Pennsylvania Law Meant to Forbid Arming Teachers May Have Done Just the Opposite

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Pennsylvania teachers, don’t forget to pack your Glock when returning to school this year.

 

A new law meant to close the door on arming teachers may have cracked it open.

 

Despite warnings from gun safety activists, the bill, SB 621, was approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this summer.

 

The legislation explicitly allows security guards – independent contractors who are not members of law enforcement – to carry guns in schools if they go through special training.

 

And that’s bad enough.

 

Why you’d want glorified rent-a-cops with guns strapped to their hips running around schools full of children is beyond me.

 

That’s not going to make anyone safer. It’s going to do just the opposite.

 

But that’s not even the worst of it.

 

Commonwealth law already allowed for armed police and school resource officers in school buildings.

 

The new bill just adds security guards to the accepted list – so long as they go through special training.

 

So some observers are asking what happens if teachers and administrators go through the same training? Wouldn’t they then qualify as “security personnel” and thus be eligible to be armed as part of their jobs?

 

Some say yes.

 

But others go even farther.

 

The bill only says who may be armed in schools. It doesn’t say anything about who may not be armed.

 

So if a district were to arm teachers – even without that special security guard training – it wouldn’t be specifically breaking the law. It would be operating in a huge loophole left open by the legislature and Gov. Wolf.

 

In fact, the original version of the bill would have covered just such an ambiguity. It included language saying that ONLY the people specifically mentioned in the law (police, resource officers and security guards) were allowed to be armed. However, Wolf could not get legislators to agree on it, so this language was stripped from the bill that was eventually passed.

 

This isn’t just theoretical.

 

Several school administrators have already taken advantage of it.

A handful of superintendents in rural parts of the state have already gotten permission from country law enforcement officials and are now carrying guns to school, according to a lawyer representing 50 Commonwealth districts.

 

Attorney Ronald Repak, of Altoona-based Beard Legal Group, gave a presentation at a school safety conference saying that his firm had secured permission from local district attorneys for administrators to carry firearms as part of their jobs. They cited ambiguity in the law that allowed for different interpretations.

 

Repak said that fewer than six superintendents had been approved, but he would not say which ones or which districts employed them.

 

Meanwhile, a district in the eastern part of the state between Hershey and Allentown has already passed a policy to arm teachers and staff.

 

Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County, approved the policy last year but suspended it following litigation from the teachers association and a parent group.

 

Since Harrisburg passed this new measure, school board members and administration have been going back and forth about how it pertains to their policy and whether they can legally reinstate it even with pending litigation.

 
SB 621 was supposed to fix the ambiguity of previous statutes on the matter.

 

Title 18, Section 912 of the Pa. Crimes Code says that no one except recognized security personnel may bring a weapon onto school grounds, unless it is for a supervised school activity or “other lawful purpose.”

 

But again that leaves a huge loophole.

 

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera wrote in 2016 that the Pennsylvania Department of Education considers “the scope of ‘lawful purpose’…unclear and unsettled.”

 

That’s what originally prompted Tamaqua school directors to pass their policy to arm teachers – the first of its kind in the state.

 

The Republican majority in the legislature has been trying to pass a law explicitly allowing teachers to be armed for years.

 

In June of 2017, the state Senate even passed just such a bill but it got nowhere in the House. Moreover, Gov. Wolf threatened to veto it.

 

And that has been the pattern in Harrisburg on most matters – a gerrymandered GOP-controlled legislature narrowly passing far right legislation checked by a popularly elected Democratic governor.

 

However, Republicans may have gotten one passed the goal with SB 621.

 

Wolf had hoped the bill would end the matter once and for all. When he signed it into law, he released a statement saying:

 

“The students, parents, and educators in this commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel.”

 

Ceasefire Pennsylvania, a statewide gun safety organization, saw the danger and warned against it. The organization urged the legislature not to pass the bill and the governor not to sign it.

 

In a letter sent to lawmakers, the group wrote:

 

“…adding security personnel who do not have the same law enforcement background, training and experience of those personnel already authorized to serve as school security in the School Code is misguided.

[In addition] …although we understand that the legislation initially was intended only to address security personnel, we believe SB 621 could be manipulated by school districts intent on arming teachers as a ‘security’ measure… We hope you will Vote No on SB 621.”

 
The matter is bound to wind up in the courts where it will ultimately be decided.

 
Concerned citizens should probably go to their local school board and let directors know they don’t want school personnel – security guards or others – packing heat.

 

To be clear, the new bill doesn’t require security guards to be armed, but it does allow districts to arm them if they go through the necessary training.

 

The instruction outlined in the law required before guards can be armed costs less than $500 per person.

