Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Strategies For Teaching At-Risk Kids

I started this post in April of 2007, when I was still a teacher. As always happens, a weird coincidence happened in my life. I decided to put off posting it for reasons that will be obvious. And I decided to finally post it for reasons that will be obvious.

April, 2007
Last Friday, I was at the Sheraton Hotel in Hyde Park in Chicago for a teacher conference. The conference theme was "Strategies For Teaching At-Risk Kids."

Something that happened at the conference reminded me of an incident that happened a few years ago. I was going to post about it Monday or Tuesday, but decided to postpone it a few days for reasons that will be obvious.

The high school that I work at is a charter school that takes in kids that have dropped out or have been kicked out of other schools. Many have been incarcerated. Other school groups at the conference were from schools that take only previously-incarcerated kids.

The neighborhoods they come from are awash in guns. I would guess that nearly every one of them has a gun in their home. It really should have come as little surprise that at the seminar, when we broke up into groups, and were handed papers with "situations" for us to analyze and talk about how we would handle them, that ours was:

"Students in your class have been acting nervous and agitated all day. A student gives you a note that a specific student has a gun. How do you handle it?"

It turned out that I was, inadvertently, the "ringer" in the group. That exact situation had touched my life.

At 2:50 P.M. on February 10, 2004, I dimissed my 6th grade class. It was my second year teaching in Cicero, Illinois, a predominantly latino, blue collar suburb. I loved my kids and loved my job. I even had a couple of very able administrators I was working for (that would change the next year).

Gang violence was and is still increasing in Cicero. One time that year, we'd had to bring all the kids who were there in afterschool programs into the hallways, away from the windows, when there was a gang conflict at a home across the street from the school. Another time, we'd had to delay dismissal for a similar situation.

That day, however, the problem was not at the school I worked at. It was at my son's school, Pritzker Elementary, in Chicago.

A few minutes after I dismissed, my cell phone buzzed. It was my son's mother. She knew what time I dismissed, and if she was calling immediately afterward, I knew it was somthing important.

She said "I don't don't know if you've heard the news...."

My stomach knotted up.

"...and just to let you know, he's okay, but..."

My heart began to pound.

"...a kid brought a gun to his school today."

Did I just hear that, I thought to myself?

"A gun?"

"Yes. But he's okay. He was on a field trip, so he was out of the school when they found it. It was a fourth grader, in the other (fourth grade) class."

I began to realize that I was getting dizzy. I sat down.

She told me what she knew, and I thanked her for calling me right away. She put him on the phone, and he and I talked for a few minutes.

After I hung up, I just sat and tried to catch my breath.

My initial thought was to be thankful that she'd called right away-- that things were now relatively friendly between she and I-- they hadn't always been.

In October of 1998, sewer workers struck a high-pressure trunk natural gas line a few hundred feet from my son's pre-school at North and Clyborn and triggered an explosion that sent flames shooting over 100 feet into the air. I found out about it on the news when I got home from work. I recognized where it was immediately, and called my ex, who responded with irritation that he was fine. She begrudgingly put him on the phone, and he excitedly recounted the "BIG FIRE and they took us out of the school and put us on a CTA bus and we got SUBWAY SANDWICHES!"

A few months later, I saw the above photo taken by John H. White, a Sun-Times photographer, of people running from the fire, and was aghast. White won a Pullitzer Prize for the photo. I realized, from the picture, that he had to have been standing with his back to my son's preschool, at the New City YMCA. He definitely would have been able to feel the heat of the fire. It was chilling. It could have been an horrific situation. Workers for the gas company were later praised for quickly shutting down the pipeline before the highrise, full of elderly people (it was public housing for the elderly) that was just a few feet from it burned down. Or my son's preschool.

When that had happened, things were difficult between Adam's mother and I. She was frequently deliberately combative. We had just settled an ugly custody fight.

By February of 2004, things were calmer, even friendly. She'd come to appreciate that I'd stuck around to take care of my child. That was not the case for some of the people around her.

That year, she and I had been working together a lot on another situation-- my son's awful 4th Grade teacher. My son had recieved a bad first-quarter report card, after years of great grades. At first, we blamed him. His teacher told us he hadn't turned a bunch of work in.

Soon, though, we discovered that he had turned the work in-- she was handing that very same work back to us, graded by students, but had never entered the completed, graded assignments into her grade book. In fact, she'd had a pattern of this for years, along with a history of general disorganization and picking on kids. That's a post for another time.

