VASSP Board Meeting

The VASSP/VFEL Board of Directors held their fall meeting on Monday, September  26, 2011 in Ricmond. The next scheduled meeting will be held on Monday, January 16, 2012.

Facebook Controversy in Georgia

Georgia Courts Rules Against Teacher Over Facebook Controversy

In August of 2009, the superintendent of Barrow County Schools in Georgia received an anonymous e-mail from a person claiming to be the parent of a student in Ashley Payne’s English class at Apalachee High School. 

According to an online blog downloaded from http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2009/11/13/barrow-teacher-done-in-by-anonymous-e-mail-with-perfect-punctuation/, the following is the anonymous email from the parent:

To: Dr. Ron Saunders; Ken Greene

Sent: Aug. 27

Subject: Disappointed and worried about my daughter’s teacher

To whom it may concern,

My daughter is a pupil in one of Ms. Payne’s literature classes and friend of hers on the social networking site “Facebook.” Tonight, my daughter says to me casually, “Mom, I’m going to hang out with my bitches.” Shell shocked, I told her not to use profane language in my house ever again.

To make matters worse, my daughter laughs in my face, trying to comfort me by saying, “Mom, it’s ok! Ms. Payne calls her friends bitches! Then she comforts me more by proving to me via “Facebook” and sure enough, it is similar to what Ms. Payne had said in her status update, except hers exclaims: “Ashley Payne is at Bitch Bingo with her bitches.”

I’m standing over my daughter as she scrolls down the page thinking to myself, yes, Ms. Payne what an excellent way to teach my daughter the concept of alliteration!

Ms. Payne also has an unacceptable picture of herself smiling with alcohol for all her online friends to view. See attached.

I am repulsed by Ms. Payne’s profane use of language and how she conducts herself as an example to my teenage daughter. Her behavior is intolerable. I have a question to the Barrow County School System. Is it too hard for our educators to lack discipline online and offline?

I have chosen to remain anonymous regarding this matter for the sake of my daughter.

The superintendent talked with the Director of Human Resources and school principal about the email.  They decided the principal would talk with the teacher, and that they would turn the matter over to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, a separate government agency independent from the Georgia Department of Education which is charged by state law with handling the certification and licensure of teachers in the state (downloaded on 10/14/11 from http://www.gapsc.com/).

Exactly what was said during the meeting between the principal and the teacher was disputed.  The principal stated that upon learning of the complaint, the teacher voluntarily resigned.  The teacher argued that she was threatened with suspension unless she resigned.  She stated she was told that resignation was better than having the matter investigated by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

The court case was brought under Georgia state law and argued that the teacher was denied a due process hearing, and that she was wrongfully terminated.  The school district countered that since she resigned, the district had no obligation to provide a due process hearing.

The teacher acknowledged that she had photos on her Facebook page from a trip she made to Europe and in several of those photos, she was holding beer or wine; however, she stated she was not doing anything illegal.  She also acknowledged that on one of her post, she stated that she was headed out to play “Crazy Bitch Bingo” at a local bar.  The page was subsequently taken down. 

Two weeks ago, an Atlanta judge ruled against the teacher stating that he had no authority to require the school district to provide a due process hearing since the teacher resigned. 

Payne’s lawyer, Richard Storrs, filed an amended complaint last week.  The new complaint states that the school district had no evidence that the original email was actually from a parent since it was anonymous. The suit claims the principal misrepresented the email during the meeting with the teacher.  The new complaint is seeking monetary damages. 

While this case revolves around Georgia state law, it emphasizes the importance of professional behavior and conduct on social networking sites.  It is very important for teachers, principals, and other professionals to be cognizant of what they put on their sites especially in light of the fact that there is little case law in this area.  Even when teachers and principals do not “befriend” parents and students, they have to remember that someone they have “befriended” could provide information and forward photos and comments. 

When confronted with these types of issues, it is important for principals to seek input from the superintendent as well as competent legal counsel before making disciplinary decisions.  It would also appear prudent to emphasize to teachers the importance of professional conduct while posting photos and comments on social networking sites.

