Saturday, May 26, 2012

Headbanging

When I was in junior high I thought the term “Headbanger” described a person so frustrated with the system that they literally banged their heads against a wall repeatedly. Since the causes of frustrations, both real and imagined, are the framework of adolescent life I called myself a headbanger on many occasions. One day, when I was so frustrated that I had been proclaiming -through gritted teeth- that I was “a total headbanger”, a friend pulled me aside and said: “Dude, I do not think that means what you think it means”. I learned that poor communication can throw gasoline on the raging uncertainty of frustration.

To say that the phone call with Barry was an example of poor communication might infer that it was a conversation. I do not think it rose to that level. Barry's side of the phone call was a poorly-sorted collection of insinuations, half truths, deflections, and what sounded like outright fabrication.

I was a bit hot after the phone calls with Barry and FOX, and not in a good way. Unfortunately I only had a couple of minutes before I discovered on my voice-mail a message from the Assistant District Superintendent. For the purposes of this post I'll call her Nancy.

After some jockeying I got connected with Nancy on her cell-phone pulled over by the side of the road to Salt Lake City.

“Nancy, thanks for calling me. I know it is not really the school system's fault, but I'm a little upset that strangers were able to take my daughter out of school.”

“We were told they had permission from you to talk to AYD” she replied without hesitation.

“I did give AYD permission to talk to the reporters, but only after they were able to successfully get her out of school”

“Look we....” she stammered.

“I think this has gotten a bit crazy. Don't you? I mean what we are talking about having happened. The basic issue is that AYD was taken to the office. Kids get taken to the office all the time. I don't think anyone pictures this as a case of physical torture or the type of misconduct that puts educators away for decades. You don't think that anyone is alleging that do you?” I replied over her stammer.

“No” she replied more calmly “I do not”

“Good” I said “But somehow this has reached over a million people. Somehow this has resonated with over ten thousand people who were moved enough to comment. You know what they said? They said: 'that sort of thing happened to me, or to my kid'. They said: 'I was treated like I wasn't a person'. They said it was damaging. This story resonated with more people than the Tooele county school district will serve during the entire time you will work for them. Many people from Tooele: parents, students, and former students have called to express that they had the exact same thing happen to them. People feel singled out. They feel like there is selective enforcement establishing lines where on one side there is 'us' and on the other 'them'. They don't want the school to be playing a game of 'be the right sort of person and you will be allowed onto the 'us' side'; they want the line to go away”

Nancy said “ok” while I took a breath.

“Well Nancy” I continued. “with so many people being interested in this story I think I have a responsibility to use the attention to try and do something right. We are not talking about reforming a terrible wrong, and punishing a bunch of people. All anyone wants is for reasonable things to be dealt with reasonably. If something is OK then be OK with it. People just want the school to get real with the way it deals with petty issues of minor non-compliance. “

Nancy said “ok” again while I took another breath.

"I've got a set of three points I want to make. I wrote them out, and put them up on the blog. You've seen the blog and the picture; right?” I asked.

“Yes” she replied.

“OK then" I replied, and launched into reading off the points. I did embellish them with witty and intelligent insights. Just into point three I stopped after the words “minor violation” and tried to engage Nancy as an active listener.

“I mean we all agree that, if there is even a violation at all in the way AYD is dressed, that it is a minor violation of the dress code” I said with a welcoming smile in my voice.

“No sir. I cannot say that” she replied.

So... she was going to call me “Sir” while I had been calling her "Nancy". This was awkward. I had not picked up on that with my ranting, but I wanted to get well into what I thought I should say before I was potentially derailed by some non-communication tactic. I thought it would be good to establish common ground at this point.

“Nancy” I said deciding it would be better to call her by a friendly name than hunker down into a “Ma'am” or something. “I'm not suggesting we get rid of dress codes. Most people agree that there are junior-high kids that dress up in overtly sexualized outfits. These kids can be acting out of damaged caused by abuse in the home, they can be crying for help, and it is certainly the responsibility of caring school administrators to hear that cry. Nobody thinks that is what is happening in this situation. AYD was not egregiously violating the dress code. I think we can agree on this; right?”

“No sir. I cannot say that” she replied.

“I'm not really sure right now if we are having a conversation” I replied “I'm just trying to establish some common ground here. The generalities of what we are talking about. That we are talking about some common sense things, not Taliban-level torture of women or my child dressing like a prostitute. I think anyone can look at the picture -you said you looked at the picture- and without intense examination immediately see that her dress is not overly-sexualized or wildly inappropriate. You do agree that the dress is not overly sexualized?”

“No sir. I cannot say that” she replied.

I could feel the bile rising in my throat. Nancy was either profoundly incompetent or trying to irritate me. I decided she was engaging in “parent baiting”. She was actively hoping that I would drop an “f-bomb” as they call it in Tooele, and they could then describe me as a irrational profanity-spewing parent. I decided that they would be perfectly capable of inventing some stereotype that justified their abysmal communication skills without me helping.

“Nancy” I replied coldly “I think any moderately competent educator could say that AYD's dress was not overtly sexualized. If you cannot I would rather try and contact a competent administrator who can talk with me.”

“uh,...uh” stammered Nancy “I may be able to go over the information in this case with some other administrators and make a decision”

“So you are saying that you cannot say whether AYD, in your opinion, is dressed like a prostitute?” I asked; a hint of finality in my voice.

“ I cannot say that at this time” she replied.

“Then perhaps you should just call me back when you can, or maybe you could have someone else from the district office call me who can tell. Whether or not you think my daughter's outfit in the picture you saw is outrageously sexual and revealing is an important element in how we converse. If you cannot respond to the simple question I do not think there is any point in talking to you further” I paused for emphasis “Do you think that the outfit AYD was wearing in the picture was sexualized and highly inappropriate?”

“ I cannot say that at this time” she replied.