The point was that we were working together to document this teacher's failings. We were able to contact other parents and document five years of this behavior. I began attending Local School Council (LSC) meetings to find out what could be done to remedy the situation. That day, there happened to be an LSC meeting that I'd intended to go to already.

When I got to the school, it was a circus. There were over a dozen police cars, and news vans and reporters from every media outlet in Chicago.

The meeting was uproarious. Usually there was only me and maybe 3 or 4 other parents there, along with the teacher and parent reps that had to be there. That day, the room was packed. A police representative was there. The Chicago Public School (CPS) headquarters had sent a media rep. The alderman showed up. I wouldn't have been surprised to see the mayor.

Afterward, my ex and I started working with the LSC members and others to figure out just what had happened. The more we discovered, the more horrified we were.

A fourth grader, in the "regular" fourth grade class (my son was in the other 4th grade class-- the gifted class) had had an altercation with a student. He and his brother, who was in 3rd grade, lived with their grandmother. The boys' uncle, who was, to put it charitably, a "derelict," lived with her on and off as well. He owned a few handguns, and of course kept them in the charcoal grill in the backyard. The 4th-grader decided that he was going to bring one of the guns to school and threaten his rival with it.

Fortunately, as it turned out, he showed the handgun, a semi-automatic, to some students in the morning, with the admonition that he'd use it on them if they "told." And again fortunately, one brave little girl, a first-grader, told her teacher, who contacted the administrators. The assistant principal went to the boy's room. Thank god, the weapon was in his backpack. She got it in her possession immediately, and the boy was taken away by security.

And that's were things began to go awry.

They had reason to believe that there might be a second weapon.

As we investigated the incident, we kept asking the principal the question:

"And this is when you locked down the school, right?"

Her answer was, again and again, after some evasion, "Um, no."

We discovered that while this incident was going on, the lunch periods were beginning-- beginning with the Kindergarten classes. They were moving in lines through the hall as this happened.

And the upper grades were changing classes.

They never, we discovered, ever, in the course of the incident, locked down the school. If the student had managed to hand the gun off to his brother or a friend, or if there had actually been a second weapon, it could have been a disaster.

It turned out that luck was entirely on their-- and our-- side that day. The weapon, while loaded, turned out to be inoperable. And there was no second weapon.

The LSC issued a report, under the Principal's protest. She claimed that they did not have the authority to issue such a report. Always by the book, she was. Well, not always. The report stated that standard, well-established procedure dictated that the school should have been locked down immediately upon hearing about the possibility of the presence of a weapon to prevent the movement of the weapon and the person bearing the weapon. This was not followed.

I thought of that Tuesday when I learned that Virginia Tech had not been locked down after the first shooting. It's part of why I decided to wait a few days to post about it.

As my group at the seminar had acted out the scenario with the gun last Friday and led the discussion about it, it was clear that the imperative in that situation was to keep the weapon and the person bearing it, and other students from moving until the police got there. And that entailed the school being locked down immediately until the weapon and person bearing it were found. I told them about what had happened at my son's school, and what should actually have happened.

I had no idea that how correct we were would be borne out so tragically so soon.

The administrators at Virginia Tech assumed that the first shooting was a domestic incident, and did not lock the school down.

As my friend Yomi used to say, quoting his father, an ex military guy, "Assumption is at the heart of most fuck-ups."

My situation was different from the Virginia Tech incident in that my situation had a happy ending.

This is a week of grieving. This week, the families will bury the dead, and then afterward start asking the hard questions. I won't say anything yet about the Second Amendment, our society, isolation, mental illness or anything else. I'll just speak as an educator, and as a parent who's had a brush with this situation.

I will say this: the situation was handled completely wrong, as was the incident at my son's former school. In the case of my son's school, it was pure, dumb luck that compensated for their incompetence and failure to follow procedure in preventing a tragedy. This was not the case Monday at Virginia Tech and there are dozens of families and thousands of other friends and relatives paying the price for it.

It could have been my kid or any other kid there.

By the way, in the course of the investigations over the gun incident and my son's fourth grade teacher, CPS higher-ups discovered that the Principal was embezzling money-- lots of money-- from the school. She was abruptly fired-- she was taken out of the school suddenly one day the next year and the locks to the school were changed on the spot. By the book, huh? More like "cook the books."

