridors.

How does my #3b differ from Mr. Strang’s #3. First, it doesn’t add lethal firepower to an area that seeks protection from firepower. I don’t buy the NRA claim that more guns is a solution to ending gun violence. After all, with a population of 200 million adults, America already has 300 million guns. It certainly hasn’t shielded her citizens from violence. Second, it is probably cheaper. Third, it relies on brains, standardized plans and preparation rather than brawn and bullets. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think that this fits within the ethos that we teach our children.

Using a loose analogy, this is why Captain Picard solved problems with his head rather than using his fists and groin like the original Captain Kirk. That earlier Star Trek series looks like a slapstick satire next to the newer one. This is not just due to an improvement in special effects. The Next Generation series is more believable because it is not a “shoot-em-up” western.

And where would the money come from? Probably a reduction in teaching staff!

Logan’s Guardian: Poignant Sandy Hook back story

Lives cut short. Such enormous loss. So much grief

                                  Lives cut short. Such enormous loss. So much grief

This is a difficult Monday morning, as a nation reflects on the Sandy Hook / Newtown Connecticut school massacre. Six adults and twenty children (all of them, 6 or 7 years old) were slaughtered as they started school on Friday.

Emilie Parkers Dad, Robbie

Depth of despair: Emilie Parker’s Dad, Robbie

It’s possible to have empathy for distraught parents and families and to imagine their grief, but it is impossible to experience the depth of their despair. Somehow, it seems unfair that we are powerless to shift some of their overwhelming grief onto our own shoulders.

There are many tributes on TV and across the country with photos of individual victims and a vignette about a favorite color, hobby, school work or their families. But here is a simple story in the Los Angeles Times that has no photo, yet it is a profoundly emotional read. (This is triggering—It left me shattered)…

The family of one victim, Madeline Hsu, has not provided a photo of their child. So far, news bureaus have refrained from using school photos. The family does not want her face broadcast in the media. They are grieving privately, with a police cruiser outside their home to discourage reporters or well-wishers from bothering them.

Across the street lives a little boy, Logan Dryer, who is 5. He is one year younger than Madeline and suffers from panic attacks. (He does not yet know about the shooting). Since the start of the school year, he has been afraid of going to school, especially afraid of leaving on the school bus. But with the help of Madeline and another shooting victim, Carolyn Previdi, he has been getting onto the bus on most mornings. Madeline promised Logan’s mom that she and Carolyn would be “Logan’s Guardians” and demonstrate to him that there is nothing to be scared of. Each morning, they take over for Logan’s Mom and hold his hand as they wait for the bus. Then, these two girls — both are dead now — would sit next to Logan and help him to be calm, happy and engaged on the bus ride to school.

According to the Times article, Madeline and Carolyn’s parents didn’t know that their daughters had taken on the role of guardians to a panic prone child. In fact, they had never met the Dryers. The girls did this of their own volition.

Dawn Hochspring and Mary Sherlach

Dawn Hochsprung (Principal) and Mary Sherlach

Once Logan arrived at school, two caring adults took over from the girls, holding Logan when he needed it and whispering away his fears: Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung and school psycholo-gist, Mary Sherlach. But Fate took another gut wrenching turn for little Logan, because these two adults were the first shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The killer had apparently fingered them as targets from the onset.

Now, Logan’s mom asks herself the really tough question: How can she explain to Logan that all four of his guardian angels were killed without cause and without warning? These were very individuals who brushed away fear and gave a 5 year old the strength to go to school. They assured him that it was safe to do so. And it wasn’t.

Ironically, Logan did not get on the bus last Friday. He had a panic attack. That was just before a shooter entered his school and began killing.

How can anyone read this story and not cry? Is safety and illusion? How will Logan’s family eventually explain this to the frightened boy? How can he believe in anything now?

Other back stories, selected by AWildDuck:

Naming Names: Savannah’s molesters

Today’s point of view is about rapists, molesters, teenage monsters and a Kentucky judge who facilitates their ilk. She is an inadvertent enabler—Not guilty of intent, but incapable of understanding the duty of a court: justice, punishment and deterrence. (Take note: This judge is female. Is she incapable of imagining herself or a daughter walking a mile in the shoes of this victim?)

The names Will Frey III and Austin Zehnder will probably not garnish the widespread notoriety of other recent predators, such as Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky or Colorado cinema shooter James Holmes. But what differentiates Frey and Zehnder from evil peers is the protection bestowed on them by a heartless judge and her retrograde court in Louisville Kentucky.