“Then perhaps you should just call me back when you can, or maybe you could have someone else from the district office call me who can figure it out.” I said, and then I delicately pressed the button on my phone that hung up the line.



The fox in fox

The phone immediately rang.

It was the channel 2 news fellow calling from in front of AYD's school.

The FOX 13 team had discovered where AYD’s school was, and had apparently driven their news van up to the bus loading area while I was on the phone with Barry. They had convinced a couple of kids to go find AYD and bring her out to the front of the school to be interviewed. The 2 news van had followed the FOX news van, and within seconds the channel 5 news van had arrived also. Channel five must have caught one of the few traffic lights in town.

The Channel 2 news fellow was calling to ask if it was OK to interview AYD.

“NO” I said. “It is NOT OK for a bunch of strangers to pull her out of school”

“Well she is here now so you should come down here or do something” he said.

“Will you hand her your cellphone?” I asked.

“Sure” he said.

The next voice I heard was a rather sultry woman’s voice. I immediately thought: “this is what puts the fox in FOX news".

Sure enough the voice introduced itself as a FOX 13 newsperson. She told me they NEEDED to interview AYD because the story was “So NOW”. And that she promised to be nice to AYD.

“I don’t know you” I replied. “Hand the phone to my daughter”

Which apparently she did as the next voice I heard was AYD’s

“You do NOT have to talk to these people. If you want to talk to them maybe it will be OK, but I’m going to tell them they cannot interview you, and you should just go back to class. Do you want to interview with them now? You will have another chance after I get home, but you don’t have to talk to them then either”

“I think I will wait to talk to them” AYD replied.

“OK. I’m going to tell them to scram. I just talked to Barry, and I’ve got a couple questions. What were the names of the other girls you went to the office with?”

“There was nobody else” she replied with a bit of a ‘why are you asking?’ tone in her voice. “I was alone”

“OK” I replied “Barry says your skirt’s hem was lower when I took the photo than when you first arrived in the office. Why was that?”

“What” she asked, and then “That is not true! The skirt had a belt. It can only be worn one way. Well only one way that would not look stupid. I was wearing the outfit the way you saw me when I let the house, through my first classes, and into lunch when I was taken to the office. I was wearing it exactly the way it was when you took the picture!” Her voice was getting a bit more irritated as she finished.

“Hey, don’t get irritated with me. I’m just trying to figure out what your principal was saying. Give the phone back to the guy whose phone it is, not the woman who handed it to you, and then go back to class. I’ll tell them to go leave”

“Dad” she replied with all her calmness back in her voice “I want them to interview me now”

“You sure?” I asked “They really should not be there. I have no problem telling them to go away. You do not have to talk to these people.”

“No Dad” she said with a steady voice “I want to talk to them”

And she did.

 I spoke with the assistant district superintendent. It was as illuminating as the chat with Barry, but I will save that for yet another post.

Talkin with Barry

This entry is entirely too long.  I thought it important to capture the flavour of the conversation so I have included an extended transcript of the conversation.  The transcript is re-created from my memory and a few cursory notes so most of it strays from rigorous accuracy, but it does capture the main points as well as the tenor of the conversation.   

Though I couldn’t convince anyone from the Tooele School district to meet with me face to face I was treated to two long phone conversations, and they were everything I would have hoped the face-to-face meetings would be, and less. I had a lively euphemism-laced conversation with the principal of AYD’s (now former) junior high school, and while the taste of that conversation still lingered in my mouth I had the opportunity to converse with the assistant District Superintendent.

The school administration was hunkered down in anticipation of the attack that I publicly declared would rain both reasoned requests and calm conversation down on them. I started the shock-and-awe phase of my attack by calling up AYD’s school and demanding that they ask the principal if he could meet with me whenever it was convenient and that Friday would probably be a good day for me if he could fit it in. By “demanding” I mean that I told them straight up, without hesitation, that I could call back later if they were too busy to take my message right then.

I settled into my lunch with the solid feeling that I was making positive change in the world. I put on public enemy’s song: “fight the power”, and thought about the petty tyranny of small governments.

The principal apparently tried to call me right back, but the local television stations had somehow gotten my phone number, and they began calling to set up appointments to interview me and AYD. First it was channel 2 (CBS) and then channel 5 (KSL – owned by the LDS church). There are four commercial news organizations in our area, and in the span of a couple of minutes I had spoken with half of them. We set up appointments for interviews after I got home from work. When I hung up with the second station the phone rang again, and it was the principal.

I should point out that AYD’s principal is not a stranger to me. Both AYD’s mother and I are “involved” parents. We volunteer for many things at the school. We have helped to organize and judge the school and district science fairs, been active on community councils, and AYD’s mother has even organized several art exhibits for district student’s art in the Salt Lake City library that have gotten statewide attention. We have served on committees, and written letters of recognition and recommendation for sitting members of the district administration. Sure we are just concerned and highly involved parents, but we are not strangers. I was perfectly comfortable calling the principal by his first name, for the purpose of this entry let us pretend his name was “Barry”.

“Hello Barry, I was hoping to talk to you about the disciplinary action you took against AYD the other day”.

“Disciplinary action” replied Barry in a quavering voice I was not used to him using. “I don’t know what you are talking about”

“Have you read any of the blogs or seen the pictures?” I asked

“Yes” he replied hesitantly.

“Then you know what disciplinary action I’m talking about” I sighed “could there be any other disciplinary actions I should be talking about?”

“No”

“OK then. I want you to know that I was not happy with the disciplinary action, and” I was gearing up to read off the three points when he interjected.

“I did not measure the hemline of AYD’s dress. I had the secretary measure and determine that the dress-code had been violated. That is our policy: I do not decide, the secretary does the measurement”

“So the secretary is responsible if I have an issue with the interpretation of the dress code?”

“The policy is that she does the measurement”

“So she is responsible if the dress code is not being interpreted correctly?”

