This week I look forward to attending the Brentwood (N.Y.) High School Awards Night as a presenter of two scholarships in memory of my father, Herbert Fischman, who was a teacher and principal in the school district for 25 years. With this gesture, I will join with many other individuals and groups who together award hundreds of scholarships to Brentwood’s deserving graduates. I suspect that we are all part of a much larger group this spring who will also donate scholarships to high school graduates across the country.
In these difficult economic times, it hardly seems like a $500 or $1,000 scholarship makes a difference, but it does. Many of the students are awarded multiple scholarships, so while most of the individual awards are modest, they can add up — and numerous students receive sizeable support.
But it’s not just about the money. It’s about honoring young people who have excelled in spite of adversity, and who passionately want a shot at college. One of those Brentwood graduates, Samantha Garvey, made national headlines earlier this year when she was named a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Competition while her family was living in a homeless shelter. She is president of her school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, and has a 3.9 grade point average.
But you don’t need to have Samantha’s resume to receive a scholarship. The more that are available, the more opportunity there is to acknowledge young people who work hard to do their very best, as well as those who exemplify character traits that our communities and country desperately need, such as service and caring. I have to confess that the scholarship was not my idea. Vicki Novak, a Brentwood graduate who later became president of the Smithtown Council of PTAs, had the council donate the scholarship when my father died in 2005 and I was the administrative liaison to the PTA Council.
It wasn’t until three years ago while writing a book with my husband and brother that a light bulb went off in my head. Our book is about honoring memories and carrying on legacies, and the idea for the scholarship came from two of our interviewees — Nick Clooney, the father of George Clooney and brother of Rosemary Clooney, and Yeou-Cheng Ma, the sister of cellist Yo Yo Ma. Both separately suggested that one of the most accessible ways of honoring a loved one was to establish a scholarship in his or her memory. It was then that I made the commitment to continue the scholarship each year.
While the students are the recipients of the scholarships, attending the assembly and presenting the scholarships has been both cathartic and therapeutic for me. For example, I met retired teachers who worked in my father’s school and who shared with me their reminiscences, as well as their affection and admiration for my dad. In addition, listening to others speak about their loved ones confirmed that dedicating a scholarship, no matter what the amount, helps to keep alive the memory of those who are no longer here.
Since establishing the Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship, I have met some amazing students, parents, teachers, and principals. Some of the past recipients have sent me thank you notes expressing their appreciation.
One female student wrote:
“It is with great appreciation that I thank you and your family for allowing me to be one of the recipients of the $500 Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship. Words can’t describe how grateful my family and I are for your help towards my future. In this economy every little bit helps.”
And a young man who was on his way to an Ivy League college wrote the following:
“I would like to thank you for your generosity and support toward my college education. I would also like to pay respect to your father since he did serve in the community for an outstanding 25 years and is most likely respected by former colleagues and students. It still must be tough to cope with this loss since it is just over five years, but I know he still lives through people like you who give back to the community of Brentwood.
I am of Mexican and Haitian descent and I will be the first in my family to attend college.
I am blessed that I am one of the recipients of your scholarship. I will work hard to keep the spirit of your father alive and I will not let you down.”
In these difficult economic times where discretionary funds are diminishing, a scholarship, no matter how small, can enhance the life of a young person. It also perpetuates the living memory of a loved one.
I’m honored to let you know that I have joined the new blogging team at ParentNet® Unplugged, a site that invites parents, educators and community leaders to participate in frank conversations about family engagement in education. As you know, parent engagement in education is my passion and I am thrilled to connect with other experts, who share my commitment and interest in exploring and learning about this important subject.
Research indicates that positive family-school-community partnerships promote children’s social, emotional, and academic learning and development. I am joining a distinguished group of professionals and parents, who practice and write about the importance of parent engagement, school-family partnerships, and related issues and concerns.
My article this month is Parent Power: Be Engaged in Your School District’s Budget Process.
In a nationally televised news conference, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain denied sexual harassment allegations against him, claimed one accuser was “troubled,” and could not remember another complainant. Cain himself predicted that his political adversaries would solicit more accusers in the coming days.
It is no longer unusual to pick up a newspaper, go online, or turn on a TV and see politicians, celebrities, clergy – and educators too — being charged with sexual harassment.
Coincidentally, the allegations against Cain surfaced at the same time a national survey by the American Association of University Women found that 48 percent of 1,965 students said they had experienced verbal, physical, or online sexual harassment in the 2010-2011 school year.
But how do we define sexual harassment? It’s actually a little bit tricky. A simple definition of sexual harassment is that it’s any behavior of a sexual nature that’s offensive in the “eye of the beholder.” This means that if a person feels uncomfortable about a gesture, comment or action, it could be defined as sexual harassment.
The legal definition of sexual harassment in schools can be traced to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This federal law made it illegal to discriminate against students on the basis of their sex, and to forbid unwelcome flirtations, sexual advances, propositions, continual or repeated verbal abuse of a sexual nature, use of sexually degrading words or actions, and the display of sexually suggestive pictures.
Every school district assigns one administrator to be the Title IX Officer. As the Title IX Officer in a large New York school district for more than a decade, it was my responsibility to investigate allegations of sexual harassment brought to my attention by administrators, teachers and parents. I wish I could say that there were no complaints, but each year there were several, involving both students and staff.
Before Title IX came into effect, there was no recourse for individuals – students and staff — who felt uncomfortable with unsolicited sexual behavior or comments. But today we live in a very different world. It’s critically important that parents, students, and staff familiarize themselves with the latest policies and make sure that they are followed.