When 17 year old Savannah Dietrich engaged in underage drinking at a party last year, she became the target of two pimply faced teens. Like drooling wolves picking up the scent of injured prey, they undressed her, sexually assaulted her and posted close up photos of their joy ride on the internet. Cute–or so they thought. Harmless? Apparently it was harmless for these boys. How so?…

Savannah Dietrich

You see, these boys not only got away with assault–the victim was prohibited from talking about her ordeal! In Jefferson County, if you pass out and get sexed up by creeps, you also get slapped upside the head by a judge that can’t distinguish between felon and victim.

Of course, these kids were horsing around and they are just minors. Right? That’s how the great state of Kentucky sees it. Unable to evade capture, the sadistic youths pleaded guilty, and the judge accepted (or perhaps offered-?) a plea bargain. Was Savannah or her attorney party to this wrist slap? Of course not. Rape victims can’t bring criminal charges—they are only ‘witnesses’. Perhaps the court ’s most outrageous act was to seal the record and order the victim to remain silent about the crime, the punishment, and even the identities of her assailants (Whazzat?!?).

I, for one, respectfully disagree with the court. Wait a minute…That’s not truthful. I have NO respect for this court! Like, Savannah, I cannot accept that a just and democratic government gags the result of a guilty plea in a criminal case. This is my response to the state: Show us that you have more backbone than Kentucky blue grass, a bucket of fried chicken, and thoroughbred horses. Don’t mock justice in Jefferson. Instead of relying on web vigilantes like me, post the photos below on your public crime log.

The perpetrators are shown here.* Dear readers: Copy these photos. Blog about these boys. Make back ups to your cloud storage and tag them. Let them be searched from across the world. Show the state of Kentucky that the truth knows no bounds.

Austin Zehnder & Will Frey III (redacted)

*Note that I did not say alleged perpetrators. These boys pleaded guilty. They were convicted. But their punishment will probably be overturned and purged from the record when they turn 18.

First hunted and then gagged

But what of Savannah. She has recurring nightmares. She has been dragged through hell. And what did the court offer her? A gag order! Fortunately, she is a brave girl. She understands that freedom and justice come at a price. Sometimes it requires personal risk. Dietrich published a tweet and named her attackers. She openly defied the court and taunted them to “Come get me”. Well, that’s exactly what they did. At the end of this month, Savannah Dietrich faces a contempt hearing. What’s at stake? How about her freedom? $500 and up to six months in prison.

Can you believe it Wild Ducks?! This is America: Land of Liberty, Home of the Free, democratic, capitalist, and just a little bit half-assed. What a country!


Kids and Facebook (revisited)

My friend, Damon, wrote an insanely popular post to his own blog. Shortly after viewing a suggestive Facebook photo by his daughter’s online acquaintance (another 12 year old girl), he solicited readers to opine about preteens who post swimsuit “fashion” photos, pose suggestively, and then comment on each other’s “hotness”. He worries that it may invite unwarranted or even dangerous attention.

Of course, in no time at all, Moms & Dads were falling all over each other in their response. The feedback generally fell into these categories:

  • “My little Alice would never do anything like that!”
  • “I don’t allow Betty to use Facebook”
  • “Why doesn’t someone demand that Facebook police the age of users?”

Related: Filter a child from online porn? Stop worrying!


A feature in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses Facebook policy towards children. Depending upon on the news source, they are either thinking of granting access to kids under 13 – or not. Forbes says that access for preteens might make them safer. Of course, the truth is that Facebook has no way to tell the age of its users—nor should they care, except for purposes of marketing demographics. Policing an online audience achieves nothing and opens up the gatekeepers to all sorts of liability.

This might be a good time to review the stats: Nearly 40% of kids between 9 and 12 already have their own Facebook accounts. In fact, more than 5 million of these kids are under 10. The numbers will grow regardless of the ‘rules’, but the good news: This is a good thing. Kids and Facebook aren’t the problem. But parents are often a problem.

Ellery’s thoughts can be summarized in a pithy string of words: Parenting, closed circles, and reading the unredacted news together. And, oh yes…Did I mention, ‘parenting’?

Avoiding online predators

It’s easy to jump on the bandwagons of filters, censorship and parental controls. But restricting kids to online kiddie activities is rarely in order. Prohibitions rarely have the intended effect. Kids get what they want while parents encourage deceit and risk. Web savvy kids don’t need a Facebook account to post raunchy photos. Any eight year old with internet access can do it with ease.

A more practical solution begins like this: Keep PCs in an open and busy area of your living room or kitchen. Spend time with your kids. Talk about these things. Get them to close their circles (friends only). Know their friends and (depending upon age and responsibility) Friend them yourself (the one rule that I accept). But ultimately, trust them to do the right thing. If you lead by example—giving children a chance to be safe & responsible—you will be amazed at how responsible they can be.