“I’m not saying that” replied Barry in what was beginning to sound like a patronizing tone; he had lost the quiver “The policy is that she does the measurement”

“So if she does the measurement she is responsible for the measurement, and therefore interpretation of the dress code if it is wrong”

“I’m not saying that” Now he was pausing in between words for an extra half beat as if I needed the pause to understand his words “The policy is that she does the measurement”

“OK then” I sighed “I’m not really interested in arguing about centimeter of hemline. The issue is that AYD wqas dressed modestly, even conservatively, and a dress code policy that flagged her as inappropriate has problems”

“I don’t make the dress code” he interjected “The dress code is developed by the community council.”

“Are you saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code that AYD was brought to the office for violating.  Because she picked out the clothes with AYD specifically because they were extremely modest.  She even went out of her way to buy the outfit from two Utah companies –Shade and Down East- that specialize in modest attire.” My words may have come out a bit quicker than I would have wanted, but I was not raising my voice. Calm, cool, reasonable.

“No” he replied “I’m not saying AYD’s mother developed the dress code”

“She was on the community council for your school for years. If you are saying that the community council developed the dress code then aren’t you saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code?”

“No” he replied “I’m not saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“The district policy states that the dress code is reviewed every year, you say the community council is responsible for the dress code, and she was on it for years. How could what you are saying not be interpreted as meaning that AYD’s mom developed the dress code that landed AYD in the office?”

“No” replied Barry, but more testily this time; like I was a particularly slow and disobedient child. “I’m not saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“OK then” I replied “there are three points I would like to make”

I then pretty much read off my three points. I did embellish them with witty and intelligent insights. I finished off with a question to re-engage Barry as an active listener.

“I think these are reasonable points, don’t you?” I asked.

“They sound reasonable, but we will have to review them” he replied.

“you know the dress code policy, which includes the actions for enforcement, is described in the district policy as reflecting community values” I explained “My little story has been excerpted, mirrored, and raised in forums which together have probably gotten over a quarter million views. Together they have gotten over five thousand comments. I have gotten dozens of phone calls from my neighbors and parents of kids in your school. These people overwhelmingly believe that what AYD was wearing was appropriate for a junior high school. That is more evidence than you could ever hope for in making a policy decision. Barry, you need to change the dress code policy and the process you use to maintain it.”

“What she was wearing in the picture was appropriate for school” Replied Barry.

“What?” I was stunned. “Why was she taken to the office then?”

“When I took her and the other girls to the office the height of her skirt was more than 2 inches above the top of the knee. I gave the girls a chance to make adjustments. All the girls except AYD made the adjustments and went back to class” he said.

“What do you mean by adjustments?” I asked “Is that a euphemism for pull their dress down a half an inch?”

“One of the girls went to her gym locker and got gym shorts to change into, and another went to her locker where she had a pair of leggings.”

“Well that is interesting, and it changes the way I imagine the incident occurring” I replied in a conciliatory tone. “I’m sure the girls will corroborate your description of AYD’s insubordination. How far had AYD hiked her skirt up when you took her to the office.”

"I’m not saying she hiked her skirt up, and I cannot provide the names of students or the disciplinary actions taken against them to anyone but their parents”

“I understand. I was just saying that since you brought them in with AYD she will know who the other girls were, and I can ask their parents. I wasn’t asking you to betray any confidence. They will corroborate what you say about AYD, right?”

silence.

“I mean she told me that the way I found her in the office was the way she was brought to the office. If she was lying to me about having hiked up her skirt in such a way that she was out of dress code that is a significant thing.”

“I did not say she was lying” interjected Barry.

“If she told me that she had not made any adjustments, and you are telling me she did then you are suggesting she lied to me”

“I did not say she was lying” replied Barry.

“I don’t see how what you are saying jives with what she said without that being the conclusion” I replied “So you are saying she made an adjustment to her dress before I arrived?”

“No” said Barry “I was not there I don’t know what happened”

“Well, you are saying that you brought her into the office and she was out of compliance with the dress code because her hem was more than two inches above the knee. I arrived in the office and took a photo of her, and that photo shows her –in your professional opinion- in compliance with the dress code. You are suggesting that in between she made an adjustment to be in compliance.”

“No” said Barry “I was not there I don’t know what happened”

“What” And I may have developed a little tone here, but I tried not to “else could have happened?”

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“So lets assume that we are talking about an adjustment” I replied “You are telling me that you told her she could make and adjustment and go back to class, and she refused, right”

Barry replied with a short “Yes”.

“And then she made the adjustment, but you did not let her go back to class, and instead I brought her clothes in?” I continued.

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“Well the secretary was there, and you gave her the responsibility to oversee the adjustment. AYD made the adjustment in front of her because there is nowhere else to go in the office, and she did not send her back to class because she was in the office when I got there.”

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“Right” I responded “But the secretary with the dress code responsibility was there. She will be able to describe what happened. “

“It is against policy for office staff to answer questions about disciplinary actions” replied Barry.

“To me. But you can ask them. Can’t you? Didn’t you? Does this make sense? Can you get back to me on what happened?”

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“Someone who reports to you was there. You can find out what happened by asking them can’t you?” I asked.

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

‘Well let’s get straight what you do know. I think these are fairly serious insinuations on your part. I am concerned as a parent about the picture you are sort of sketching about AYD's behavior. You brought her into the office because you had noticed she had hiked up her skirt to the point where she was obviously out of compliance with the dress code”

“I did not say she hiked up her skirt” he interjected.

“No, you did not say that” I replied “I was just trying to paraphrase. What had she done to her clothing to be out of compliance with the dress code?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He replied.