Sexual harassment may occur from student to student, from teacher to student, from administrator to teacher, from administrator to student, or administrator to administrator. There are two types of sexual harassment that particularly concern us in schools. The first kind is “quid pro quo.” That means that if you do something for me, I’ll repay you with such things as grades, promotion or job advancement. This usually has to do with an unequal power relationship between harasser and the target of harassment, or teacher and student. This is clearly against the law.
The other form of sexual harassment is that of a hostile or offensive environment. This is an environment that allows or encourages repetitive patterns of teasing, innuendoes or jokes of a sexual nature, and interferes with someone’s work or academic performance. This may or may not have to do with an unequal power arrangement, and may be employee to employee, student to student or student to teacher. This is also illegal.
The key with hostile environment complaints is that educators are responsible for this state of affairs whether they see the alleged behavior or not. If they pretend they do not see it and ignore it, they are still responsible. If they brush off or minimize complaints, they can also be held accountable. The most important thing for school personnel to remember is that they are held responsible for behaviors they permit as well as for behaviors they commit.
Parents, students, teachers, and administrators should keep the following points in mind:
• Know Your District Policies and Procedures.
• Sexual harassment is not defined by intention. It is defined by the impact on the target.
• Silence does not imply consent.
• Anything that takes place on e-mail or the Internet is easily traceable and can also form the basis for a sexual harassment complaint.
• Teachers should not be alone with students.
• Teachers and administrators are responsible for what goes on in the school. It is the responsibility of the adults in charge to address behaviors that may contribute to a hostile environment.
• Should you observe something you believe is sexual harassment, report it to a school administrator or the District Title IX Officer. All complaints must be investigated thoroughly and promptly.
It’s the season for report cards and parent-teacher conferences. It’s also the time when parents may decide to confront problems their children are having in school. Or they may have come to the conclusion that their attempts to communicate with the school have just not been working.
Whether your child’s issues are emotional, physical, social, or academic, it’s not unusual for parents to become emotional and defensive when their children have a problem. One reason why your communication efforts may not be working is that school personnel may feel threatened and attacked by negative criticism. If you’re upset about something your child tells you, don’t jump to conclusions until you hear the other side. Try approaching school personnel in a respectful, calm and non-threatening manner by using an “I” message with the focus on meeting your child’s needs.
- Describe how the problem makes you or your child feel without being defensive. For example, say, “I feel helpless when my child comes home crying and tells me that children are making fun of her,” instead of, “What kind of uncaring teacher are you that you’re allowing all of the children to pick on my child?”
- Actively listen to what the professionals tell you, and then summarize, paraphrase, question, share information and brainstorm solutions. This is preferable to allowing yourself to become so emotional that you don’t listen and resort to yelling.
- Come to an agreement about a solution that meets your child’s needs. Remember it’s not about who is right or wrong. You want your child to be the winner. He’ll be the winner if school and home work cooperatively to help him succeed.
- If you’re still not satisfied, then bring additional people into the discussion. You may want to include your spouse or another relative to support you, and you may ask that the principal or assistant principal and/or the school counselor to join the meeting. Many schools have team meetings, where all the staff members who are involved with your child meet at once. You may ask to attend a team meeting.
- If you have totally exhausted all of the avenues at the school level, contact district administration.
At the time, I thought that I would always remember April 20, 1999, as the day then-First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the school district in which I was working.
I was one of the entourage who escorted her and her staff around the Village School in Syosset, L.I.
The school was packed with media because there were rumors Mrs. Clinton would soon announce she was running for the U.S. Senate from New York. When I got home from work, I settled in to watch what I expected would be wall-to-wall coverage of the visit.
But it was quickly pre-empted by the horrific news from Littleton, Colorado — the massacre of 12 students and one teacher by two student gunmen before they killed themselves at Columbine High School.
Ever since that day, our notions of school safety have changed. So this week when police sought four men in connection with a home invasion robbery in Bellmore, L.I., they ordered a lockdown of 27 schools in Bellmore, Merrick, Wantagh and Levittown as they pursued the men through residential neighborhoods. The lockdowns went on for hours before the suspects were all apprehended, but not before there was a shootout in front of the Lakeside Elementary School in Merrick.
Anxious parents were advised not to come to the schools and were assured that their children were safe. Although the specter of lockdowns evokes memories of Columbine and subsequent school shootings, it’s important to remember that schools are now required to have comprehensive safety plans.
I remember chairing a large Project SAVE Committee in 2000 when New York State first required districts to have very specific safety plans, which must be tweaked and improved each year. This week when the lockdowns occurred on Long Island’s South Shore, the affected districts used their Websites and automated phone messages to inform parents — tools that were not widely used or available 11 years ago.
But how do you know about your child’s safety? Here are some questions you can ask:
- How does your school communicate with parents in case of a lockdown or safety situation?
- Does your school conduct lockdown drills with its staff? (There is mixed opinion on whether students should participate because it might frighten them.) Is all staff familiar with safety plans, and what to do if there is a threat to safety?
- Do your district and school administrators have ongoing contact with their local police and fire departments?
- Do parents have access to reports that include information about the number of violent or other unsafe incidents at the school?
- Does your school have ways to prevent as well as to respond to crises?
- Are students taught conflict resolution skills?
- How is school safety promoted in your school?
- Are school facilities safe and free of hazards?
- Does your school or district have a Safety Committee?
- Does your child know how to protect his or her personal safety and what to do if he or she is threatened?
It really does “take a village” – to borrow a line from Hillary Clinton — to ensure that our children are safe. Although schools are doing a much better job than they used to, there is always room for improvement. Board of education members, school and district administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents must always be vigilant and act as partners with one another to protect our students and schools.