 

It includes lessons on developing relationships with diverse students, understanding special needs students, how to deal with violence, victimization, threat response and the prevention of violence in schools. It also includes Act 235 lethal weapons training on specifically how to carry and use lethal weapons.

 

Some legislators wanted security guards to have to go through the same training as police officers – a 900-hour municipal course. However, since this would include instruction school security officers would not need such as lessons on traffic laws and the vehicle code – not to mention its hefty cost of $9,000 per person – it was scrapped.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against security guards. There are several good ones at my district.

 

However, putting guns in their hands doesn’t make me feel any safer.

 

A few years ago, a security guard at my school lost his job because he slammed one of my students into a lunch table.

 

The child in question was certainly difficult and could be defiant. But he was a middle school age child. He didn’t deserve to have his head slammed into a table – nor would I want someone with so little impulse control to have to police his trigger finger during tense confrontations with students.

 

Arming security guards is just plain dumb. Heck! So is arming teachers and administrators!

 

This isn’t the wild west. It’s a classroom.

 

In real-world shootings, police officers miss their targets about 4-in-5 shots, according to Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who’s studied school shootings. Do you really expect rent-a-cops and teachers to be more accurate?

 

Even armed police don’t do much to stop school shootings.

 

The four high-profile school shootings in 2018 — including the one in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas — had armed guards. All failed to stop the gunmen.

 

But research consistently shows that increasing the number of guns in schools increases the likelihood that students will get hold of them.

 

What we need are sensible gun regulations to limit the number of people who have access to firearms. We need mandatory background checks and a ban on assault weapons – the murder instrument of choice for mass shooters. We need buy back programs to reduce the ridiculous numbers of guns available.

 

This new law does none of that. It was a Faustian bargain at best – and like always happens when you try to best the Devil, you end up losing.

 

Only this time, the losers are our teachers and school children.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana (1905)

 

The merry-go-round of history continues to spin because the riders forget they are free to get off at any time.

 

But we rarely do it. We keep to our seats and commit the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

 

Take high stakes standardized testing.

 

It was a disaster the very first time it was attempted in America – in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1845.

 

Yet we continue to prescribe the same error to students in schools today.

 

Judging learners, schools and teachers based on standardized assessments has the same problems now as it did 174 years ago. Yet we act as if it’s the only accurate way to assess knowledge, the only fair and equitable way to assign resources and judge the professionalism of our schools and teachers.

 

IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

 

If we simply remembered our history, we’d know that. But our collective amnesia allows this bad policy to reappear every generation despite any criticisms or protests.

 

So let me take you back to Boston in the middle of the 19th Century and show you exactly where things first went wrong and how they still go wrong in nearly the same way.

BOSTON SCHOOLS

 

Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

 

One of the country’s most prestigious institutions – the city Latin School – was founded in 1635 and had a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of American history up through modern times. This includes Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein and even Santayana, himself!

 

But Boston wasn’t known just for educating the elite. The city’s school committee had opened the nation’s first public high school in 1821. This wasn’t a charity. The community funded its public schools relatively well and took pride in its students’ accomplishments.

 

Testing was a much different affair in the early 1800s than it is today.

 

At the local English Grammar Schools, most examinations were strictly oral. Students were questioned in person about the various subjects in which they had received instruction. Teachers tested students’ memory in a recitation to find out whether or not they were proficient in the subject at hand.

 

The purpose behind such an assessment wasn’t to assign a grade like children were eggs or melons. It was to give the teacher information about how much his students had learned and where the students’ teacher should begin instruction next year.

 

However, critics complained that such assessments weren’t impartial and that a written exam might be better. Unfortunately, having every student complete one was impractical before the pencil and steel pen came into common usage in the late 1800s. Besides, teachers – then called School Masters – were trusted to use their judgment measuring student achievement and ability based on empirical observation of students’ day-to-day work.

 

It should also be noted that many more teachers were men at this time. This changed by the 1920s, when the majority of educators were women while most men had fled to the administrative offices. As this transformation took place, it accompanied greater trust in administrators and decreasing confidence in classroom teachers. And if you don’t see the sexism in that, you aren’t paying attention.

 

This shift began with standardized testing – an innovation first introduced by a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator named Horace Mann.

HORACE MANN’S TEST

 

To this day Mann remains a somewhat controversial figure. To some he was a reformer seeking to modernize education. To others he was a self-serving politician looking to increase his own power and that of his party no matter what the cost.

 

In 1837, Mann was appointed secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. As a member of the Whig Party, he wanted to centralize authority. To do that, he needed to discredit the history of excellence in Boston.

 

Mann had traveled abroad to see the innovations of European schools and concluded that Prussia’s schools, in particular, were far superior to America’s. His remarks were included in a highly publicized 1844 report that demanded action lest our country’s children be left behind. (Sound familiar?)