Damon wondered Why Facebook doesn’t do a better job policing the age of its users.

Editor’s Note: Damon polled readers about a photo and comments posted
to Facebook by an early teen. Damon and some of his readers feel that
the posting is risky or inappropriate. But he did not advocate that it
is incumbent upon Facebook to police the age of its users. (I jumped
to that conclusion about his position). His poll was intended to spark
discussion. In fact, he agrees with my perspective below.

While it is tempting to blame web services for lax oversight, I really don’t think that it is realistic to expect them to police electronic traffic. It smacks of a Nanny state and it opens up every Blogger and hosting service to unwarranted liability. Facebook can no more be responsible for activity on your child’s page than the phone company can be responsible for foul language or bullying.

Imagine the maker of steak knives enforcing an “age policy”. With a sense of purpose and a massive effort, they have almost no influence over the individual family members that grab their utensil from kitchen drawers across the world. It is ludicrous to assume that Facebook could, would or even should police the age of users. That’s a job for parents! My pre-teen daughter has had a Facebook account since she could type. I accept it. It is a tool of the times. (Actually, it is an insanely useless and ill-crafted tool, but that’s beside the point). We talk frequently about appropriate use. I am included in her circles (and therefore, invited to monitor), and I continuously re-evaluate activities & venues as she matures. Facebook is many things: a Blog, a social gathering spot, a gaming site, an academic tool, and much more. Although I feel that the service has little benefit and lax standards, it is easy to monitor and it supports closed communities.

Facebook is popular with kids & soccer moms, but a lousy social network

But let’s face it, Bucko! It’s a social network and not a baby sitter. Gossip and even occasional raunch among close friends is to be expected. It’s much more important to talk with your kids, test your trust, and constantly reassess if your progeny is living up to your expectations.

You know the drill, ducks. So Sayeth Ellery. Tell me what you think.

Green Lantern comes out of the closet

I am in favor of gay rights. Yet, today’s news is, well, a bit goofy. Is it possible that Ellery is not the progressive, tolerant Dude that I have cultivated? First some background…

20 years ago, my business partner, Gerry, and I walked across Central Park. We were wearing blue jeans—and for some reason that I don’t recall, we were horsing around and slapping each other on the back. Suddenly, a news photographer popped in front of us and took our photo. He wasn’t carrying a snapshot camera, but a big, professional photo-journalist camera. He may have asked permission to publish the photo—I don’t recall. We certainly would have given consent. Our company was undergoing venture financing. I figured the investors would get a lift by seeing their new partners in a story about the first day of summer, park beautification, or whatever.

In brightest day, in darkest night—No evil shall escape my sight

But later, as we strolled toward a crowd on the far side of the park, we learned that this was Gay Pride Day. Overhead banners urged supporters to show their pride by wearing jeans (Don’t we all wear jeans?!). TV & news photographers zoomed in on men holding hands, butts or cuddling amongst the crowd. The next morning, Gerry and I were splashed across the front page of our nation’s newspapers. We were mortified! The caption didn’t identify us, but to our friends, colleagues and communities, we were presented as gay lovers. Outed…And we weren’t even members of the club!

I’m not gay and I doubt that Gerry is, either. At the time, I was beginning to turn away from five years of intolerance at college. As I matured, I not only mellowed, I came to abhor anti-gay activism. I became an advocate for ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, especially when it rears its head in law and public policy. Homophobia is not only callous and unfair, it arises from religious doctrine, a narrow minded perspective—or it indicates repressed homosexuality; that’s my favorite explanation.

Today, I am tolerant and progressive. I favor ratification of gay marriage (not just a “civil union”. That’s a whitewash). The time has come to recognize that this issue is more about personal freedom, expression and privacy—than about any legitimate right for a government to discriminate.

Is this necessary? Is Ellery a hypocrite?

But now, DC comics has revealed that Green Lantern likes to French kiss his mate and cuddle with him as they walk down a street in Hong Kong(?!) Is it necessary for the stewards of our super heroes to turn the comics into a political statement? I realize that Superman has Lois Lane and Batman flirts with Bat Girl (N.B. Even she has been recast as a lesbian!). I am 100% comfortable about gays in every walk of life. Not just tolerating their presence, mind you. I honestly think that they add a rich cultural dimension to the fabric of society. But I am just a bit troubled that DC is using the issue to push back into everyone’s face and begin the desensitizing process within the pages of a super hero comic.

