- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

A very funky and pervasive culture is killing our children. It doesnt use bullets or drugs. It doesnt use a white mans plan. It is a culture of ignorance.

At this time of year, when thoughts turn to grade-school commencements and high school graduations, at a time of year when most parents beam with pride that their child has progressed despite the "system," we find that culture has won yet again.

This week we learned that several teen-agers were caught boozing. One, a 17-year-old who had helped herself to an intoxicating Long Island Iced Tea, had to be rushed to the hospital. She did not buy the booze on her own accord, however, and she and the other teens did not get sloshed at home, or hanging out on the dicey streets of Washington, D.C. They got sick-drunk at school, Ballou High School in Southeast Washington.

Last week several teen-agers were stripped and searched and shackled by guards at the D.C. Jail. They were not treated that way because they were prisoners. As a matter of fact they were not even suspects. They were searched and shackled as part of a school program at Evans Middle School in Northeast Washington. Again, irresponsible employees have been placed on leave or fired or resigned. Also, authorities have suspended the jail visits.

Now some folks are of the mind that the employees involved in the booze party at Ballou and at the show and tell at the jail are somehow worthy of due process. I, on the other hand, do not share that view. In both instances the chips should fall where they may. Fire the whole irresponsible lot, in other words.

Alas, that is unlikely despite the fact that Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz knows that half of the system´s teachers are inept and the fact that Superintendent Vance knows that most of the system´s teachers are C-tiered that is to say, many wouldn´t get hired anywhere else.

And therein lies the crux of the longstanding crisis in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). Consider the troubling effects of the shortcomings of DCPS´ instructional and administrative staffs. D.C. school officials thought teen-agers needed a special brand of shock, so several years ago they began taking them to tour D.C. Jail, where guards and prisoners could eyeball the uninitiated and could … could … well, who knows what all occurred when the guards stripped and searched middle-school boys and girls.

Indeed, who really and truly knows? What is now absolutely certain is DCPS pads its bureaucracy with such programs as in-school suspension, which has no redeeming value, and peer mediation as part of its one-size-fits-all road to character building. While the peer mediation courses allow students to receive Carnegie Units toward high school graduation, these same students´ reading and calculation skills remain subpar.

Something is terribly wrong with that picture. Something is patently wrong with a school system that repeatedly finds ways to reward its employees (with promotions and raises) yet always makes excuses (they live in a poor neighborhood), indeed creates stumbling blocks (students can be denied entry if they don´t wear their school ID) when its constituents leave after 12 or 13 years, but are still illiterate and unemployable.

What must happen, on these children´s behalf, is not reform. To be sure, changes must occur. But the drinking incident and the jail searches coupled with the little academic improvement in recent years prove that reform is too mild a word.

What must occur is systemic change, and it must first occur in the classroom, where children spend most of their lives. Together with parents, the city´s leaders must show the teachers and counselors, and principals and managers heck, even the upper ranks of management where the new bar stands. For too long DCPS has consistently raised the bar on students, but failed to hold accountable those folks most responsible for reaching it.

Reconsider my earlier comment about ignorance, and then imagine that 17-year-old and her classmates sipping Long Island Ice Teas. Do you think the students can locate Long Island, N.Y., on a map? Do you think they have ever been to New York? I mean, hey, they´ve been to the jail, they know what that looks like. Indeed, when you live in a ghetto ignorance is hardly bliss.

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