 

When other prominent Whigs including his friend Samuel Gridley Howe were elected to the School Committee and later the examining committee, Mann had everything he needed to make a change.

 

Howe dispensed with the oral exams in favor of written tests, what today we’d call short-answer exams. Without any warning to teachers or students, this new committee came to Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions. Teachers and administrators were furious. Students were terrified.

 

The examiners picked 530 out of the city’s approximately 7,000 students — allegedly the best below high school age – and made them take the new exams. This was about 20 or 30 children from each school. Students had an hour to write their responses on each subject to questions taken from assigned textbooks -geography, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy.

 

Most failed.

 

A contemporary report on the exams concluded that the results “show beyond all doubt, that a large proportion of the scholars in our first classes, boys and girls of 14 or 15 years of age, when called upon to write simple sentences, to express their thoughts on common subjects, without the aid of a dictionary or a master, cannot write, without such errors in grammar, in spelling, and in punctuation.”

 

Examiners explained in a subsequent report that they had been looking for “positive information, in black and white,” exactly what students had learned. Teachers took no offense at that goal, but complained that the test questions had not pertained to what students had been taught.

 

Howe and his examiners countered that they had ensured their new assessment was valid with field testing – a practice that modern day corporations like Pearson and Data Recognition Corp. still do today.

 

Howe’s committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb. In all, the committee tested 31,159 students the previous summer. The result – an average score of 30 percent correct.

 

However, the wealthy Roxbury students outscored all the other schools. Therefore, they were made the standard of excellence that all other schools were expected to reach.

 

So when Boston students – all of whom did not have the privileges of Roxbury students – didn’t achieve the same scores, they were deemed failing, inadequate, losers.

 

Thus Mann could justify criticizing the district, firing teachers and administrators and consolidating control over the city’s schools.

BACKLASH

 

The result was pandemonium. Howe issued a scathing report lambasting the schools and even naming individual teachers who should be fired. Mann published the results in his influential Common School Journal and these kinds of tests started to appear at urban schools across the country.

 

However, Bostonians were not all convinced. Editorials were published both for and against the tests.

 

Every aspect of the exam was disputed – and in similar ways to the testing controversies we still see today.

 

To start, raising the stakes of the exams invited cheating. One teacher was caught leaking questions to his students before the testing session began.

 

The assessments also showed a racial achievement gap that far from helping diagnose structural inequalities was instead weaponized against the very people working hardest to help minority students learn. Examiners criticized the head teacher of the segregated Smith School because his African American students had scored particularly low. He was accused of not seeing the potential in black children. Never mind that these students were the most different from the Roxbury standard in terms of culture and privilege.

 

The tests also began the endless failing schools narrative that has been used by ambitious policymakers and disaster capitalists to get support for risky and unproven policies. Rivalries began between city and suburban schools with Bostonians wondering why their schools had been allowed to get so much worse.

 

Much of the criticism came back on Mann and Howe who reacted by throwing it back on the teachers for doing such a bad job.

 

In the end, a few educators were let go, but the voters had had enough of Mann.

 

Parents accused him of deliberately embarrassing students and in 1848 he was not re-elected to office.

 

The tests were given again in 1846, but by 1850, Boston had abandoned its strategy and reverted to non-standarized exams that were mostly based on oral presentations.

 

The experiment deeply disturbed many people. No one could explain why there was a discrepancy between scores of rich vs. poor students. The original justification of these exams was that they would eliminate partiality and treat students fairly and equally. Yet the results showed a racial and economic bias that didn’t escape contemporaries. In 1850 as the tests were being discontinued, the chairman of the examination committee wrote:

“Comparison of schools cannot be just while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

 

And that’s how standardized testing began.

 

It was a political power play justified by so-called universal testing.

 

Numbers, charts and graphs were used to mesmerize people into going along with policies that were never meant to help children learn, but instead to gain power for certain policymakers while taking it away from others.

HISTORY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

In the years that followed, standardized testing became much more efficient. In 1915, the first test was given with multiple-choice questions – Frederick J. Kelly’s Kansas Silent Reading Test. It was roundly criticized and eventually disowned by Kelly for focusing almost exclusively on lower order thinking skills.

 

Then in the 1920s eugenicists like Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham went a step further with similar IQ tests to justify privileging upper class whites from lower class immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. Their work was even used to justify the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool. Ultimately this lead Brigham to create the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. It is still in wide use today.

 

It wasn’t until 1938 that Kaplan Inc. was founded to tutor students in these same tests. Stanley Kaplan, son of Jewish immigrants, showed that far from assessing learning, these tests merely assessed students’ ability to take the tests. Thus he was able to provide a gateway to higher education for many Jews and other minorities who had been unfairly excluded because of testing.