Look at the collage of cartoon frames released today by DC Comics (from the upcoming June 2012 issue, Green Lantern, Earth 2).  Is this a distraction—or legitimate and non-political character development? Is it a reasonable part of the story line? To me, it seems like a subplot with an agenda. Even though the agenda is not offensive, I can’t quite justify it in this venue. I would be much more comfortable encountering it on the editorial pages, among my friends, and in books & films. Just, not within a DC comic. Does that make me a hypocrite? Honestly, I’m not sure. Tell me what you think?

Editors Note:
The title suggests that Green Lantern has “come out of the closet”. Actually, the new issue shows him to have been openly gay all along. Additionally, the character is not Hal Jordan from 60s and 70s, a member of the Justice League. He is Alan Scott, a retro character from the early comics of the 1940s.

Marry me, Jeremy!


Editors Note:

AWildDuck encourages freelance editorial and op-ed contributions.  Today marks the debut of the very talented Min Yin, an Asian American immigrant, software engineer and mother of 3 bright children — the basketball stars of tomorrow.

The title. “Marry me, Jeremy” was not chosen by Ms. Yin. It appears in a poster held by a Lin fan in the final seconds of the ABC News video linked in the 1st sentence.

If you don’t know the word “LINsanity”, you’re not keeping pace with a phenomenon taking the sports world by storm. Jeremy Lin, the point guard for the New York Knicks, has swept a competitive NBA with a story of underdog becomes super hero. From being an undrafted, overlooked and anonymous player, Lin has become an overnight sensation and focal point of basketball fans. He has led the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak. His gusto makes him an inspiration to millions. Watch any recent Knicks game and see an ocean of fans rooting for him with posters raised. Bask in the intensity of their admiration.

How did so much happen in such little time? First, people love to see a neglected person making it big. Everyone has been an underdog at some time in their past. Deep down in their hearts, sports fans feel a stirring. Perhaps like Jeremy, fans have a dream of making it big. But too often, they give in to financial circumstances and or ridicule—doing whatever it takes to survive. But through Lin, we sense see our own reality and the dreams that might still be.

Watching Lin’s moves, one marvels at how hard he plays. With a relatively slim body, he doesn’t fear collisions with the big guys. Even as he gets knocked hard, somehow he manages to score on the way down. You can almost see his will. It is the triumphant determination of a winner no matter what odds.

Commentators talk about Lin’s intelligence. There’s no doubt about this. Lin is a Harvard grad born to hardworking immigrants—the Silicon Valley elite. He studied economics at America’s flagship university. He certainly is smart. But there is something here than transcends smarts and goes even beyond sports…

I was never a basketball fan, but I have a good layperson understanding of the game. It always seemed to me that basketball was about height, physique and maybe a good eye. Which player is taller, bigger or tougher? If I were asked to handicap a game, my money would be on that one. But I have little interest in watching huge men show off. Sure, they effortlessly score a basket in the absence of a good defense, but I figured that their gift was genetic rather than skill, concentration, intuition and knowing when to take a risk. Talent lives between the ears. Basketball seemed to be a game based on height.

But with Lin, there is graceful strategy, elegant coordination, and an obvious trust between players on his team. You see unselfish passing of the ball. When everyone is huddling under the basket the ball goes out to Lin at the perfect position. Invariably, he scores. The team plays like an intricately designed and well-oiled machine! Every business organization wants to build. They would do well to study the Knicks. It’s not a metaphor, but rather a study in team building. When you see these big guys hug and jump for joy, you realize people of different color and race can get along well, and you have a warm fuzzy feeling that people can be innately good.

It pays to follow your dreams

In a world of waste, indifference and greed, Jeremy Lin is a refreshing role model! His unflagging attitude demonstrates that – in the long run – persistence pays off; Dreams pay off; Not letting put-downs and ridicules of pessimists pays off. Lin demonstrates a world an individual does the thing he loves and lives the life of his dreams. He exudes pure joy when he plays; joy that comes from knowing he is finally at his rightful place and doing what he was born to do!

Many Wild Ducks had passions and dreams in their youth. But how have fulfilled that passion in the day-to-day grind of life? Through Lin, we see the striving of our youth—like a seed under the weight of soil and the inertia of the earth, trying to break through and become a thriving plant.

During the span of a few days, I have become a major basketball fan. Just last Friday, I watched my first YouTube clip of Lin in competition. It’s exhilarating and inspiring. He disproves a stereotype that Asian men cannot compete in professional basketball. More than that, he proves that if you put in the effort dreams come true. Maybe one day, I too, can proclaim to the world that I am living out my dream. What about you?