“OK that is the part of the dress code that she violated. What did she do to her clothing to violate that part of the code?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“OK, you're not going to tell me what she did” I replied with an unfortunate hint of exasperation sneaking up my throat “How far was she out of compliance?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“Was she a half inch out of compliance? One inch? Two inches? Three? Four? How far out of compliance was she?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“Approximately how far out of compliance would you estimate? Slightly over to one inch? One to three inches? More than three inches? Surely you have an estimate.”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“So you are saying she could have been as much as three inches out of compliance?” I asked incredulously.

“No. I am not saying that. Don’t put word in my mouth” he stated “The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee”

“OK then” I sighed “You took her and the three other girls into the office. Were there three or four girls? Anyway. You took this group of girls into the office and gave them options for adjustment. What were the options you gave them?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“Right. That is the section of the dress code you say she was in violation of. What did you tell her she could do to be in compliance?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated, but I sensed it was more robotic this time.

“That is the code” I replied “What was the action you suggested to be in compliance with the code”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“That is the code” I replied slightly robotically “What was the action you suggested to be in compliance with the code”

I actually allowed this repetition to go on for five more cycles before I called it quits. I know I had a responsibility to my readers to try and communicate with Barry, but I had reached the limits of my skill.

“You know I’ve got television crews coming to my house tonight” I stated.

Silence.

“They will be interviewing AYD. What they will see is a sincere well spoken 14-year-old girl whose story sounds like the truth.” I stated.

Silence.

“I will be calling the district superintendent office to get her input on this next” I stated.

“You will do what you have to do” he replied.

“Barry, I feel like I have a responsibility here. This story resonated with thousands of people: people who had Orwellian experiences in junior high school, people who suffered a communication gap with junior high administrators, people who feel they or their kids suffered selective enforcement of school rules, parents who feel like they have been treated as a problem rather than the best tool in a solution; all of them people who feel like they were not treated like people by administrators sitting in chairs just like yours.”

I thought I should end with a melodramatic slamming-down of the receiver, but instead I said something like “Thank you for calling me back so quickly” before I delicately hung up.

The phone immediately rang.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Damn the Torpedoes!

A few weeks ago I was impressed at how I had gotten over 30,000 hits with the blog. In the past week I have gotten over 60,000 hits!  Soon I will "go Platinum"! This is mostly because of one snarky and cathartic rant about AYD being disciplined for “inappropriate dress” despite the fact that she was dressed in a way that any reasonable eye would see as conservative. The essay has been mirrored and excerpted by a host of other much more popular sites. The Huffington Post picked it up and even edited it to the point that it looks like I use the English language like a pro [Thank you Emma and Farah].Yay!

I promised to do something positive with the input, and I intend to keep that promise. The amount and quality of the input has been such that most actions on par with it are really beyond my means. I plan on doing what I do well as action, and that is calmly talking to people. I plan on starting with the principal, and then going to the district superintendent. I will try and capture those meetings for the readers of this blog.

Because AYD (which stands for Awesome Youngest Daughter for those of you who are new to reading my blog) has her last day of school Friday I have put off confronting the School’s principal. Partially out of a reasonable fear of retribution for perceived attacks (he will not be too pleased at the large number of people who call him a “perv”) but mostly because AYD has asked me to. Well…Friday is tomorrow, and I have called in to be put on the principal’s calendar for a short meeting.

Part of me wants to be aggressive about my concerns, but I will not be. I am worried that the meeting will be a letdown where questions are deflected and answers are either forthcoming or made to questions the principal wants to answer rather than the ones I’ve asked.

I have three main points I wish to address:

  1. The dress code policy is unreasonable and needs to be re-visited before school starts again next year. Changes need to be made in the revision , and performing a rubber-stamp on current policy by examining only selected input will be unacceptable.
  2.  The disciplinary actions taken for minor infractions are family-unfriendly, and put the school at odds with the community. Reasonably dressed individuals should be treated reasonably. If there is a dress-code breaking incident that is clearly borderline the student will have a note or e-mail sent home explaining the violation, asking the parents to correct the violation, and clearly explaining that it was a borderline violation. In no cases will borderline violations be identified by senior staff at the school; their dress-code enforcement time will be spent on egregious violations which disrupt the classroom or demean the students. 
  3.  That taking AYD to the office, and preventing her from attending class made the minor violation more important than whatever was to be covered in class that day. As a parent and member of the community I think that arrangement of priorities is wrong. I think it is damaging to the school and my daughter. I have gotten input from many parents at the school and thousands of other concerned individuals. Effort must be made to readdress these priorities and get them in line with what is widely considered reasonable.

Do you think I’m coming on too strong? Do you think I’m soft pedaling? Do you have any suggestions for other things I should ask or bring up?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wall or No Wall

Every once in a while one meets a teacher whose dedication to the craft not only inspires children to learn, but inspires other teachers to be better teachers. Many people thought Chris Burton was such a teacher.  I was one.

Those with a propensity to describe things in fantastical terms said he had a “gift”. Chris could wade through personal attacks and bureaucracy to the door of his classroom, and then sit down with kids there. I use the word “door” metaphorically as his classroom was open, and lacked both a door and a wall to hang one on. When teachers spoke about the amazing way he was able to hold the attention of his students it was because they saw him doing it as they walked past his classroom. His classroom was on the way to the front office so everyone walked past it several times a day. In it were kids who were smiling, and laughing, and learning.  I know; I walked by several times and saw them.

Chris was a short round man straight out of a college that I believe was somewhere in the Midwest. He had a look about him that said “I have tasted white bread, and loved it”. He had a bright red apple tattooed on his arm. Chris was also gay.

Chris was gay in a “let me talk about my boyfriend’s idiosyncrasies” way. He would sometimes show pictures of himself in drag to co-workers and friends under the pretense of asking if these shoes went with that dress. He sometimes wore eyeliner to work. It was no surprise that his actions raised the heckles of the morally condemning predominantly LDS community he taught for.