Evaluation Work Group

The Virginia Department of Education has confirmed the middle level and high school principals on the Virginia Principal Evaluation work group:Carolyn Bernard, VASSP President, Principal, Grassfield HS, Chesapeake, Carolyn.Bernard@cpschools.comJanice Koslowski, State Coordinator and member of the NASSP Principal Evaluation Committee, Principal, Potomac Falls HS, Loudoun, Janice.Koslowsk@lcps.orgDavid Ellena, NASSP Board of Directors member, Principal, Tomahawk MS, Chesterfield, David_Ellena@ccpsnet.netJohn A. Word, Sr., VASSP Member At Large, Principal, Kenmore MS, Arlington, John.Word@apsva.usRandy Barrack, VASSP Executive Director, rbarrack@vassp.org

 The purpose of the work group is to develop proposed revisions to the Board of Education’s guidelines for uniform performance standards and evaluation criteria for principals.  Carolyn Bernard and Randy Barrack were also members of the Virginia Teacher Evaluation work group that met last fall.

 

Virginia Accreditation Report for 2011-2012

Virginia Public Schools Accreditation Report for 2011-2012

 

The Virginia Department of Education has just released its report of the 2011-2012 schools accreditation. www.doe.virginia.org.   The completed data report provides opportunities for schools to review for planning purposes and to prepare to face new challenges.  Informed and foresighted administrators have already put into place plans this spring/summer to meet the increasing rigor already in place in math and in 2012-2013 for English.  The advent of these new standards was announced as a reminder again this summer in Williamsburg at the VASSP Summer Conference and Exposition by Dr. Patricia Wright, State Superintendent of Instruction.  Dr. Wright emphasized that three years ago to that day, we were told that “this too” will come to pass: increased rigor in math and English. It has and we are faced with decisions about staffing, time and funds to guide and instruct our students through the rigors of the new standards.

The accreditation results for this year are, as expected, mixed with gains and losses across the Commonwealth.  Ninety-six percent of the 1,838 public schools in Virginia achieved full accreditation for the 2011-2012 school year.  In this realm of numbers, 98 percent of elementary schools and 97 percent of middle schools are accredited.  The percent of high schools with full accreditation however, dropped to 86 percent from a high of 99 percent last year. This change for high schools is likely due to the introduction last year by the Board of Education of a graduation and completion index as a measure of accountability.  While high schools are struggling with this new accountability measure, the results were not wholly unexpected. “When standards are raised”, commented Dr. Patricia Wright, “there are schools that require time to meet the new expectations”.  There may be further declines in accreditations as high schools in Virginia implement more rigorous standards and assessments in math for 2011-2012 and English for 2012-2013.

Accountability is the by-word in Virginia from the Department of Education down to your individual buildings.  This accountability, according to a comment in the report just released through the Department of Education by the State Board of Education President Eleanor B. Saslaw, is a “critical component of the board’s efforts to ensure that Virginia graduates are college-and-career ready”.

Virginia administrators stand ready and prepared to do what is best for our students in a profession that is always rewarding and now more challenging than ever.

General Assembly Review

The Summer of 2011

It has been a very busy season since the 2011 General Assembly adjourned.  In their wake, politicians left a number of issues on the table if not on the books.  VASSP worked hard to defeat many of the legislative mandates that were left on the table such as expansion of PE, reduced authority of administrators over discipline issues, high school sports opening up to private school students, and the 65% Rule.  Legislative and Board/Department of Education studies are continuing to look at a number of issues including suspension and expulsion reporting policies, bullying, participation of non-public school students in public school sports, testing timelines, opening of school, waivers to NCLB as well as rebenchmarking and the education budget overall.  Throughout the summer, there have been several articles on theobesity issue as well as bullying (cited as top concern of students; also topic of national survey specifically related to gay and lesbian students).  The Department of Education is still gathering information for its study on bullying that was mandated during the 2011 session.  I suspect that we will see a number of bills re-submitted as well as new ideas launched in 2012 related to these issues. 

