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Between the Rap Sheets

The best thing to happen to democracy in recent years may be the popularity of blogs. They’re especially influential in politics and education. Anyone can access everyone these days. The marketplace of ideas is wide open. Edwize is, of course, the UFT’s blog. But the views contained in the following piece are solely those of the author and are independent of the UFT’s positions and policies.

Remember Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and unflappable former front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination until he blew his chances during a debate by plumb forgetting the name of the federal agency that he had sworn a thousand times to destroy? It was a helluva “aw shucks” moment for the supporter of state-sponsored murder.

But last year he showed leadership, for better or worse, in a way that is both highly uncharacteristic and typical of him. He signed into law a bill that extended rights to teachers but at the expense of their students. Whether that trade-off is fair is the question I pose to you.

That law requires that law enforcement agencies provide superintendents with criminal histories of students and that the details, including those of parolees and juvenile records (which are confidential in most states), be shared in writing with teachers.

According to the Texas Youth Commission, around 300 of the more than 4, 200 violators who were paroled from the state juvenile system to enter Texas public schools had been convicted of aggravated sexual assault or robbery.

What is the more compelling priority: safeguarding teachers from an epidemic of violence or allowing students the chance to break free from the scars and stigma of their past and move on to a productive future?

Is it a moral or a legal dilemma? A matter of human rights or common sense? Or if it is a “no-brainer,” which side of the debate (sorry, Rick) do you favor?

Before you answer, consider this non-fictional report from a classroom teacher:

Johnny (not his real name) sat in the first row near the back door of my middle school English class. He was hard-to-figure. He just sat there seemingly detached from the whole world. Although he didn’t bother anybody if they didn’t bother him, his classmates and teachers all sensed that he was more sullen and volatile than placid. We didn’t know why. All we knew about him was that we knew nothing about him.

And ignoring him, tempting as it was and as he seemed to demand, was not an option for his teachers, since it is our job to reach out especially to kids who seem to avert the grasp of people who want to help them. Johnny was no lightning rod for empathy, but we forced ourselves to show him we cared and in that spirit I tried to engage him one morning.

He had been absent from school for a long time and nobody had a clue why. I guess the authorities figured that what we didn’t know wouldn’t hurt us. But Johnny had a strange pulpy flesh wound around his ear that he had never had before and so I asked him about it. He dismissed the expression of concern and it was clear that it was a sensitive matter so I backed off.

Later the reason was leaked to me. Johnny had been in a gunfight and was grazed by a bullet. Unfortunately the head of an innocent bystander was in the trajectory of the weapon that Johnny had fired and the person was gravely hurt. Apparently Johnny had, with little warning and after nothing but imaginary provocation, just “lost it.” His temper had gotten the better of him many times before, we learned later, but never at such a cost.

Whether or not his action was antisocial or pathological it was not for us educators to judge, but we were at least relieved that the tragedy did not occur in school where the victims could have been other students, our colleagues or ourselves.

By past behavior outside of school, Johnny had served notice of his instability before. If in the future a school administrator or clinician gave us the “heads up” about cases like Johnny, it might save a lot of agony. Lord knows there’s been precedents in our recent national history. Of course, educators would need to be fulled informed about legalities of use and disclosure of information and be held strictly accountable for obedience to the rules.

What are your views? Should New York and other states explore this legislation? This is nothing more than a leading question from the author.