Chris was outgoing and gregarious. He cemented a small group of other new teachers.  They would “hang out” watching “American Idol” or "Deal or No Deal" which they would then affably argue about for days. Chris had intimate friends, and close friends, and friendly acquaintances. He would confide intimate personal things with people as proof of his acceptance of them. Chris was sensitive, and caring, and vulnerable. Friends sought to protect him from the attacks he suffered through. He thrived on that protection.

One mutual friend recalled providing Chris with pre-moistened makeup remover towelettes to so he could quickly remove eyeliner before meeting with some parents. The same individual recalled admonishing Chris when he had one of his third-grade students on his lap during story time: “I know there is nothing wrong with that, but you’ve got to think about what it could look like to someone who might be out to get you”.

AYD was not in his class, but we knew many of the parents of kids in his class; they often played together. In Tooele there is a bond that forms between non-LDS parents. It starts with commiseration about the exclusion of our kids from social activities. Then as the kids play together more often it becomes the more normal friendship between parents of kids who are friends. The parents thought the world of Chris.

One parent, a father who had been through a messy divorce, hired Chris to watch his kids between school and when he came home. Chris provided enrichment activities, and the father said he was worth every penny “extra" that he charged. Sometimes the father’s work would take him away for extended trips, and Chris would watch the kids for days at a time.

The teacher of AYDs class was young like Chris. She was also from the Midwest, and part of the American Idol group. She was attractive, and intelligent, and it should have come as no surprise when Chris announced with enthusiasm that he was in love with her. Of course it was a surprise since Chris had been flamboyantly defining himself as a very gay male. Within what seemed like days they were off for a suggestively romantic getaway to San Diego. We were going to be in Southern California at the same time. We made plans to potentially meet up. Chris talked whimsically about what it would take to have a Catholic wedding.

When we got the phonecall it was too late to meetup, and Chris related that the Tooele county school system had called him, and that he was under investigation for fondling his students. We told him that we believed him. I think that phonecall was the last time we spoke with Chris Burton.

When we returned to UT we spoke with the parents that knew Chris, and they all agreed that he was being persecuted for being gay or not being gay anymore, or whatever. We contacted several school system representatives who told us that they could not speak about it because of the investigation, but that there was “absolutely nothing for any parents to worry about”. One mentioned the sparsity of walls in Chris’s classroom, and remarked that: “nothing very serious could have happened without someone seeing”.

Then we heard that Chris had been taken to jail.

Apparently one parent who felt that there was something wrong with the way Chris had interacted with her son had bypassed what she felt was a school administration stonewall, and gone straight to the police. They did a cursory investigation, charged Chris, threw him in jail, and then ramped up a full-scale investigation. Kids were called in to testify.

Something about Chris being in jail made the situation suddenly real. The “American Idol” group began attempting to organize visits to Chris in jail. The effort sputtered and died.

AYDs pretty young teacher was the first to go silent.

A couple days later one of the playdate friend group whose son was in Chris’s class called for a several hour sob-studded phonecall. She related the story her son had told the investigators. It was all true she related. Chris had been molesting her son while she was simultaneously telling anyone who would listen how great Chris was as a teacher. She felt violated. Worse, she felt like she had violated her son.

The school system called an emergency meeting of parents. The multipurpose room was filled beyond capacity. There was yelling. Most of all there were shrill declarations that “nobody could have known” and “it is not our fault”. Later some of those same folks would declare that they “knew all along”.

The preliminary hearing put eight kids on the stand. We heard that there were stories of Chris doing such inappropriate actions as “helping kids in the bathroom”.

We were confidently told that kids were safe in the school. We were told that “nothing really serious had happened”. We were told, and we were told, and we were told. Somehow the words from the heartsick playdate mom held more truth.

More playdate moms began relating issues. We added it up, and realized that most, if not all, of Chris’s alleged victims were not LDS. Was he targeting children whom he saw as having a lesser standing in the community? Did he think they would remain silent?

Some of the boys apparently felt dirty because they responded physically to Chris’s fondling. They were teased for being gay. It may be that some boys did not want to be part of the investigation because of their fears about being teased or judged.

Then we heard that Chris had plead guilty.

The School offered “homework sessions” open to everyone instead of counseling. Some of the teachers who knew that “no-one could have known” what was happening got a little extra pay for helping the students. I don’t know if any of the primary victims ever attended the sessions.

The father who had Chris watch his kids lost custody of them to the mother that had abandoned them.  I was told that Chris's actions were used in obtaining the verdict.

It is true that I don’t necessarily know all the responses that the school system engaged to counter the damage Chris had done. None of the parents involved believe that anything would have been done if the police had not been in charge of the investigation. Certainly there was not a widely advertised response; the school system appeared to be taking a “make this go away” attitude instead of a “lets make this better” one. Parents were struck by the efficient damage control and blaming juxtaposed against a lack of responsibility or nurturing.

Burton was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and I think that is where he is now.

The boy’s he abused have grown up alongside AYD, but in the shadow of these events. People have whispered “Kids who are abused are more likely to abuse kids when they grow up” and “he just preyed on boys he knew were gay”. Yahoos convince them to strip their shirts off and cover themselves in paint under the pretense of playing the part of Native Americans at the Salem Witch Trials.

Most of the victims have healed or will heal in silence.

The community pretends that by pretending it never happened that they live in a community where things like this cannot happen. We retreat to the place where parents cannot demand action for the appearance of wrong. Somehow we must accuse, and then substantiate our claims as if the schools were a court of law. Somehow demanding that the schools address the appearance of inappropriate activity is confrontational and disruptive.

I was wrong in supporting the innocence of Chris Burton. It was a choice I made, and I did the wrong thing. If I was a parent who had instead gone forward with fears, and then was proved incorrect,I would at least today be confident that I had done the right thing.