Author′s Note:

Feedback from Wild Ducks is important. I’ll be back from time to time. Drop me a note on the comment form, or better yet, use the feedback link to express your opinion about Jeremy Lin and other examples of inspiration and perspicuity. Until next time, follow your dreams!

— MY

From the Editor

Check out Ms. Yin’s 2nd guest editorial, a tribute to Adele and her ability to bring a listener to tears with music.

Christmas Trees & Menorahs: No place on Public Property

In 1990 and 1991, an atheist organization filed suit against cities and towns in Illinois, including Rolling Meadows, Zion and Palatine. It argued that a religious symbol in the official city seal constituted government recognition of a religion and caused harm. A city seal appears everywhere that official business is conducted. It is emblazoned on permits, forms, stationery, recycle bins, police cars, and even street signs.

At first, the towns fought back, arguing that a Latin cross in the corner of a city seal, an angel or a reference to God represents an aspect of town heritage and history. In fact, some towns were settled for religious reasons during colonial times. They also pointed out that US currency displays the words “In God We Trust” and that religious motifs are enshrined in government documents, buildings, history and even cited by our founding fathers.

Although decisions were split, the plaintiffs won their case on most counts and in most cities. Religious icons were stripped from the seals and eventually the court houses of many towns. Some civic leaders considered appealing the decisions, but after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the initial action, most towns gave up the fight and agreed to remove religious symbols.

How is it that a religious symbol can cause harm? For an atheist, I am a bit puzzled. To them, I would think that it should be no different than an artifact of fables and legend. But for people of other faiths, I certainly understand the problem. In one case that gained brief, national attention, the wife of a Rabbi covered the seal on her recycling bin and on an automobile windshield sticker. But this small act of protest had repercussions. The municipal government blocked her trash pickup and fined her for not displaying (or perhaps defacing) a required vehicle permit.

Before this post attracts all sorts of rants from the right, please consider this. Asking a devout Jew to display a crucifix in front of her home, even if it is small, is no different than asking a devout Muslim to wear a Star of David for the purpose of gaining access to the town dump. Preposterous! Even if the effect is unintended, the incorporation of religion into government – even if symbolic – is not harmless. It is intimidating, unfair and a form of bullying. It says that the town recognizes and serves this citizen, but not that one.

Some will argue that in a democracy, “Majority rules”. But this cliché is a bastardization of democracy. This type of thinking leads to Fascism. A true democracy protects the rights of individuals and never forces citizens into acts that benefit no one and isolate individuals. Rather, democracies actively protect diversity. For this reason, I stand with the Rabbi’s wife.

But let’s move forward 20 years. It is now Christmas 2011. Why, today, do most towns still decorate Christmas Trees on public property? I have no idea! Christians should be even more outraged than atheists and people of other faiths. Having government usurp a matter of family and personal faith is trite, insulting and nauseating. It is far worse than the commercial exploitation of faith that we see in malls and on television.

The issue is reaching a boiling point in the town of Evergreen Colorado, in which I have a friend. The town offered local Jews “equal access” by placing a giant menorah next to the town Christmas tree. The pendulum is swinging wildly this week. Early this week, newspapers reported Evergreen Bans Menorah, Keeps Christmas Tree, but just as abruptly, the two sides reached an accommodation. Now they are again saying “Let’s drape our court house in both faiths.”  If I were a local Jewish leader in Evergreen, I certainly wouldn’t want a symbol of a minor children’s holiday placed next to a Christmas tree. For God’s sake, get rid of both!

Do you really want equal time and equal space for Jewish symbols amongst Christian symbols?! Doesn’t that open a can of worms? What about Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto and Wicca? Does each minority get a symbol on the front lawn of City Hall?

Rather than “Equal Time” for flaunting Jewish holidays & symbols. I would much prefer that governments get out of the religion business altogether! It’s trite, bigoted and incredibly insulting. I have never understood why governments like to erect Christmas trees. I would rather teach my children that faith is expressed by the faithful and within their respective communities. Let us please end state funding or any state recognition of religious holidays & events. Let the tree to Christ go up on private property and let the Menorah go up on Mr. Levine’s front lawn or in front of Weinstein’s Deli (I made up the names, but you get the point).

Why not display a religious alphabet soup to assuage all residents?

What about the The Salvation Army? Projects of missionaries, and some self-help groups. Should they be granted meeting rooms in schools or donation pots at the post office? Of course not! Let them find donors in a church parking or at the entrance of Wal-Mart. (I am not arguing against retailers making their own decision). But wait? Is the Salvation Army a religious organization? Many people believe that their motives are as benign as the Girl Scouts. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems reasonable to ask what the “Salvation” Army is trying to save?!

