How is this still happening?

Yesterday, in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, a 14-year-old boy took his own life, allegedly because of bullying at his high school. You can read the Buffalo News story here:

This little boy, Jamey, had been struggling with his sexuality for some time and was verbally attacked by some members of his school community after he came out. It seems, however, that he also had a huge network of friends and family who supported and loved him. Jamey had also posted a video to the It Gets Better project, an organization aimed at helping LGBTQ youth (and anyone struggling with bullying) to know that it’s better in the long run to be yourself in spite of what the schoolyard bullies say or do. In his video, Jamey (13 years old at the time) talks about all the love and support he had when he came out as bisexual and tells the viewers “just be yourself, and you’re set.” Less than a year later, he was found dead by his own hand. What happened?

What’s most disturbing to me in this story is not the bullying. Bullying is an age-old problem that certainly needs fixing, but it’s not, to me, the scariest part of Jamey’s story. When we talk about suicides, we usually speak in terms of a support network that the victim was unaware of or didn’t take advantage of. The outpouring of support for the victim and his family after the fact comes too late to save the suicide. Jamey, however, seems to have been fully aware of all the people in his life who cared for him and wanted to see him live and succeed. He speaks in his video about how loved he is and how the good people in his life outweigh the bullies. Interviews in the Buffalo News article from his mother and school social workers indicate that he was getting professional help in dealing with the bullying and his emerging sexuality (despite the school social worker’s dodge about not having enough resources).  He talked to his parents, and he had a solid group of friends. He’s a textbook suicide prevention case–so why is he still dead today? And what should his story be telling us about the way we identify and prevent suicidal thoughts in children?

I don’t have the answers, but I put the questions out there as something to think about. Why, despite all of our advanced medical care and our progress in identifying and treating mental illness and our schools’ bullying prevention programs and our support of and affirmation for minority communities–why are there still children taking their own lives? And what can we do about it?


Awareness Post: Buffalo Teachers

For those of you who are not aware, there is a situation right now in the Buffalo Public School district that makes my blood boil. It infuriated me when I heard about it on the radio several weeks ago, but now that school has actually started and it’s not in the news as much, I think it needs to be revisited. For those families affected, the problem didn’t end when the media’s coverage dwindled.

In case you’re not from Buffalo or you didn’t catch it on the news, here’s the breakdown: approximately $5 million was missing from the budget this year for the teachers. The teachers’ union’s solution was to cut over 100 teachers all over the district in order to keep costs down. Then someone came along and said, “hey, the cosmetic rider on the teachers’ health insurance plan costs us about $5 million a year…why don’t we cut that instead of the teachers?” And this, friends, is where the situation gets sticky. See, the head of the teachers’ union felt that it was important to keep the cosmetic rider in place so that he didn’t establish a precedent for cutting (optional) care coverage in the future. And so, the motion to cut the cosmetic rider and keep the teachers was shut down. Yes, he effectively chose boob jobs and face lifts over teachers.

Now, his argument about precedents might be valid if, say, someone suggested cutting emergency ambulance coverage or dental or eye care coverage from the health benefits package. These are, after all, essential elements of healthcare. But to keep cosmetic care over teachers strikes me as, well, a terrible idea.

But wait! There’s more!

It wasn’t the old, set in their ways, exact same lesson plan for the past 30 years, should probably be fired anyway teachers who got the boot. Oh, no! We couldn’t have that, now could we? We couldn’t possibly get rid of the teachers that it would make sense to get rid of anyway because that would violate the union’s policy of seniority (also known as “Last In, First Out” or LIFO). No, no–we fired the young, excited teachers who couldn’t wait to get back in the classroom and had all kinds of ideas for how to improve and innovate. We certainly wouldn’t want the children to learn anything, after all.

I’m not knocking older teachers in general. I have had some very old teachers and professors who have been incredible mentors and fantastic teachers. But when a school district’s graduation rate is at 50% (*cough*Buffalo*cough*), something’s out of whack with the way the oldies are running things

If you’re not mad enough yet, consider this: the overall graduation rate in Buffalo is 50%, but one Buffalo school, City Honors, boasts a grad rate of 100%….do the math. What does that mean for the rest of the schools?! And speaking of City Honors, let’s explore the logic behind the teachers that were laid off at that particular school in favor of keeping the cosmetic rider:

Of the seven teachers laid off at City Honors, four were crucial teachers in the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, a pre-college qualification similar to the AP exams. Additionally, the layoffs left City Honors with no geometry teachers, no 9th grade english teachers, one 7th grade English teacher and one AP Lit teacher. In addition, four IB courses had to be dropped entirely due to the layoffs. If City Honors had thought that they could just train their remaining teachers to teach IB courses, they were wrong. It costs about $15,000 to train just one teacher for the IB curriculum, or about $60,000 to replace the teachers who were laid off. So…that’s probably not going to happen.

Two girls from City Honors were, rightly, rather upset about this and wrote to a local newspaper. You can read their thoughts here:

These two girls outline very articulately what anyone who has ever experienced a truly wonderful teacher knows inherently: that a good teacher is worth so much more than the dollar amount of his salary or the marks his students get on their exams. What are we teaching the children of Buffalo by laying off the people that they look up to and relate to?

Since the time the girls’ letter was written, some of the laid off teachers in Buffalo have been reinstated. There are still a great many, however, who watched first day of school begin today with a heavy heart. No doubt they will be missed by their students and colleagues. I can only hope that students continue to stand up for their teachers and demand a higher quality of education in Buffalo schools.

To teachers who were forced to stay home from school today, my thoughts and prayers are with you, and I can only hope that you are back in your classrooms soon.