As parents the burden of proof is not on us to prove that our children are unsafe in school. The burden of proof is on the schools to prove that they are safe, and then prove it again whenever questioned.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Break a Leg

Under the distracted eye of a junior high school teacher even the most sublime of theatrical productions can be magically transformed into chaotic tedium. Introduce costumes and the casting of important roles often goes to those who fit best into the important costumes. Because the size of the thespians is largely determined by the spurting or sputtering of their hormones this decision proves what every junior high student fears; that who they will eventually become is determined by how efficient their glands are.

Recently AYDs history class put on a production of “The Salem Witch Trials”. It was an in-class production, and the audience was limited to those involved in the production and a few pictures taken by the history teacher who is also the yearbook coordinator,

I have mentioned before how there are almost as many unfortunate poets as there are lovers. I have certainly counted in their number. There are far fewer unfortunate playwrights, but when life casts them as junior high school teachers they inflict tedium far in excess of what their numbers would suggest.

One reason to write a historical play is to put a spin on events. Emphasis can be placed on particular interactions to create drama or comedy. There is no shortage of characters to examine in The Salem Witch Trials, and there are many dramatic interpretations of the events of 1692 which capitalize on one or another of them. Was Tituba delusional; broken by the isolation of domestic slavery in New England after her capture and enslavement as a young girl in Barbados? Was Cotton Mather a bumbling fool who could turn torture and execution into slapstick routines? What of the young female accusers? Did they have some teenage disaffection of speech [whatever, like, y-know, really, OMG!]?

There is a school of thought that identifies acting as an effective teaching method. By acting out the parts of a particular event in history the students “live” it. The immersion can be effective. There are strong visual, tactile, auditory, and in the case of productions where costumes are re-worn by sweaty junior high students after being stored most of the year in plastic bags, olfactory stimuli not available from textbooks.

The Lamanites figure prominently in Mormon theology. Laman was a Jew who spoke reformed Egyptian. In 600 BC, with his brother Nephi and father Lehi, he built a special boat in an idyllic camp where a bubbling river flowed into the sea somewhere in what is now Saudi Arabia. Laman was mean to Nephi so god turned his skin dark, and this allowed god to tell the difference between the descendants of Laman (the Lamanites) and the descendants of Nephi (the Nephites) throughout the many struggles that comprise much of the original text in the book of Mormon.

Apparently the Lamanites, despite having forgotten reformed Egyptian, continued their nastiness into the post re-colonization of the Americas. Utah history is resplendent with examples of settlers putting the Lamanites back in line. The most famous is the Bear river Massacre of 1863. I had no idea they were being so nasty at The Salem Witch Trials 170 years earlier till I saw the pictures from AYDs class production of those events.

Now, The Salem Witch Trials are a series of events that I’m sure my readers are familiar with. They are the sort of events that people who would read a blog titled “Adult Onset Atheist” would have looked into. It is a story of religious intolerance and delusion leading to the torture and execution of innocent individuals in pre-secular America with some theoretical mixture of young girls and LSD thrown in. There are no native Americans (aka Lamanites) that figure prominently in the events.

I know that some of you who have a more finely-tuned sensitivity to description of The Salem Witch Trial events many be thinking things about Tituba which include phrases like “some historians” or “some evidence suggests”, but whatever she was she was not a local native American. AYD’s production featured almost a fifth of the cast as native Americans.

Though I did not see the production myself I know that their were many native Americans from the pictures the history teacher took. Here is an example of the native American portion of the cast from two of the three classes.

Salem Lamanites
I can assure you that this isnot soft-core pedophile porn. Sure they are shirtless pics of 13-year-old boys with paint smeared on their chests, but at least one of them made it’s way into the yearbook, so they could not be inappropriate; could they?

I do not know if the history teacher actually smeared the viscous colored liquid onto the boy’s chests himself, or if he had them do it to each other while he watched. I do not know if he literally ran his hands over them, but I do know that he did it figuratively. I would like to point out the slightly exaggerated image an adult male’s handprint on some of the boy’s left breast; they were also fondled symbolically.

I should admit that because AYD and AOD are girls my attention to this has been rather passive aggressive. I was given pre-yearbook photos on a CD, and I contented myself with showing them to people with a “isn’t this a bit wrong” thrown in. I thought that after the photos came out in the yearbook (and one of them did) that it would raise questions amongst concerned adults. Surely an administration that makes a point of culling girls whose skirts are half an inch short of their arbitrary standards would reign in any overt fondler, even if there was only the appearance of literal fondling.

I can picture a witch trial with the history teacher on the stand.

He is sweating. The family of one of the victims sits in the spectator area. She is a single mom in a stylishly form cut dark dress. She has her son’s hand in her’s but her eyes ore on the history teacher; they are filled with pain, disgust, and loathing.


The dashing prosecutor addresses the jury for a few moments. His back is to the stand where the history teacher sweats nervously. The prosecutor is telling the jury about decency, family values, and community standards. We hear the words “Protect our children” as he turns to the history teacher with his arm raised in an accusatory gesture.


“SO” he points at the history teacher “was it hard to get the paint to uniformly cover the boys’s nipples? Did you have to take extra time painting them? Did you do it with extra care and attention? Did you use multiple coats?”


The courtroom explodes into chaos. The judge bangs his little wooden hammer. The shifty defense attorney leaps to his feat shouting “I object, I object”.


In the confusion the history teachers eyes meet those of the attractive victim’s mother. Fear and guilt flash across the teacher’s face, and then he looks down.

Maybe I should write skits for junior high history classes. Of course I would probably work in zombies. I think there should be more theater with zombies in it. All junior high students know how to play a zombie, and after a few years the costumes would smell just right.




Saturday, May 19, 2012

And Joeseph K thanks you too

Kids should read Kafka, not live it

I am amazed at the response that the post about my daughter’s discipline for inappropriate dress has received. The story has been taken up by popular forums on Reddit and other blogs.  The post has gotten more hits than all my other posts have all year, and most of that in a little over 24 hours!  I feel like I should wear mirrored shades indoors.  I think I will drive to Starbucks and wear my shades and a wry smile while I order a quad espresso. 

