bait-and-switch

Campbell Brown's abusive-teachers war preceded Twitter spat

Campbell Brown testified before the state's Education Reform Commission on the issue of teachers found to have abused children last week.

Campbell Brown says she’s done using Twitter to provoke union leaders into a debate.

After a furious 48-hour exchange this week with AFT President Randi Weingarten, in which the 140-character messages quickly elevated into charges of sexism and conflicted interests, Brown said she wants the next showdown to be face-to-face.

“I’d love to sit down with Randi and have a real debate,” Brown said this morning in a phone interview. But she added a caveat. “There’s nothing to debate.”

In less than a week, Brown, a former NBC White House correspondent and CNN anchor, has gone from largely unknown in education advocacy to the center of a heated war of words with union leaders over how to handle teachers suspected of — and found guilty of — sexual misconduct with students. She outlined her case in a provocatively headlined column in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal.

But the op/ed wasn’t Brown’s first public statement about the issue of sexual predators in schools. A week ago, she delivered a surprising testimony on the issue before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission during its New York City meeting.

Not everyone who asked to speak was given a chance to. But Brown had been given the top speaking slot on the “teacher quality” panel with testimony that coupled concern about sex abuse with statistics about low student test scores and college-readiness rates.

The speech she delivered was significantly different.

She had done away with discussion about student performance and added in three examples — complete with names and salacious details — of teachers who have not been fired despite being found to have behaved inappropriately.

After the meeting, Brown told GothamSchools why she had revised her testimony.

“I don’t think it was really what they were planning to focus on,” she said. “But if we’re going to address quality, this certainly falls under it.”

Brown, a mother of two children who aren’t quite school-aged, said she became interested in the issue as she read more and more of the city’s tabloid headlines that detailed cases where teachers who were found to have acted inappropriately were allowed to return to the classroom. She said recent events were decisive.

“I think in the context of the Sandusky stuff, it was just really getting to me,” she said, referring to the Penn State football coach convicted of molesting many young boys, even after some of his supervisors knew about allegations against him. “I mean how could it not?”

Since the op-ed, Brown has become the subject of heightened attention, both positive and negative. She appeared that morning on Morning Joe, whose host, Joe Scarborough, is a vocal critic of teachers unions. Then she took to Twitter, where she reached out to Weingarten.

“Why is teachers union protecting teachers who commit sexual misconduct?” Brown tweeted to Weingarten.

Weingarten responded by accusing her of doing the dirty work of an advocacy group that supports many policies that teachers unions oppose. Weingarten suggested that Brown had gone on the attack because her husband, Dan Senor, is a board member of StudentsFirstNY, which jumped into the fight to defend Brown on Twitter.

Speaking today, Campbell acknowledged that her campaign against the teachers union could have been handled better, beginning with a full disclosure of her relationship with Senor, a top advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and his role at StudentsFirstNY.

“You know what?” Brown said today in a phone interview. “In retrospect, I totally wish I had.”

She added, “But at the end of the day does it really matter? Because that doesn’t change the issue. Everybody should be on the same page here.”

Brown also defended herself against Weingarten’s charge that her husband’s role had influenced her opinions.

“Give me a break,” Brown said. “I’ve been a journalist for 20 years. Nobody uses me. That’s really insulting. You want to attack me personally, that’s just a pathetic attempt to distract from the real issue. What they’re doing is defending sexual predators.”

A UFT spokesman said today that the union’s position is sticking to its long-standing position: There should be zero-tolerance for sex abuse of students, but that a bill proposed this year in New York would erode due process for teachers without making students safer. Weingarten said she was traveling and would be not be available to speak.

Brown urged the commission to make the legislation a top priority. Today, she said she was hopeful that the union would come around eventually and that Weingarten could lead the effort.

“She’s very influential,” Brown said. “If she dives into this, my gosh, nothing would make me happier.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.