ATHLETICS

HB 2395 House Education Subcommittee has been challenged with working out a solution acceptable to all parties in what is becoming a perennial fight over legislation to allow non-public school students to participate in high school sports programs. 

Proponents – “Fairness” issue                                                                                                                                                                                   

Opponents – Need for a “level playing field” and comparable academic and   discipline standards. 

VASSP testimony – Education is a right and participation in sports a privilege; discipline and how to hold non-public students to comparable disciplinary standards is a major concern                                                                                          

Major sticking point for subcommittee – Equity and how to compare public school academic requirements with those of home-schoolers (some have suggested a national test for non-public students to use as comparison).   

Legal issues and laws in other states: Courts have repeatedly rejected constitutional complaints of home school students who have been denied access to either academic or extracurricular activities having routinely held that schools are not acting unreasonably in requiring full-time attendance, and have the right to set eligibility requirements for school activities.   Problematic – Proponents of this legislation, primarily the home school population, believe that because the Code allows parents to home school their students and recognizes those who complete their home school courses as graduates, the issue of academic equity is a non-issue.

    CONCUSSIONS

Current law (DOE guidelines) requires that coaches, parents and students be informed of new guidelines on concussions; schools are obligated to collect verification completed by coach, parent, student; VHSL ramping up to be a resource to schools. The Virginia High School League (VHSL) reports that CDC tool kits are available.  Key web sites to check: www.vata.us (athletic trainers); www.doe.virginia.gov/boe/guidance/health/concusssions.

   BUDGET

The Governor has said that he will take into consideration that federal stimulus dollars are no longer available to schools.  However, with the state’s bond rating at risk and issues of VRS, transportation, Medicare, and other needs looming large, it is difficult to imagine that K-12 will be at the top of the state’s funding list.    

REBENCHMARKING

The Department of Education has reported that an additional $319M will be needed to adjust K-12 funding to reflect new “rebenchmarking” figures.  Major funding categories: SOQ, incentive and categorical funding; lottery; supplemental education; federal funding.  SOQ category includes: enrollment, staffing, salary changes, fringe benefits, support costs, inflation, federal revenue deduct from support costs, sales tax revenue and LCI.  

Major cost drivers: Enrollment, special education (downward trend), SOL failure rates (downward trend); free lunch (major increase); salaries. 

 

 

 

Cyberbullying and Public Schools

Kowalski v. Berkeley County

While the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on a case regarding cyberbullying and schools, federal district and circuit courts continue to hear such cases.  This past July, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an important decision in a case out of West Virginia.   The case, Kowalski v. Berkeley County, No. 10-1098 (4th Cir. July 27, 2011), can be accessed through the following website:  http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/101098.P.pdf.  The case was argued before a three judge panel, and the ruling affects the entire 4th circuit including Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware. 

Kara Kowalski was a senior at Musselman High School in Berkeley County, West Virginia.  She created a discussion group webpage called “S.A.S.H” on MySpace.com using her computer at home and stated that it stood for “Students Against Sluts Herpes,” but another student, Ray Parsons, stated that the webpage was targeted toward a young woman referred to as Shay N.  He stated that the acronym actually stood for “Student’s Against Shay’s Herpes.” 

Kowalski invited her MySpace friends to join the discussion group, and about two dozen did so.  Parson actually responded to the post from a computer at school while he was in an after school program.  The site was populated with pictures and unkind comments and references to Shay N.  All of the initial comments were from Musselman High School students. 

Shay N.’s father learned of the site and called Parsons to express his displeasure.  Kowalski, when told of the call, tried to remove the photographs.  She was unable to do so, but she was successful in renaming the discussion group as “Students Against Angry People.”

The following morning Shay N. and her parents filed a harassment complaint with the vice-principal and provided a printout of the webpage.  After the meeting, Shay N. left school because she was uncomfortable being around students who had contributed to the site. 