I know most of the attention is due to how photogenic AYD is rather than my prose, but that will not stop me inflating the importance of my words. I did write the post after all.  She would have been content hiding her self-doubt and shame in silence. No matter how much an adolescent tries to marginalize the authority figures in their life (and I tried) their condescension cuts. Your comments and support have helped to salve those wounds. It would be better if you were not electronic strangers.  Perhaps we can all get together for a summer barbeque where laughter drowns too-loud music, and the night smells of tiki torches?

Seriously; we do have a responsibilities. I’ve personally got a whole bunch just for being AYDs Dad , but as citizens of a larger community we have responsibilities that are in play with this situation. And I’m not simply soapboxing.  Some of those responsibilities are detailed in the official dress code policy adopted by the Tooele school board. In it they present a single guiding principle for each school’s dress codes. They are to express: “standards that reflect community values and ideals.”. That means your values and ideals.

Some of you might think that the term “community” in the context of a public school refers specifically to the handful of damaged individuals who take a personal emotional interest in some particular item of school policy. These people (often parents) drive meetings into overtime arguing (often with themselves) about minutia so trivial they have escaped notice from the rest of the group. But a community is more than that.  A community is the group of people whom the graduates of the school will interact with.  Accountants might say that the community is that group of individuals who fund the school, but since the Utah school system receives federal money that means just about everyone; it means you.

There is a place for dress standards. I am not against dress codes in a public school.   Some kids dress in demonstrably harmful ways and should be confronted. However, a teenager that dresses in an overtly sexualized way can be acting out of some kind of damage, and maybe advertising their need for help. Sure, most of the time this may not require intense intervention, but how can a system ever know if it insists on criminalizing the individuals who are crying for help?

Of course the situation with AYD was not a cry for help. It was just a kid wearing reasonably nice clothes to school. Making that outfit criminal, and then putting it on display (which is what “waiting in the office for your parents” is) forces those kids who’s cries for help a dress-code is supposed to catch back into their cellars and attics.

AYD will be fine. In fact I’m sure she will be more than fine; much more.

I will do something with the comments I have received for the various postings of her story. I may even post the school district's phone number on a picture in the hopes of directing some feedback directly to them, but I think waiting till next week (which is the last week of school for AYD) would lessen the consequences of that move to an acceptable level. Please provide feedback if you have it to provide. It will not just disappear into the nether like so many things said in the internets.

I have two stories that will help put Tooele school district’s stance on student dress into context. I will put them up over the next couple of days.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Burqa

So yesterday I get one of “those” phone calls that parents dread. Admittedly it was rather low on the scale of parental dread. One might reasonably say it was close to the bottom of the dreaded scale, but it is on there. AYD had been escorted to the front office by the principal, and was cooling her heals there until a parent could come in and sort stuff out. Her life of crime had begun.

In most junior High Schools all the students are treated like criminals, but only some rise to the challenge. AYD graduates from junior high in two weeks, so she is making it in just under the wire.

Calling in the parents is one of the most significant punishments that can befall a junior high student, and it prefaces all of the more severe punitive actions. When your parents are called you are in trouble; you have done something quite wrong.

There are significant consequences to parents being called in. Tooele is an outer bedroom community for most folks; the average commute-to-work time is in excess of 30 minutes. This means that many parents are expected to take an hour off work, and the student is expected to sit for at least one class-period in the office.

The office has large windows so that the student is on display to their peers throughout the interminable wait time. The bell rings and hundreds of students rush past the offender-on-display; some linger long enough to make obscene gestures. There are some sociopaths that would revel in the attention, but in most adolescent minds this is cruel and unusual punishment.

What had AYD done to deserve this punishment? Was it some valiant gesture of defiance against a fascist dehumanizing system, or was their cruelty and torture involved? I found it hard to picture AYD engaged (or at least being caught) in either of these types of actions, but I was hoping for the first.

When I was in junior high school there was this one fellow who skipped classes for almost an entire semester because the material being taught was “worthless and patronizing”; to compound the insult he spent his class-skipping time seated in the hallway of the school reading books on esoteric sciences. He only returned to class when he was invited to continue reading in the junior high hallway throughout his repetition of 8th grade, which he would be doing if he did not attend class long enough to complete at least some graded material. The administration wanted students in classes as long as they were not a danger. Was AYD a danger to her fellow students?

After spinning up the possibilities in my mind I was not prepared for the actual nature of her offense. AYD was dressed inappropriately. I am not the best judge of “appropriate” dress for a 14-year-old girl. I try, but it is a skill I have no intention of using for very long. I tried to circumvent my need for it at all by suggesting that both AOD and AYD wear hospital scrubs till they graduate the 12th grade, but that was apparently “not happening”. I know that if I dressed myself from AYD's wardrobe it would be wildly inappropriate regardless of what I chose.  Now my lack of attention had forced AYD into a life of crime. It is always the parents’ fault.

Luckily I was working at home, so I took a camera and rushed over to the junior high school with some dungarees and a sack-like shirt for AYD to change into. This is a picture of her in the school's front office, and this is the apparently inappropriate outfit she was wearing.



I was shocked at my ineptitude. The outfit actually looked appropriate to me; especially given the fact that it was 86F ( 30C) and the AC in the junior high was not working well outside of the front office. How could I be so blind as to not see that AYD was dressed as a harlot, and presented a danger to all the boys in the school? I read Great Expectations once. Just because the school might champion some Dickensonian imagery does not mean they must bow to them all. What vile boy-crushing monster had AYD become, and why could I not see it?

