After multiple bomb threats in Augusta, 4 ways Maine schools can address underlying problems

As I sat at the arranged evacuation site, waiting for the buses to deliver my Cony High schooler, I thought, this week is as good as any to do a post about education. I meant to do one sooner. My Cony High schooler also previously attended Farrington Elementary School in Augusta, the school in the press for having to invalidate tests because additional study tools were allowed. It hasn’t been the best couple weeks for our school department.

For those who may not know, Cony has had a flurry of bomb threats and other threats of violence recently: one evacuation June 2, two evacuations this week, and one following an almost two-hour “locked-in.” A “locked-in” is when students are locked into whatever classroom they are in, and windows are covered until further notice. No one except law enforcement is allowed in or out of the building.

A bomb-sniffing dog was brought in by the Maine State Police after a bomb threat at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield on Tuesday, March 26, 2013. The threat turned out to be a hoax. (Alex Barber | BDN)

A bomb-sniffing dog was brought in by the Maine State Police after a bomb threat at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield on Tuesday, March 26, 2013. The threat turned out to be a hoax. (Alex Barber | BDN)

Parents are notified through a series of robo calls and emails. These communications are brief and unsettling. It’s alarming to be notified you can’t get to your child. It’s disturbing to sit at an evacuation site, police everywhere, and watch buses roll by, looking for your child’s face. But what a relief to hear a friend’s voice — one of the bus drivers — yelling, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your boy!”

Unfortunately for my youngest, he looks like the slightly fairer male identical twin version of my 16-year-old self, so anyone at Cony who knows me knows he’s “my boy.” I’ve been told that not even our different last names can cast a shadow of doubt on that lineage.

Even though each incident has proved to be a false alarm, I am grateful our school administrators and law enforcement take each situation seriously. Columbine and all the other school shootings changed things. And rather than critique aspects of planning and communication that did not please me as a parent, I’d rather commend administrators for acknowledging that these incidents have provided opportunities to hone their emergency plans and processes.

But beside school shootings, other things have changed in education, and new problems have arisen. These issues are the things I planned to blog about, and I can’t help but feeling some of these issues contribute to the overall environment that can foster such aberrant behavior in places of learning. I’ve compiled a list — I like lists — and hopefully I can revisit the items in more detail in the future.

This list is not research-based, but it is life-experienced-based as a mother, a tutor and a former adult education teacher.

Common Core behavior: Enough with the standards and the testing that shift like sand under your feet as you parent one child, then the next. Start with one set of standards, behavioral expectations and instruction. In elementary school behavior is part of the curriculum and the grading process, yet this focus dissipates in middle and high school.

Give a teacher adequate resources and supports, and a room filled with an appropriate ratio of children behaving appropriately, and that teacher will accomplish something. This idea of a behavior standard taking primacy came from a friend who teaches at the Capitol Area Technical Center, adjacent to Cony. He’s also a brilliant mechanic who keeps my 17-year-old car as close to purring as she can get.

Stop all the suspensions: To quote my son: Is suspension the most counterproductive thing schools do, or what? Kids are coming to school with increasing baggage: homes that experience hunger, homes with addiction, homes with all types of abuse, homes with neglect. These realities tend to manifest behaviorally. Therefore, disciplinary actions should be seen as opportunities to intervene in children’s lives rather than opportunities to further alienate them.

Their minds are still developing, and even if they are not acting like it, troubled students are looking to grown-ups to see through their behavior and help the confused child on the inside.

The bar for suspension — which just gives the child more time in potentially problematic environments and interrupts their academics — should be pretty high. Back in the day, there was “in-house” suspension for many of the infractions that get kids home suspensions now.

Pay teachers more: But also ask them to work longer days and longer school years. Teachers rock! The list of teachers and administrators to whom I owe my gratitude for their positive influence on my children is long. It includes teachers at Farrington Elementary to whom I attribute so much of my youngest’s development as a student. The problem, especially for this tech-driven generation, is kids need more time with them at school. More time at school would allow for longer recesses, more physical education, more behavior instruction, more art, more music. Funding? See next item.

Opt out of standardized testing: As a parent, I opted my oldest out of standardized testing somewhere around fourth grade, which was over a decade ago. He never took another one, but I wish someone would call for a five-year moratorium on standardized testing for all students. Then federal, state and local governments could take every penny spent on testing during that five years and invest in addressing the previous items on this list.

Every dollar spent on the multi-million dollar testing industry is a dollar not spent on what our schools actually need to succeed. After several years of channeling that money back into our schools, parents, colleges and employers probably won’t need tests to know our schools are working anyway.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.