The vice-principal notified the principal who immediately contacted the central office.  The central office response was to consider the matter a school discipline issue.  Following school board policy, the principal and vice-principal launched an investigation.  They interviewed Kowalski, Parsons, and other students who had joined the group.  After the investigation, the administration considered the MySpace site to be a “hate website” which violated the school district’s “harassment, bullying, and intimidation” policy and also violated the student code of conduct.  Kowalski was suspended for 10 days from school and given 90 days social suspension meaning she could not participate in cheerleading or other extra curricular activities for the equivalent of a semester. 

Somewhat ironically, Kowalski was not allowed to crown the next “Queen of Charm” which she expected to be able to do since she was the reigning “Queen.”  Following district policy, the father appealed the suspension to the assistant superintendent, and the suspension was reduced to five days.  However, the 90-day social suspension was maintained. 

Kowalski felt her punishment was unjustified because she was “socially isolated from her peers and received cold treatment from teachers and administrators.”  She stated that she began taking prescription medication for depression.  Kowalski took the issue to federal district court and sued the superintendent, principal, vice-principal, assistant superintendent, and cheerleading coach.  Her suit noted that school officials violated her constitutional rights under 42 U. S. C.  § 1983 which reads that state employees under color of state law who discriminate against someone can be held personally liable for violating those rights.  

Kowalski also sued stating that her first, fifth, eighth, and fourteen amendment rights were violated.  Her first amendment rights were violated because the webpage was created on her own computer outside of school hours.  Her fifth amendment rights of due process were not provided because the school did not follow its own policy in investigating.  Her eighth amendment rights were violated because the punishment was cruel and unusual, and her equal protection rights of the fourteenth amendment were violated.  She also sued that her state constitutional rights were violated. 

The federal district court dismissed most of the claims and granted summary judgment to the school district.   Kowalski then appealed to the 4th circuit.  The appeals court heard the case de novo.  In essence, the appeals reviewed the entire case to make sure that the federal district court judge came to a proper conclusion.   

The 4th circuit noted the essence of the case when it stated the following: “The question thus presented is whether Kowalski’s activity fell within the outer boundaries of the high school’s legitimate interest in maintaining order in the school and protecting the well-being and educational rights of its students.”

The 4th circuit ruled in favor of school officials stating that the disciplinary action was justified and did not violate any of Kowalski’s constitutional rights.  In ruling against Kowalski, the court made several important points of which principals should be aware. 

The 4th circuit quoted the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist. stating that while students do have freedom of speech, those freedoms are the not the same as adults because of the “special characteristics of the school environment.” 

The 4th circuit recognized that the Supreme Court has not ruled on a case where “student speech targeted classmates for verbal abuse.”  Even in most cases that have made it to a court of appeals, the cases have involved websites that were created after school hours using non-school computers and which were directed toward administrators or teachers.  As a result, the courts have generally used the Tinker standard that the speech must create a substantial disruption in the school. 

In this case, the 4th circuit added an additional reference to Tinker which has not been evident in most other cases when the court noted that speech that “disrupts classwork,” creates “substantial disorder,” or “collid[es] with “or inva[des] the rights of others” is not protected speech.  Since the Kowalski case involves student-to-student harassment, the 4th circuit used the Tinker reference noting that speech that violates the rights of others is an important point in this debate, and that such speech is not protected when directed at another student.  It appears the 4th circuit is just as concerned with protecting the rights of the victim as much as it is concerned with protecting the constitutional rights of the speaker.  The court also quoted Tinker that students have the right “to be secure and to be let alone.”  This aspect of the Tinker decision is rarely referenced in most cyberbullying cases. 

The 4th circuit went on to state:

[C]onduct by [a] student, in class or out of it, which for any reason – whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior – materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. 

While it may be illogical to believe that the Supreme Court in 1969 could have predicted the Internet, it is clear from the above quote that the Supreme Court recognized that speech made outside of school is not automatically protected by the Constitution. 