 

In the 1960s black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry. Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middle class group.

 

And then in 2001, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation revved the whole thing up into overdrive. With bipartisan support, he tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress – a policy that was only intensified under President Barack Obama who added competitive grants for additional funding based on test performance under Race to the Top.

 

Since then, standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one decades later. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.

 

Despite hundreds of principal, teacher, parent and student protests, tens of thousands of opt outs and a slew of lawsuits, high stakes testing continues to be the law of the land.

 

Yet the problems today are almost the same as those in Boston nearly two centuries ago.

LEGACY

 

These tests are political smokescreens used to stop policymakers from having to enact real reforms like equitable funding, wraparound services and addressing the trauma our most impoverished students deal with everyday. Instead, we push a school privatization and testing industry that makes trillions of dollars for corporations at the expense of our children.

 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

Here’s hoping that one day we remember and get the heck off this runaway merry-go-round.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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The World Mourns for Jews After Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Shooting. What About Other Targets of Hate?

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When a white supremacist killed 11 people and wounded 6 others at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend, the world took notice.

 

Lights dimmed at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building.

 

Candlelight vigils were held nationwide – including in Boston, Houston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

 

A host of international leaders from the Pope to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage, sadness and solidarity.

 

I’ll admit that as a native Pittsburgher and person of Jewish descent, it touched me deeply.

 

For a moment, it seemed like the whole world had stopped spinning and from every corner of the globe people were with us in our tragedy.

 

But at the same time, it was troubling.

 

After all, there were at least two other major hate crimes in the U.S. perpetrated within 72 hours of the shooting.

 

In Kentucky, a white man shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kroger grocery store following a failed attempt to break into a black church.

 

Only two days later, a deranged man who had railed against Democrats and minorities with hate-filled messages online was arrested for allegedly sending mail bombs to people who’d been criticized by President Donald Trump.

 

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Where were the candlelight vigils for those atrocities?

 

Where were the international landmarks going dark?

 

Where was the worldwide condemnation?

 

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s tragedy, these other violent acts have been almost forgotten.

 

Yet they’re all symptoms of the same disease – hate and bigotry.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

What happened in Pittsburgh was terrible.

 

The Anti-Defamation League estimates that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue may be the most deadly attack on Jews on American Soil in our history.

 

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But me and mine do not have a monopoly on sorrow.

 

We suffer, but we are not the only ones hurting.

 

This all happened not far from my home.

 

I’ll admit that I am having a really hard time dealing with it.

 

I am not sleeping well.

 

I find myself zoning out in the middle of everyday activities.

 

And I feel this constant anxiety like part of me is expecting to hear a gunshot ringing down the hall at any time.

 

When the alleged shooter entered the sanctuary armed to the teeth and shouted “All Jews must die!” before carrying out his plan, he included me in his declaration.

 

All Jews.

 

That’s me.

 

That’s my daughter. My parents. My family.

 

It means something to me that so many people have come together to repudiate this crime.

 

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and other U.S. based Muslim groups donated more than $200,000 for funeral expenses. An Iranian refugee (who hadn’t even been to the three rivers) started a GoFundMe that brought in $1 million for the victims and their families.

 

You can’t go anywhere in Pittsburgh without a memorial, a moment of silence, a shared statement of solidarity and love.

 

At the symphony, musicians read two statements from the stage against hate before playing a Hebrew melody with string quartet.

 

At my school – I’m a teacher – the union decided to collect money for the victims.

 

 

I saw a barge floating down one of the rivers that had the message “Stronger Than Hate” on the side next to the modified Steelers logo where the top star had been replaced by a Star of David.

 

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I even saw a similar message on a Wendy’s sign: “PittsburghStrong/ Stronger/ Than Hate”.

 

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The community has come together in a way I’ve never seen before.

 

 

But I can’t help wondering why.

 

 

Even after Richard Baumhammers went on a racially motivated killing spree in 2000 murdering five people including two Jews, the response wasn’t this overwhelming.

 

 

Perhaps it’s just that this latest shooting is the final straw.

 

Perhaps it is the moment when our nation finally pulls together and says that enough is enough – We won’t tolerate this kind of hate and violence.

 

I hope that’s it.

 

However, in the shadows of my mind I wonder if it might not be a reflection of the same beast that struck us last weekend.

 

Could it be that we’re willing to put up with violence against brown people, but only draw the line when those targeted have lighter skin?

 

I guess my point – if I have one – is this: Thank you, But.

 

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s Jews, thank you for having our back.

 

If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need your continued support and solidarity.

 

But it’s not just us.

 

Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

Our country was built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans.

 

The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans.

 

Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and is hidden in the way we practice health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

 

The shock and solidarity in the wake of the synagogue shooting is appreciated, but it’s not enough to mourn only when 11 Jews are murdered in cold blood.

