First Person

Voices: We can prevent violence

Delbert Elliott, founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at CU-Boulder, and center director Beverly Kingston say violence at school and elsewhere can be stopped.

The horrific shooting that took place at an Aurora movie theater is another reminder that we can and must take action to prevent violence.  As our hearts break from this sad and tragic event, we have an opportunity to turn some of our sadness and grief into action aimed at doing whatever it takes to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future.

A key violence prevention strategy is good surveillance and good intelligence. Perpetrator warning signs were found in a study of school shootings conducted by the U.S. Secret Service. In four out of five school shootings they examined, someone knew the event was going to take place. They also found that most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused concern or indicated a need for help. There are warnings prior to most of these violent events.

We learned this after Columbine. The shooters left a series of red flags during the 18 months before the shooting. These included a hateful website, reports of bomb making, threats to another student, arrests for breaking into a vehicle, the acquisition of weapons, a hit list and disturbing school essays and videos. A number of different people were aware that the shooters were involved in significant problems and questionable activities.  It was also true that no one in a position of authority was aware of all these signs prior to the event.

This led the Columbine Commission to recommend that a system be established in Colorado so that students and others could anonymously report conduct or situations that are potentially dangerous or troubling.  Safe2Tell was established in 2003 under the leadership of the Colorado attorney general to ensure that all Colorado students, parents, teachers and community members have access to a safe and anonymous way to report any safety concerns.  Tips are reported anonymously to a toll-free number (1-877-542-7233) or through a web reporting feature that can be accessed at and through two-way dialogue texting.

Our best chance of early intervention to prevent a tragedy of any nature is when we receive information about suspicious or concerning behavior.

Since 2004, Safe2Tell has received more than 11,000 calls resulting in 6,000 reports to law enforcement and schools. As a result of these anonymous reports, Safe2Tell has prevented 28 planned school attacks, responded to over 700 threats of violence, 1,546 bullying calls, 962 reports of substance abuse, 359 reports of sexually related crimes and taken more than 270 weapons from schools or school buses. Safe2Tell reports have also led to 799 successful interventions with depressed or suicidal children.

Sadly, as the investigation of the Aurora shooting unfolds, a roadmap of imminent warning signs is likely to be revealed in this case as well.  Because these attacks are rarely sudden impulsive events, most shooters engage in pre-attack behaviors that involve obtaining weapons and ammunition, making plans that often include casing the location and rehearsing the planned attack and expressing an unusual interest or preoccupation with violent assaults in the media or historical events, typically in written essays or emails, Facebook postings and blogs. Often the individual tells someone of his/her plans or enough of the plans that logically give warning of the attack. Along with these planning behaviors, the individual may demonstrate difficulty coping with significant losses or failures and be socially isolated, a loner and at-risk for suicide.

Most people are blessed with some level of intuition and awareness when something just isn’t right. Often we dismiss this because we aren’t sure what to do.  But this type of wanton violence has happened too many times in Colorado.  We need to be more aware and smarter about these warning signs and the importance of reporting them.

Safe2Tell provides an anonymous and safe way to report when the witness does not wish to be identified. Safe2Tell reports are forwarded to local law enforcement and responders for follow-up.  Safe2Tell gives everyone in the community a chance to play a role in the prevention of another violent act, to be a lifesaver.

Contacting local officials or Safe2Tell with concerns is critical to preventing violence. Yet there is much more that we can do to prevent individuals from engaging in violence in the first place. We have learned that the best violence prevention should begin before kids are born and continue through their childhood and adolescent development.  There are tested and effective programs to prevent violence but seldom are they fully funded or well implemented.

Let us commit to changing this and putting what we know works into action. Then we can make Colorado known for being a leader in preventing violence.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.