The 4th circuit also appears to have put greater responsibility on schools to prevent bullying and cyberbullying.  Recognizing that student-to-student bullying is a major concern, the 4th circuit used a quote from the Supreme Court decision in Morse v. Frederick stating that while schools have a duty to lessen the effects of disruption, they also have a duty “to prevent them from happening in the first place.”

The Kowalski case also raised, but did not answer, a question which courts will have to address at some point when the judges pondered the following question: where does speech over the internet occur?  The 4th circuit speculated that a court “could determine that speech originating outside of the schoolhouse gate but directed at persons in school and received by and acted on by them was in fact in-school speech.”

The 4th circuit did not answer that question because it reasoned that did not have to in making this decision.   The court clearly believed that Kowalski had to know that her speech directed toward a fellow classmate and which encouraged other classmates to participate would make its way into the school environment.  Furthermore, school administrators could reasonably forsee that the website would reach the school and create a substantial disruption. 

The 4th circuit also dismissed other claims relating to the 5th, 8th, and 14th amendments.  School administrators did follow their due process policy by telling Kowalski what policy she violated and giving her a chance to provide her side of the story. 

There are also some important lessons that administrators can learn from this case.  These lessons are noted below:

  • Follow your policy related to due process when investigating disciplinary matters (remember that due process in Virginia by state law requires not only telling the student what policy they violated and giving them the opportunity to give their side of the story, it also requires notification of the appeal process).
  • Take accusations of bullying and cyberbullying seriously.  Investigate, especially in light of the 4th circuit’s reference to preventing bullying.
  • Ensure that your school board policy notes that failure to comply with the bullying and cyberbullying policy could result in suspension from school, suspension from school activities, and/or social suspension if the speech creates a substantial disruption in school or violates the rights of another student to be safe from harassment. 

While Kowalski is the law within the 4th circuit, discipline of students relating to the use of the Internet is still murky, at best.  When confronted with such issues, it is best to contact the superintendent for advice and to seek competent legal counsel before making a decision.

School Board Staffing Flexibility

 

The Virginia Board of Education has provided recommendations that have now become policy by the GA for funds transfer by local school boards to allow flexibility for staffing schools. The policy, on the surface, is much needed and will provide the opportunity to staff schools needing special teaching assignments by using funds designated in the particular area of instruction.  The measure also has another side which may cause headaches for building principals.  The amendment permits school boards the discretion to transfer assistant principals into schools “with the greatest need”.  This policy will allow superintendents to transfer elementary school assistant principals up to middle or high schools and vice-versa with high school assistant principals moving down. This all works well in a climate of good intentions and professional integrity, but there is the other side of this process.  In graduate school, the phrase used to describe this unwanted reverse side of  the process is “the dance of the lemons” and you could end up with a lemon  that no one else wants on their staff.

The Middle School Years

If you are a parent of a child nearing completion of his/her time in elementary school and if the upcoming change to the next level of public education will be like a step into the unknown, then the title of this blog may be appropriate for you. Try not to worry however, you will find comfort that many other parents share a similar concern: the middle school years.

Fortunately, we have come a long way from junior high schools and early middle schools that went through growing pains to become what they are today. The new paradigm of middle schools in Virginia has received attention recently in an article of the October 2011 issue of Richmond Magazine. The article, aptly titled “The Worry Years” reviews the current educational and management issues associated with middle school students and also rates local middle schools in Richmond City and surrounding counties. The article addresses the successes and the potential pitfalls for middle level education. If you are looking for specific advice as a parent to insure success in the middle years, this article is not directed toward that purpose. It does however, give a good overview of what contributes to success for  students and middle school programs.

One element that has been a constant in middle school from the 1970’s to present is the barometer which can indicate student success in high school based on academic performance in middle schools. Mark Chamberlain, principal at Short Pump Middle School commented on this phenomenon: “If a kid is in eighth grade and he’s starting to fail classes, that’s when the downward spiral is starting to happen.” Lack of success in Algebra 1 and writing/reading along with attendance issues become identifiers for middle school students who may struggle to graduate.