I began to think : “luckily the school administration can look at AYD and see her as a provocative female”, but then I thought…no…that is extremely creepy. I tried to think: “luckily the school administration can look at AYD though the eyes of hormone addled teenage boys to see her as provocative”, but then I thought…no…that is weird-creepy.

So I began to imagine some teacher thinking inappropriate things about AYD, and she being punished for it. Imagine sitting in a class where you knew the teacher was literally looking through your clothing to see you as a provocateur? I began wondering if transferring her to a new class in the last two weeks of school would do more harm than good.

It turns out that the principal himself had personally identified her as inappropriately dressed. He had walked up to her during lunchtime and identified her crime where nobody else could. I can’t help but think that the principal’s action creates an unhealthy atmosphere in his school. What does it say to the teachers who had her in class earlier in the day, and not noticed her inappropriate dress? Will there be punitive actions taken against the teachers who could not look at my daughter with perversion in their eyes?

Is AYD safe?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bee vs WASP

I found myself thinking of bees today. One friend was panicking in response to a hymenopteran bedroom invader, and another saw some Polish beekeeper anti-GMO rebellion as an example of what was wrong –by comparison- with the USA. So I began thinking of bees, and there I was.

I was picturing the dimensions of a Langstroth hive scaled to accommodate the gigantic Apis dorsata. I somehow imagined that because Ad is a almost twice the size of Apis mellifera that its behavior would be more obvious. The dances and buzzes that communicate the most efficient food source pathways to the rest of the hive became intricate entanglements of sound and movement. I could imagine the bees dancing through abstract thoughts and poetry, but this was just because of the residual these activities left in my brain; I'm sure the sexless female worker bees just chat about how best to serve dinner to their hoards of hungry maggots.

Bees achieve an enhanced communal efficiency not by supporting the efforts of each individual until the average activity enjoys a higher rate of successes, but by suffering the incompetence of so many of their number through the accidental successes of a few. A worker bee can only live around twelve weeks, but over half of them will live less than half that span. The enormous die-off is hidden behind the phenomenal fertility of their queen. Could the bees survive if they were cognizant of the mortality constantly eliminating more of their identical twins than they could ever possibly have the opportunity to meet?

What would the Langstroth-organized buzzing of A dorsata tell us. Would they pine for the grayanotoxin-festooned wild hives of Nepal? Would they divulge the secrets to a happy short life despite the presence of so many depressive triggers? Would they spawn buzz-cults who would mimic their songs till oral paresthesia left them drooling through slurred platitudes?

The most successful flying hymenoptera are the parasitic wasps. Because of solitary periods in their life they must effectively carry out critical tasks or die. Some of my favorite parasitic wasps are the tarantula hawks of the genus Pepsis. Even larger than A. dorsata the Pepsis wasps speak directly to the human psyche with their buzzing. They say: “I carry pain – give me room!”. I have a Pepsis wasp mounted on ornately decorated mat-board sitting on one of the shelves in my living room.

Pepsis under glass

Sometimes called solitary wasps the Pepsis meet at prearranged bushes for orgies of reproductive element exchange. It was at such a bush that I bagged the specimen mounted in the photo. The bush was alive with the crawling and buzzing jet black wasps. I know quite a few people who would have –if the skittering forms were spiders- fainted at the sight.

Once they mate the female Pepsis wasps fly off to find one of the most arachnophobia-inspiring of the spiders: the tarantula. The tarantula with its barbed hairs, spinnerets and poison fangs is just breakfast for the Pepsis maggots.

They are fairly bad-ass those Pepsis wasps.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In the Dumps with Jack and Guy

We have lost Maurice Sendak. He was 83 and suffering complications from a stroke. 83 year old men suffering complications from stokes do die at an alarming rate, and so Mr. Sendak’s death is not a shocking surprise.

His family and friends no doubt made arrangements which respectfully handle both his remains and his affairs. I would have dressed his corpse in graying fuzzy one piece pajamas with fraying ears lopsidedly sewn to their hood.  His remains would be placed ontop a tall and precariously stacked pile of logs and brambles. As the pyre burnt after-images into the retina of night throngs would queue up for a chance to howl at its intense heat . This is one more reason why I am not asked for my opinion on what takes place in polite company.

Where the Wild Things Are” was published before I could read, and so it was first read to me. It has been a blueprint for my life up until they ‘made it into a movie’ (2009) and I could no longer read it without wondering how they conjured the movie’s ‘plot’ from its pages.

Though it has been almost two decades since Mr. Sendak published a book that captured and refused to free my attention I am a bit foggy eyed about thinking of him only in his passing.

I think I will take a small boat out onto the great salt lake, and far from shore I will pull a copy of “where the wild things are” from the safety of a gallon zip-lock bag. Before I am done I will imagine -at least three times- that the rocky islands of the lake are inhabited by more than flies and bird droppings.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

DSM 4.5

A couple of days ago I attended a seminar called “Toxic People:Living and Working With High-Conflict Individuals”. It was put on by “The institute for brain potential” and the iteration I saw was a one man show staring one Joseph Shannon from Columbus Ohio. The seminar was a professional development seminar for health professionals. I apparently earned several continuing education credits that can be used for several certifications.

Shannon is a clinical Psychologist and his entertaining all-day lecture included a tour through some of the poor parenting styles that star in the DSM 4. I couldn’t help but catch myself continually thinking how I was guilty of each infraction which would subtly kick my children onto a bottomless pit filled with psychosis and schizophrenia.

I should have taken notes, but with the DSM 5 coming out next year the exact specifications of the damage my parenting has caused will be enhanced by more modern methods of diagnosis.

I was actually somewhat struck by how much neuroscience is used in modern psychology. Instead of the magic black box of my youth the brain now has parts and extracted chemicals. Each of these has some sort of function which ties together sets of symptoms.

I’m sure that eventually the neuroscience will sound more like a source of knowledge rather than an interesting justification for what smart people already know. I wonder what that will look like.