Should there be exceptions to my rule?

Sure! Every restriction should accommodate facts on the ground and be applied within reason. Even though Hanukkah is a minor children’s holiday blown out of proportion because of proximity to Christmas,  I accept that our national holidays include Christmas, Easter and the Gregorian New Year (I won’t even call that last one ‘religious’). The plurality of Christians is a fact and it seems reasonable that major holidays convenience the largest group. Likewise, I appreciate the fact that towns with a large Jewish population (like Brookline and Sharon in Massachusetts) structure the school calendar to accommodate Passover and Yom Kippur. I wouldn’t demand that the holiday be recognized (not even locally), but on the other hand, I bet families in these towns appreciate that teachers accommodate individual students who cannot attend on those few days.

What about the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? Fortunately, the Girl Scouts are not religious at all (they are not affiliated with the Boy Scouts). However, the Boy Scouts credo and pledge includes an oath of anti-atheism, and of course, they tried hard to block gay scouts and leaders. Alas, this isn’t a perfect world. Personally, I overlook the subtle and non-pervasive remnants of intolerance and religion in the Boy Scouts as long as their regional outposts are inclusive and accommodating. Their record is mixed, but religion is certainly a very minor footnote in their activities.

I have no problem with a school giving after school meeting space to scouts, as long as the on-site affairs are completely nonreligious and as long as the donation of space and service is treated like any other non-profit (e.g. the Red Cross or a local food drive).

So Sayeth Ellery. Tell me what you think.

Michele Bachmann: Trouble responding to 8yr old boy

Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are like the Bobbsey Twins. Two peas in a pod. You already know my feelings about Palin. But lately, Wild Ducks have asked me to comment on Bachmann.

Today’s post is not an opinion, but this short video is priceless. Pure fluff, but priceless!

An 8 year old boy accompanies his mom to a Michele Bachmann book signing. The child approaches Bachmann to ask a question, but is too shy and too soft to be heard. Bachmann is interested in hearing what the youngster has to say. She pulls the boy close so that he can whisper into her ear. Click below to see the video  [continued]…

Implored by a child…How can a family-values zealot respond?

The camera and microphone are close and they pick up everything! He whispers “My mommy is gay, but she doesn’t need any fixing.”

It’s not difficult to predict the outcome. How can she possibly respond? Certainly not coherently! Bachmann backs away, flushes and stumbles on the words “Bye-bye”, as handlers escort boy and Mom away from the unblinking eye of the camera…Priceless!

For those who don’t follow the GOP parade, Bachmann hubby Marcus runs a clinic that offers to “cure” gays. Of course, we mustn’t claim looniness by association. But wait! Michele appeared to advocate this approach prior to her candidacy.

Was the child set up by his mother to make a blatant pro-diversity stand? Of course! But still – this brief clip will go down as a priceless moment in campaigning history!

Merriam-Webster dictionary banned in California

I was about to begin this post with the words “Every once in a while, politicians and school boards come up with some truly bizarre edicts.” Then, I would have gone on to report one really whacked out policy…

But in truth, it’s not just ‘once in a while’. In this age of space exploration, cultural pluralism and enlightenment, common sense and fair play have gone out the window like a bat out of — well, you get the idea!

Dispensing with the usual introduction, gaze at an incredulous article:

Dictionaries Banned From Schools – “Not Age Appropriate”

The original story is shorter than this Wild Duck retort. But in case the link no longer works, here’s a thumbnail edition: Based of the complaint of one parent, a Southern California school board pulled Merriam-Webster’s 10th Edition from fourth and fifth grade classrooms because “it is not age appropriate”. The parent was upset that the dictionary did not censor itself. It defined a sexual term.

Oh my gawd! An uncensored dictionary!

Note to whacked out parent: It’s a dictionary, not a Bible! (speaking of Bibles, a dictionary is certainly less obsessed with sex.)

It is a religious zealot or a narrow-minded fanatic who values ignorance and “innocence” over a comprehensive scholastic dictionary. Dictionaries are a repository of language and culture. Not just your language, but the words and phrases that are a product of the world around you. Dictionaries obviously define terms for many activities and things that you might not wish to visit upon your children. Good Gawd, lady! That’s no excuse to keep them under a rock.

Why not ban the definition of “murder”, “diarrhea” and “warts”. We certainly don’t want our kids to be visited by these plagues. Yet, few parents would attempt to shelter them from these definitions.

Don’t want your child to experience this? Simply ban it from the dictionary!

Who taught you that information is poisonous? For how long do you want your 5th grader to be ignorant of sex or even its basic terminology? From whom should he or she learn – If not from a dictionary, a school and from family?