Economic conditions related to their community and family also contribute to potential failure for middle school students. Students experiencing a lack of regular attendance and also discipline issues can be on the fast track for school failure and dropping out in high school.  When you add in children moving into adolescence and the associated hormonal changes that accompany this age, the mix can be very interesting and intimidating. A study compiled by the Richmond Magazine staff using the Virginia Department of Education’s 2010-2011 School Report Cards ranks middle schools in the Richmond metropolitan area. The criteria included school population size, Title 1 funding, SOL Pass Proficient and Pass Advanced percentages, student misconduct/violence, and schools awarded the Governor’s Award for Educational Excellence for 2010 and 2011. The statistical analysis of all the data for each school provided a rating placement score.  The results followed the basic expectation: the more affluent communities tended to have middle schools with the higher placement scores.

Fortunately, many middle schools are now better equipped to help all students bridge the intellectual and physical/emotional gaps that occur in late middle school. Middle schools have developed teams of teachers to help students cope with the academics and social development associated with the middle school years. In addition, parent involvement is an added positive factor.  Dave Ellena, principal of Tomahawk Middle School in Chesterfield County referred to the involvement of parents as creating an atmosphere for success at his school. Dave, who is a member of the Board of Directors for VASSP and also member of the Board of Directors for NASSP, commented, “We’re very fortunate to have highly involved parents-parents that put a high priority on education.”

Students in the middle are just that: they are between the developmental years associated with elementary schools and the finishing years at high school. Middle level years are a time for self-discovery, self-awareness and physical and mental growth. Taking care of these students is a challenge and the dedicated staff at each of Virginia’s middle schools deserve a round of applause for their efforts and maybe, perhaps, an occasional aspirin for their growing pains too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let It Snow..Let It Snow..Let It Snow

Let It Snow…Let it Snow….Let It Snow!

 

Ah, the announcements on the radios and televisions across Virginia from December through March telling students and staff that schools will be closed due to __________ (fill-in your own favorite reason) offer a respite from the daily/weekly routine.  For many divisions, these days have already been accounted for and therefore they are taken in stride.  Other division administrators shake their heads and begin to look at lost spring break days, sports schedules and testing issues.

This blog entry is for those school divisions and administrators that do not have the option of opening school prior to Labor Day based on where you live in the Commonwealth of Virginia. For most educators who reside West of I 95, your school divisions may be granted the option to start before Labor Day while those on the other side of the “Great Divide” generally do not have this option. This issue has been a part of the education landscape in Virginia for several years. It has been discussed and cussed by those affected by the guidelines, but the basic law has only been modified, not changed to meet the desires of school divisions who are “geographically challenged” due their location in Virginia.

In its original inception, the Code of Virginia established that school calendars could be modified to open prior to Labor Day based on a school board certifying that their request met a “good cause”.   The original good cause was listed as missing an average of 8 or more school days per year in 5 out of the previous 10 school years due to weather, power failures, energy shortages or other emergency situations. It has been modified to include school divisions with schools tied into neighboring school divisions having programs in divisions with early opening waivers, schools with special programs that require an earlier beginning date than after Labor Day, and most recently, permission for a division which is entirely surrounded by a school division that has an opening date prior to Labor Day. In other words, the process to change to an early opening before Labor Day is like filing for income taxes, complex and rather convoluted.

There may be, however, some new energy focused on this issue soon and we may be looking at a new dawn of the era of equality of thought related to the application of common sense and not ties to tourism economics. At its September 23 meeting, one member of the Virginia Board of Education, Rob Krupika, let it be known that he was opposed to this arrangement.  He shared an outline map of counties in the Commonwealth of Virginia which clearly shows the West/East divide with respect to school division opening dates.  He  seems very aware of the financial impact and political barriers to opening before Labor Day, and the resulting disparity of school opening dates. However, allowing businesses to lobby in the General Assembly to mandate school operations is unacceptable and it is time for a change. Stay tuned and if you live east of I 95, contact your state legislators to express your concerns.