 

It’s not enough to take a stand against anti-Semitism.

 

We need to join together to fight all of it.

 

We need to be unified against school segregation, police brutality, xenophobia and prejudice in all of its forms.

 

The white supremacist who killed my friends and neighbors targeted us because he thought we were helping brown-skinned immigrants into the country.

 

We can’t just stand for the helpers. We need to stand for those in need of that help.

 

It just won’t work any other way.

 

We can’t just be against violence to light skinned minorities. We have to empathize and protect our brown skinned brothers and sisters, too. We have to love and cherish our LGBTQ neighbors, as well.

 

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We have to realize that our freedom, our safety, our very lives depend not just on what rights we have – but on what rights we give to all.

 

That is the only way any of us will ever feel safe again.

 

Through love and solidarity for every. Single. Human. Being.

 

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Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Pittsburgh Community is Stronger Than the Synagogue Shooter’s Hate

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There’s a popular yard sign in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

 

In bands of green and blue and yellow, it projects the same message in Spanish, English and Arabic:

 

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

 

If the community had a motto, I think that might be it.

 

Though known for its high concentration of Jewish residents, the Pennsylvania locale is a multicultural crossroads.

 

That may have made it a target today when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue.

 

Though the alleged culprit has been captured, details are still being uncovered. The death toll has yet to be tallied.

 

Unconfirmed reports state that he shouted “All Jews must die,” before opening fire.

 

But I don’t believe that the Jewish community was his only target.

 

Or more precisely – it wasn’t just the Jewish part – it was the community that had grown up around it.

 

I know Squirrel Hill well.

 

I live close by. I grew up on those streets. I’ve been to services at that synagogue. I have family who are members.

 

Thankfully it seems that no one related to me was there this morning. But when victims names are released, I probably will know who they are.

 

I know this community.

 

I am an extended part of it.

 

And that’s something of which I am proud.

 

Just walk along Murray Avenue and you’ll see Indian, Italian, Jewish, African, Chinese – every nationality imaginable – offering the fruits of their culture for friendly commerce.

 

You’ll see Hasidic Jews in dark hats and flowing tzitzit walking next to women in colorful saris next to trans and lesbians, kids with every color skin playing together in harmony.

 

Whenever I want a good corned beef sandwich or a quality lox and bagel, I go there. Whenever I want a spicy curry or the freshest sushi or an authentic macaroon, that’s the place. If I want to hear a string quartet or a lecture from a visiting dignitary or even if I want to swim in a public pool, membership to the Jewish Community Center is open to all.

 

It’s like a few blocks of cosmopolitan life tucked away in a city more known for segregation. We have many ethnic neighborhoods but few where one culture flows so easily into another.

 

Heck. Even the Tree of Life Synagogue, itself, doesn’t serve one congregation. It serves three who all had services going on at different parts of the building this morning.

 

There’s just something very special about this place.

 

It’s where you can go to be yourself – in fact, you’re encouraged to be who you are and not conform to any particular norm. Yet in doing so, you’re somehow demonstrating unity.

 

Paradoxically, being you makes you one of us.

 

It’s weird.

 

I think it may have been that sense of community that made Squirrel Hill, in general, and the Tree of Life Synagogue, in particular, a target.

 

The hate-filled person who attacked us today was terrified of that unity.

 

He was so frightened of disillusion, of losing his sense of self, that he had to end the lives of those who could do what he couldn’t.

 

It’s pathetic, really.

 

If your sense of self is only a negative, only opposition to someone else’s otherness, you really don’t have much self to lose.

 

If you define yourself by your hate, what are you?

 

Do you even really exist?

 

Most of us are very different.

 

We are complex assortments of personality – a family identity, a cultural heritage, a work persona, a spirituality, a sense of justice.

 

Communities like Squirrel Hill nurture this multifarious nature.

 

They welcome and celebrate difference.

 

I wish America was more like Squirrel Hill and not the other way around.

 

If this community’s normal was our national ideal, think of the country we would be living in!

 

Being different wouldn’t be an obstacle, it would be cherished.

 

When meeting someone with an unfamiliar name, a heritage of which you were ignorant, a sexuality or gender identity of which you had little knowledge – your response wouldn’t be fear or discomfort. It would be a thrill of excitement that you are lucky enough to broaden your understanding of the many ways there are to be human.

 

It would be a country where no one grew up so stunted and afraid that the only solution they could imagine would be the death of others.

 

That’s the America I want to live in.

 

Squirrel Hill is stronger than this synagogue shooters hate.

 

I hope our country is, too.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teaching is Hard Enough Without the Threat of Imminent Death

 

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I am so sick of coming to school and having an impromptu meeting to discuss why my students and I might die today.