Actually, I am more concerned with the response of the school board than with one ignorant parent. To be fair, the board is complaining, but not about the parent! Believe it or not, they are upset at the difficult task ahead. They plan to read the entire dictionary to see if other terms might offend another whacked out parent! Quoting the immortal Homer Simpson, “D’OH!”

Some people fear learning. They believe in the ostrich axiom “ignorance is bliss”. But school boards stand for education – that is, if brains aren’t checked at the door. Why would a school board kowtow to ignorance or fanaticism? Perhaps, the fanatic has a louder voice than the silent majority. Hopefully, parents who want educated offspring are still in the majority.

Filter a child from online porn? Stop worrying

A columnist in my local newspaper recently lamented about the difficulty in “protecting” her child from online pornography. Her child wasn’t searching for the stuff, she explains. But porn is so pervasive in everyday media, that you needn’t search for it to be saturated with it. Not just the subtle innuendo of marketing & commerce—but the hard core variety and even the illegal variety. It appears in many web searches and it is often marketed in a deceptive manner designed to appear across all venues.

The idea of a child coming across something for which they lack context, experience and the curiosity that grows with hormones is disturbing. A common reaction is to shriek, shut off the screen or become hysterical. But what really works? I have an unorthodox approach to the issue of online safety and brief exposure to sexual imagery…

Today, I was contacted by a porn-filtering organization that seeks my endorsement. Like spam filters (a necessary technology) they offer a technical approach to the problem. Of course, they don’t condemn my approach (it’s called parenting), but they claim that an electronic babysitter (I call it a censor) will block exposure to horrific content: Apparently, the potential exposure of a child or preteen to any image of a naked adult fits their definition of “horrific”.

I say, “Why bother?!” Exactly what is the goal of this shield? Will it protect your child’s values, chastity or save her from nightmares? In my opinion, it defeats all of these goals. And so, here is my response to the founder of a porn filtering vendor…

Hi Martin. On your web page for My Porn Blocker, you say:

“One day while at the dinner table my 7 year old daughter
asked me why some people are naked on the computer.
My wife and I nearly fell out of our chairs.”

Additionally, your marketing video begins with a description of your “horror” in finding a racy web site on your son’s PC.

I also have a young daughter and, of course, she occasionally comes across online pornography. After all, it is pervasive – and clearly – it is important to many adults

A naked human. I’m ruined for life!

(either the soft core type used for marketing, or the hard-core material that is a market unto itself). That’s why there is so much of it.

While I respect your desire to shield children from material you find offen-sive or contrary to your values, I am puzzled by parents seeking technical help in filtering what children see on the internet or in media. The answer is parenting. Of course, porn will continue to pop-up, even if you surf the web with your child. But consider a more thoughtful response to her curiosity. Why not answer truthfully and in a manner that is age appropriate?

  • Mommy! Why are there so many naked people on the internet?

There are many photos like these, because some adults like to view naked people. The world is filled with all sorts of different people. They have many different preferences – and viewing naked people is something that lots of people seem to enjoy.

  • What is this person doing? It looks painful!

No—They are not in pain. In fact, they are either having a lot of fun, or they are actors pretending to do these things. In either case, they are doing things that you are not ready for—both physically: it would hurt, and emotionally: you need to develop other types of relationships before you play the adult games shown in these pictures.

Some photos are patently offensive, I won’t fault you for closing a sexy or violent web page before answering. But make no mistake: It is you who cannot handle the momentary exposure of off-topic content–and not her. As you move on to other web pages, you will be surprised by the maturity with which your child accepts an age-appropriate response.

Will she ask friends at school about the lewd photos? Of course! That’s life. Discussion is a healthy response to anything that is unexpected or shocking. But if you are consistent, loving and non-hysterical, your daughter will assess all available information through the lens of a consistent upbringing and shared family values.

We have used this approach with our child since she was 4. Since the age of 8, she has owned her own PC. We allow her to surf the web unattended. Although we don’t overtly monitor activity, the computer is in an open location. We have never felt it necessary to log and track the web sites that she visits – and we certainly don’t user filters.

Are we fooling ourselves? I doubt it. By 6 or 7, she was aware that sex is fun for adults and culturally pervasive. She knows that older teens talk about it frequently and she is peripherally aware that adults have individual, unique and sometimes very odd predilections. That is, they engage in a broad & seemingly bizarre array of behavior. Most kids figure this out because they listen to adults and because they are not blind to web sites & films that allude to unusual fetishes.