By then, my son had started attending another school; I'd bribed his mother into moving to another, better neighborhood. I paid the difference in rent (until she went back to work full time) between the ghetto apartment and the one in the safer neighborhood. It's a much better place. If anyone shows up to his school with a gun, it's one of the parents, coming off their shift. A lot of policemen and women live in the neighborhood.

The weekend after the gun incident, my son and I were talking about it all, and he expressed sorrow for the boys who'd brought the gun-- that their home life was so bad that they didn't even realize that what they did was dangerous or wrong. I nearly cried. Bless his heart. I'm a pretty damned lucky guy. I never forget it.

I was thinking, about a week ago, about finishing this post and putting it up, when the horror at Northern Illinois University, an hour from my home, happened. I remembered how this post started-- at a seminar for teaching at-risk kids. Both the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University killers came from good homes and backgrounds. I don't think that anybody would characterize them as "at-risk." The boys who brought the gun to my son's school were, classically, "at-risk." What about these other guys? And on top of it, Northern Illinois University followed correct procedure. As an former educator, a parent, as someone who's lost a close friend to senseless murder, as someone who's had a lot of experience in life, who's gotten out of some potentially dire situations-- I don't have a clue how to deal with this all. What do we do?


Coaster Punchman said...

All this saddens me. Unfortunately I don't have any ideas at present what to do about it. It would help if guns weren't so easy to get in the US.

SamuraiFrog said...

Excellent and touching post. In case I haven't told you (and not that you need to be told), you've got a great kid.

That building at NIU was so close to me; a classroom I've been in many times. The whole community here is still on edge and uncertain, and we're learning more and more about where he was, and it's scary. He was at Becca's work just hours before the shooting. He stayed at the Travelodge that's right across the street. When this sort of thing is right in your lap... At least we're not sleeping with the lights on anymore.

I can't imagine this being so close to my own children, or any of the schools I sub at. I hope it doesn't happen.

Erik Donald France said...

Whoah, an absorbing post, almost forgot where I was. And that photo deserved a Pulitzer, for sure.

Not sure what can be done to make things safer where I work. Carrying my cellphone always gives some sense of hope, plus keeping alert to red flags. But still . . . there's always a luck of the draw context, too.

SkylersDad said...

The only thing that can change school shootings taking place is a complete, and total, military style shutdown of the campus. This would include fences, metal detectors, searches, the whole works. But that is completely unreasonable, isn't it?

If we outlaw handguns at this point, statistics say there are already over 2 guns out there for each person, so what does that accomplish?

I am completely without a solution, I wish there were an answer.

Natalie said...

Not enough attention is payed to the students who are "At-risk" but not classically so. It seems that they are the students that end up killing many. The "at-risk" students typically take it up outside of school with their particular targets.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what to do. It's so scary. Situations come up that you would never in a million years think that you have to deal with and unfortunately we can only try to figure out how to deal with the situation after the fact. Don't know if that made any sense.

Tenacious S said...

Two thought come to my mind:
1. Gun control-If we don't start now, the problem surely is not going to get better.
2. Mental Health Awareness-Both the shooter at Virginia Tech and the NIU shooter had marked and documented mental health issues. When are we going to figure this out?

lulu said...

The shooter stopped taking his meds. I don't know how you get people to stay on meds without locking them up. And I know a lot of people who should be on meds and aren't for one reason or another, cant afford them, don't like the side effects, all sorts of reasons.

One of my friends sat next to the shooter two years ago in statistics, said he was a nice enough, normal seeming guy. I don't know how you go from that to school shooter in two years.

Dale said...

If only there was an easy to implement solution. What a chilling post. Thankfully, it turned out well for you and your excellent son.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I don't know what to do about it, but some kind of gun control has got to be part of the answer. I'm not saying take away all the guns, because that doesn't seem feasible. We should make it a LOT harder to get a handgun, for instance. But it's just like the oil or tobacco industry where the gun makers will fight any sort of reform on the laws.

When the gun issue came up after Columbine, a good friend of mine and I were talking about it. She said that she keeps guns in her house because they are collector's items, from her grandfather. I asked her if she would give them all up that second if it would bring back one of those Columbine kids, and then she looked at me and said, "you're right, I would."

Anonymous said...

There is no Sheraton in Hyde Park... there's only one hotel, the Ramada. Is that what you meant?