 

Really.

 

Every time there’s a major school shooting somewhere in the nation it seems a copycat makes a threat in my own backyard, and we react.

 

The police tell us it’s not a credible threat so school stays open.

 

However, be vigilant.

 

Be aware that our students know about the threat and will be talking about it.

 

We’ll bring in bomb-sniffing dogs…

 

But try to maintain calm and order.

 

There will be a lock down drill in a few days…

 

But try to make the kids feel safe and secure.

 

An older student violently attacked a classmate last week after threatening to go on a spree…

 

But attempt to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning.

 

To which, I say: are you freaking kidding me?

 

I know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

 

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There are certain basic necessities anyone must have in order to become a fully actualized person.

 

After physiological necessities like food and water, safety is absolutely fundamental.

 

Without it, you can’t get people to focus much on anything else.

 

You can’t get children to pay attention to nouns and verbs, for instance, if they’re afraid they’re going to be shot and killed.

 

You can’t get them to care about writing a complete sentence, if they feel like they may have to duck and cover at any moment.

 

You can’t get them to bother with abstract reading comprehension if they’re afraid of imminent death!

 

Oh, and by the way, I’m not exactly at my best either!

 

My lesson plans aren’t going to win any awards when the best solution our legislators can come up with is giving me a loaded pistol to keep in my desk drawer!

 

Well, Yippee Ki Yay! I’m a teacher! Pew! Pew!

 

My 7th grade students are literally frightened that going to school on any given day may lead to the end of their lives.

 

Every couple of weeks on the news it’s another school shooting and another body count, while lawmakers do nothing to ensure it won’t happen again tomorrow.

 

Every few days, it’s a rumor about this or that troubled kid we all know snapping and throwing a gun in his backpack. Or it’s an anonymous threat scrawled on a wall or a social media page.

 

Today it was teaching classes where half the kids were missing because their parents held them out of school afraid a vague rumor of imminent violence was true.

 

And as I tried to assure those who did show up that everything was okay, law enforcement checked the lockers with K-9 police dogs looking for weapons or drugs.

 

What the heck are we coming to?

 

I work in a police state and my students are being asked to learn in a penitentiary.

 

And the teachers should get guns.

 

And the principals should get guns.

 

And the parents should get guns.

 

And the guns should get little tinier guns to protect themselves from even more guns!

 

This is madness.

 

We’re begging for a political solution but our political system is a shambles. Nothing puts that in starker contrast than the gun debate.

 

The overwhelming majority of Americans want sensible gun laws – an assault weapons ban, closing the gun show loophole, mental health screenings, etc.

 

If we lived in an authentic Democratic Republic, we’d have them. But we don’t, because we live in a plutocracy.

 

One industry has enough power and influence that the only solution our policymakers can safely suggest is one that increases that same industry’s bottom line.

 

It’s like Tony the Tiger suggesting the only cure for obesity is to eat more Frosted Flakes! They’re Ggggrrrreeeaaaattt!

 

A teacher’s job is hard enough without society crumbling all around us.

 

But that doesn’t mean the children aren’t learning.

 

They’re watching the world burn with wide eyes. They’re taking in every flame, every bullet hole, every cowardly senator, representative and chief executive.

 

They’re watching and taking names.

 

 

At the end of the year, policymakers will wag their fingers at the nation’s teachers about failing standardized test scores.

 

They’ll bemoan sinking academic standards, powerful labor unions and a lack of moral fiber as the cause of a generation of children who lost out on an education while cowering under bulletproof backpacks.

 

But this generation refuses to be lost.

 

Despite everything, they’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs back to sanity.

 

They are emotionally damaged by a country that no longer functions, but they know the truth.

 

They know who’s responsible. And they know what to do about it.

 

When they reject our society, we’ll know why.

 

Because the next generation will be nothing like us.

 

And on a day like today, that’s the most hopeful thought I can offer.

Guns and Profit – Why We’ll Do Absolutely Nothing New After This Las Vegas Shooting

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Wake up, America.

We are not the land of the brave or the home of the free.

We are the land of the gun and the home of the free market.

Stephen Paddock’s killing spree last night in Las Vegas will not change anything – except the bottom line for numerous gun manufacturers.

Ca-ching, people!

Scores of American companies are going to clean up over this!

That’s what happens every time we get a high profile mass shooting.

Not new gun regulation. Not additional services for the mentally ill. Not stricter guidelines against fake news on social media.

Just tons of money pouring into gun manufacturers pockets as firearm aficionados rush to buy as many additional pieces as they can in the fear that tomorrow the government will come for their guns.

You think this has anything to do with the Second Amendment or the right to bear arms?

Wrong.

It’s about putting business over humanity. It’s about our culture of death overtaking everything else.

Look at the facts.