Should you care? I certainly don’t lose any sleep. My daughter will make up her mind about these things when her hormones and values tell her that it is time to explore. And even at 8 and 9, she realized this. As parents, we guide her to make the right decisions with our experience and insight, rather than attempt to censor web sites.

Prior to that time, I am convinced that shielding children from accidental exposure to porn is both futile and counterproductive. Of course, the parents are shocked—but for a young child, porn lacks the prurient stimulus that it has for adults. It may prompt occasional questions or discussion with peers, but this is not a bad thing! Believe it or not, a consistent message at home will trump the input from a few dissenting peers.

I typically end these personal pearls of advice with the glib and über confident tag line: “So sayeth Ellery”…but not today. I realize that, like Martin, many WildDucks want to control their children and reinforce values by blocking content. For what it’s worth, you now have another side to this story. That’s my 2¢.

The “Ground Zero” Mosque

Stephen Prothero is a professor of Religion, author, and lecturer. He also writes the CNN Belief Blog. In July, 2010, he wrote an op-ed for CNN in which he supported the efforts to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the hallowed ground of a great number of 911 victims, including the many 1st responders who died there.

Stephen’s take: Ground Zero mosque good for America and New York

CNN also published my feedback. Now that I have created AWildDuck, the retort is as relevant today as it was last year.

Does this belong at Ground Zero?

I get it… Stephen Prothero argues that blocking a Mosque at ground zero is a win for terrorists, because they will have succeeded at changing our pluralistic ways of tolerance and coexistence. But the argument doesn’t cut it, Stephen! In this century, Islam stands for intolerance in our front yard, and it is inextricably linked with violence and hate. Imams here in the US call for the overthrow of America, implementing Sharia Law and death to Americans.

The religion routinely calls any outsider an infidel (and you know what that brings, don’t you?). It is just too much to ask that we look at these individuals as a fringe minority within a peaceful religion. The nuts are driving the car and we needn’t choose to give them the auto loan and the dealership.

I grew up in Skokie Illinois. Our village of 70,000 had a large number of concentration camp survivors from Nazi Germany. Neighbors and store owners had numbers burned into their forearms at Auschwitz, Sobibor, Matthausen and Treblinka. While I supported the ACLU and admired their stance on free speech, they lost my respect and support when they backed the march of Nazis through the streets of Skokie. The ACLU claimed that political, legal and financial support was offered to these nuts in the name of free speech and fair representation. Perhaps they have the right — I don’t know. But certainly, the ACLU could find other worthy causes for their time and money. The decision to represent these screwballs was about as looney as the intent to allow a mosque to be erected at Ground Zero. For hundreds of millions of individuals (perhaps more than a billion around the world), that juxtaposition represents a win for radicals, cowards, and nut cases. To claim that it represents a religion of peace and tolerance is a PC delusion. At the very least, it is shockingly insensitive and inappropriate.

Is there even a contest of opinions here? I realize that true freedom is not subject to the whim of public opinion, but let’s just vet this one question: How many people in New York want to walk past a Mosque at Ground Zero. Seriously…How many?!

Worried about kids & social networks like Facebook?

Elllery’s response to:
10 things you don’t know about teens and social networking

Finally! An author who understands that secretly monitoring kids’ online activities doesn’t work. More importantly, it has unintended effects. Spying on your kids is not the answer. It is neither a substitute for active engagement (aka, parenting) nor does it buttress the effective approach: Leading by example and open discussion. In short, as with any issue, there is no substitute for parental involvement along with a growing bond of trust.

The online culture will not go away. In fact, it will become more pervasive as new gadgets and unexpected venues are attached to the internet. Culture will continue to evolve along with the medium, such as the spawning of social networks.

One teenager stated that the online world is more relevant to her than the “real” world. As scary as this sounds to parents, it isn’t necessary a bad thing. The online world is real. With nurturing and a little guidance, it may even help her to overcome obstacles in her immediate vicinity (health, bullies, career opportunity, etc).

Another child says that she feels safer online than offline, and she does things online that I she would not do in real life. Considered one way, this might be cause for alarm. Does this mean that she is likely to engage in risky behavior? Perhaps. But, it could simply mean that she is a “risk taker” in the vein of exploring her alternate personas and even confronting her inner demons. For her, the virtual world might allow her to develop as an individual in all venues.

The rise of a new social medium – one with a value that eludes many parents – is not bad. In general, it needn’t be cause for concern (Exception: the girl who lies to her Mom about spending time online while avoiding homework! Addiction to anything, not just the internet, is a weakness that is countered by parenting and strength.

Ellery Davies is chief editor of AWildDuck.com. He clarifies law and public policy.
He is also a parent of a preteen who is uses social networks.
Feedback is always welcome.