A 64-year-old retiree used a cache of almost 20 guns to spray bullets on a crowd of concertgoers. He killed at least 58 people and wounded more than 500 others.
To do so, police say he had at least one fully-automatic rifle, an AR-15-style and AK-47-style rifle, more than a dozen additional firearms, and a ton of ammunition.

Any sane society that values human life would do something to stop things like this from happening again.

It is almost impossible to inflict this kind of death toll in such a short time without these types of firearms.

It’s the guns, stupid!

Yeah, I know they didn’t pull their own triggers. That was done by a human being, but by all accounts so far there were no warnings that Paddock was unstable. He was just another privileged white male with a gambling habit and an armory full of guns.

We will never be able to accurately and adequately predict when someone will snap. I’m not saying there isn’t more we can do to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill, but it will never be enough.

No one should have the power to inflict this kind of death on others.

Does that mean all guns should be illegal? Maybe. Maybe not. Does it mean they should be highly regulated. Absolutely! But no matter what you’re preconceptions, it’s a discussion we should be having.

However, we never will because our government is owned by big business, and guns are one of the biggest businesses out there.

Gunmakers made millions of dollars after the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino, California; and Orlando, Florida. Profits also skyrocket under Democratic Presidents. I wonder how many sprawling estates and mega-yachts were bought off the backs of “Obama’s coming for your guns!”

But ever since Donald Trump took office, profits have tapered off. Everyone knows he’s not going to do anything about gun violence. No reason to rush out and buy that new Glock.

The market has noticed. Vista Outdoor’s stock dropped by 40 percent since the election, while Sturm, Ruger & Co.’s stock fell 20 percent and American Outdoor’s stock has fallen by a whooping 46 percent!

But now! Woo-wee! This Las Vegas shooting is just what the industry needed!

And THAT’S why we aren’t ever going to do anything to prevent future massacres.

In America, the bottom line is all that matters.

We are a country of charlatans and prostitutes. Anything for a buck: for-profit healthcare, privatized education, and gun sales over all.

But don’t worry. The right wing media machine will be all over this, distracting you with alternative motivations for the killing spree.

Since Paddock killed fans at a country music concert, they’ll say he must have been targeting conservatives. Or it’s a false flag operation to stop NRA-backed legislation easing regulations on silencers. And various other B.S. conspiracy theories Facebook and other social media platforms allow to jump from profile-to-profile without regard to facts or evidence.

It’ll all just be another distraction.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, people.

It’s just big business getting richer off of your partisanship and credulity.

If only saving lives was where the money is.

If only preventing death was as profitable as causing it.

If only we cared more about each other than making a buck…

But no – instead we are one nation, under God, with guns and ammo for all.

Florida Shooter’s Strongest Ally Was The American Gun Lobby

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“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”

-American-born al-Qaeda spokesmen Adam Yahiye Gadahn

 

Omar Mateen considered himself a terrorist.

 

He wanted to make that clear to posterity before ending a shooting rampage he initiated in Florida yesterday that left 50 dead and dozens more injured – the worst mass shooting in U.S. history (so far).

 

During the carnage at an Orlando gay nightclub, he allegedly called 911 to pledge his allegiance to ISIS. He just wanted us to know that.

 

Now that the shooter’s gone, just as he would have wished, pundits are making a lot of this phone call. Though his family claims he wasn’t particularly religious, media talking heads are seizing upon this one action by an unhinged young man in order to denigrate all American Muslims.

 

ISIS is a militant organization. Islam is a religion.

 

By contrast, the KKK is a militant organization. Christianity is a religion.

 

But never mind that. In Mateen’s case, an entire religion is somehow responsible for the actions of one man. If he had been a white Christian – as most mass shooters are – we probably wouldn’t be seizing on his race or creed. But even though Mateen was born in this country, his family is from Afghanistan, his skin is brown, he was one of THEM.

 

However, there is no evidence that anyone in the Islamic community helped Mateen conduct his reign of terror. He allegedly saw two men kissing several months earlier, became enraged and planned accordingly.

 

But we can pinpoint one American institution that gave the self-proclaimed terrorist much aide and comfort in his scheme – the American gun lobby.

 

In fact, firearm powerbrokers are helping terrorists kill civilians all over the country.

 

No. I don’t meant to say they are working hand-in-hand with international terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

 

But they might as well be.

 

Our lax gun laws are the direct result of the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other organizations closely associated with the gun industry. Those laws are being exploited by individuals like Mateen bent on murdering as many American civilians as possible.

 

Before Mateen opened fire, he had been on a terrorist watch list. In fact, the FBI had monitored his past activities.

 

You might think someone like that would not have been permitted to buy a gun in the first place. But you’d be wrong.

 

Just six months ago, the U.S. Senate had considered a law to restrict suspected terrorists from buying firearms and explosives, but it was defeated largely by Republican lawmakers accepting huge campaign contributions from the gun industry.

 

Mateen might have found it much more difficult to carry out this terrorist attack without the help he received from the NRA and so-called conservative lawmakers.

 

But don’t take my word for it.

 

Gadahn (quoted above) was killed in a drone strike in 2015, but he was not the only terrorist praising the efforts of the American gun lobby.

 

A six-page recruiting pamphlet found in terrorist safe houses in Kabul, Afghanistan, called “How Can I Train Myself for Jihad” instructs would-be terrorists “on the advantages the United States offers for firearms training and advises readers on how to exploit them.”

 

Maybe that’s why a measure like that recently defeated in the Senate to stop suspected terrorists from accessing guns was strongly supported by the George W. Bush administration.

 

It’s strange. Bush pushed the PATRIOT Act as an invaluable tool to keep America safe from terrorism despite the concerns that it trampled civil liberties. If lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are willing to weaken the 4th amendment’s provisions against unreasonable search and seizures in order to stop terrorism, then why do they oppose much more reasonable restrictions on the 2nd? What makes the right to bear arms so much more important than other privileges enumerated in the Bill of Rights?

 

In truth, it’s not a philosophical debate. It’s an economic one.

 

There is simply too much money being made by gun manufacturers – and thus being funneled into political campaigns – to allow for sane firearm policy.

 

Take the AR-15, one of two firearms used by Mateen yesterday. The same semi-automatic model he used was illegally modified and used to kill 14 and wound 21 in the San Bernardino shootings in late 2015. In 2012, it was also used in the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

 

It’s the most popular rifle in the country, and the weapon of choice for mass shooters.

 

As such, there have been calls to reinstitute the federal assault weapons ban from 1994 – 2004. Some claim that the ban was ineffective, allowing too many loopholes. Others say despite weaknesses it resulted in less people being killed by these types of weapons during the time of the ban.

 

Though several attempts have been made to reinstitute the ban, it has been stalled by the gun industry largely because of wordplay and minutiae.

 

They claim the term “assault weapons” is inaccurate at best and propaganda at worst. (Never mind that it was coined by the gun manufacturers, themselves, to increase sales.)

 
Rifles designated as “assault weapons” are not easily distinguishable from other kinds of rifles, they say, so banning them would lead to a slippery slope of banning all guns.

 

The most basic difference is the firearm’s ability to expel multiple rounds quickly. Because of this, the rifles included under assault weapons bans are usually semiautomatic – a new round is automatically reloaded into the chamber but is not fired until the trigger is squeezed again. The weapons also have detachable magazines, allowing them to fire 10, 20, 30 rounds or more without the need to reload.

 

However, bans often include “military style” rifles that are not necessarily semiautomatic. Gun advocates claim these rifles are similar to firearms excluded from bans except for cosmetic features to make them appear more militaristic.

 

Those could include features like a pistol grip, designed to allow a weapon to be fired from the hip; a collapsible or folding stock, which allows the weapon to be shortened and concealed; a flash suppressor, which keeps the shooter from being blinded by muzzle flashes; a muzzle brake, which helps decrease recoil; and a threaded barrel, which can accept a silencer or a suppressor. Bayonet lugs or grenade launchers are also sometimes included.

 

But are these features truly just cosmetic? Or do they actually make these rifles much more dangerous? No one needs a grenade launcher to hunt for game or protect their home.

 

When people call for gun regulations, they aren’t necessarily calling for a ban on all guns.

 

People want a degree of safety in public spaces. They don’t want to be cut down by one or two gunmen causing exponential carnage in seconds.

 

That seems a reasonable expectation.

 

Gun industry surrogates claim safety is best assured if everyone is packing heat – an endless stalemate.

 

In point of fact, there was an armed police officer working security yesterday at the gay club when Mateen sprayed the crowd with bullets. Though he traded fire with Mateen, he was unable to stop the carnage.

 

It’s absurd. The people who initiate mass shootings rarely survive them. They don’t care about being killed. They only care about spreading death and terror.

 

Moreover, adding more guns to public spaces only increases the chances of more shootings, many of which would probably be accidental.

 

The rest of the world has figured this out. There really is no argument to be made here. Polls show that most of the public wants some kind of gun control.

 

But it won’t happen so long as the gun industry is allowed to buy our lawmakers.

 

It won’t happen so long as we allow gun industry trolls to drown out all reasonable discussion with their circular zombie arguments.

 

Mateen couldn’t stand the sight of two men publically expressing their love for each other.

 

The gun lobby can’t stand the idea of reduced profits.

 

And together those two aims make up the twin pillars sheltering American terrorists everywhere.