Children, Guns, and the Bear of Toxic Stress

Within days of Donald Trump’s victory, I issued the following call to action:

As we go forward, holding our children close, we must be vigilant, and relentless. We must be creative and steadfast in our resistance.  We must harness the energy in our communities for social progress and educational equity—and for a society that is kind, and caring to all.


Kind and caring?   I was hallucinating, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The zeitgeist continues to challenge.  Just keeping informed is torturous.  I lurk in the media jungle, an addict looking for an angry fix.  Then I cloister myself, the better to meditate, to find perspective on the surreal state of our union.  The news of atrocities is relentless.  The most recent one, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, has set off yet another reckoning with the nation’s proclivity for violence.

America’s commander-in-chief, whose 5 draft deferrals kept him out of harm’s way, presides over all this with a narcissist’s bravado and futile attempts at empathy. Let’s arm teachers, he proposed. “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon,” he told a meeting of the nation’s governors at the White House, less than two weeks after the tragedy. Not everyone  would be qualified, of course.  “I want highly trained people that have a natural talent, like hitting a baseball, or hitting a golf ball, or putting,” he explained.

“The day that teachers carry guns is the day I leave the profession,” an educator I know declared on her Facebook page.  She works with kindergartners with special needs. I started grinding my teeth in my sleep.

In a listening session at the White House with survivors of the Florida shooting and other mass killings, the president elaborated on his plan.  Educators would need special training, he conceded.  “Anybody like it?” he asked. “It’s not something that I support,” said Nicole Hockley, whose six-year-old son Dylan died at Sandy Hook elementary school.  “I would rather arm them with the knowledge of how to prevent these acts from happening in the first place,” she said.  What a novel idea!

Wayne LaPierre was ecstatic. “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference to applause, highlighting the ever-present danger: “Every day young children are being dropped off at schools that are virtually wide-open soft targets for anyone bent on mass murder,” he said.  “Schools must be the most hardened targets in this country.”

Meanwhile, just in time for this spring’s bounty of protests, Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, with his A-plus rating from the NRA, signed a public safety law, named for the scene of the recent rampage. The night before, a 6-year-old had brought a loaded gun to Somerset Academy Lakes in West Palm Beach, a charter school that serves children from prekindergarten through fifth grade.

The law has some decent provisions. The age for purchasing firearms has been raised from 18 to 21, and the waiting period extended to three days. The legislators banned the sale or possession of “bump stocks,” an attachment that transforms a semiautomatic weapon into a machine gun. Additional funding has been set aside for a greater police presence, other security staff who go by the anodyne name of “school resource officers,” and mental health services (well, hallelujah).

On a recent morning, as the Florida legislature was deliberating and I was eating my oatmeal, trying to stay calm, I read about one of these people, Corporal Pamela Revels, a sheriff’s deputy and a regular presence at Loachapoka Elementary School near Auburn, Alabama.   Accompanying the piece was a photograph of her and two young children.  “I can turn into a mama bear really quick,” she told a reporter. “I’ve made that decision that nobody is going to hurt my babies if I can help it.”   I gagged.

Bears?  I flashed back to the confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos.  Senator Mike Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, had mentioned to her that a rural elementary school in Wapiti had erected a fence to keep out grizzly bears—an anecdote she told with relish. During his turn at questioning DeVos, Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, asked if she thought guns should be allowed on school premises.  She argued for local decision making.  “I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she said.

Apparently, this was a case of fake news, a figment of DeVos’s imagination: the district had opted for a weapon-free policy.   Still, Wyoming, land of rugged individualism and true grit, is ever nudging its citizens in another direction.  Last fall, the state passed legislation enabling districts to authorize school employees with permits—teachers and guidance counselors among them—to carry concealed firearms in and on school grounds.  Jill Bella, the state’s superintendent, facilitated the efforts, issuing 28 pages of   “non-regulatory guidance” under the aegis of the department of education.

But I digress. (Blame it on my impaired executive function, another symptom of PSTD.) Back to the latest flurry of policymaking in Florida.   The new law does not ban assault weapons—a bone of significant contention among the state’s legislators, including George Moraitis, a Republican from Fort Lauderdale.  He urged his peers to dispense with anger and emotion, lest it get in the way of bipartisanship.

Patricia Williams, however, was not having any of it. A Democrat who lists her occupation as “Retired Early Learning Director,” she represents District 92, also in Fort Lauderdale, where 46 percent of children from birth to age four are black, and 21 percent Hispanic.  “This happens day in and day out,” she told Moraitis, referring to the prevalence of gun violence among her constituents.  Though a gun owner herself, she supported the ban.

Preschoolers are on lockdown, defined by Merriam-Webster as an “emergency measure or condition in which people are temporarily prevented from entering or leaving a restricted area or building (such as a school) during a threat of danger.”  I needed the dictionary’s cool, basic description of the phenomenon to keep that anger and emotion in check.  I had to get a handle on the 727,000 results for elementary school procedures that Google turned up in .33 seconds.  The latest attempts to keep our children safe, descendants of the bomb shelter drills of my own early childhood, in the shadow of the Cold War.

Safe?  Who are we kidding?

In The Deepest Well—Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, offers up a quick but illuminating course on the stress-response system, one of our species’ oldest and most complicated, activated by bears and other threats.  She writes of the trauma of the patients in her practice in the Bayview Hunters Point community of San Francisco:

For one…the bear was his dad who verbally demeaned and physically abused his mom.  For another, it was his mom when she didn’t take her psychiatric medications and left the kids uncared for, often in dangerous situations. I’ll never forget the fourteen-year-old girl for whom the bear was the very neighborhood she lived in after she was hit by a stray bullet walking home from school.

Such is the stuff of adverse childhood experiences—ACES as they have been known since Vincent Filetti and Robert Anda’s 1998 landmark study, in conjunction with Kaiser Permanente, which yielded a dismal taxonomy of abuse, neglect, and dysfunction.  In the absence of a loving adult as a buffer, the stress is toxic—one enlightened legislator called it a 24-7 adrenalin rush—wreaking long- and short-term havoc with physical and mental health.

Of course, as Burke Harris reminds us, “when you are black or brown and living in America there are more threats and stressors inherent in your experience.”  Centuries of them, in fact: an inter-generational tsunami of ACES.  But for all our children in poverty, now the majority of America’s public school population, the bears are plentiful, the woods dark, deep, and scary.

Exposure to community violence did not figure in Filetti and Anda’s work—you won’t find it on the existing ACE survey, which includes 10 categories—although efforts at inclusion are afoot. As Burke Harris has discovered in her years at the Bayview clinic, it is a critical piece of the puzzle.

She cites a compelling epidemiological study, conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, to explore the impact of 9/11 on New York City’s public-school children.  They hypothesized that the kids in schools closest to Ground Zero would show significant trauma and need more help. A good proportion of these students, however, live in well-resourced neighborhoods.  The distribution of distress symptoms took the investigators elsewhere—to  communities of deepest poverty.

“It was the clear and present danger of their everyday lives,” Burke Harris writes, “the chronic stress of walking to school through a crime-ridden neighborhood in the morning and then feeling unsafe in school all day.”

On March 8, as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers played inside, a stray bullet shattered the front door of Step by Step, an early childhood center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of those communities of deepest poverty. “We have to get the guns off the streets,” Burchell Marcus, Director of the Community Advocate Development Organization, told a reporter from ABC’s Eyewitness News.  “We can’t have these young men running around…thinking this is the wild, wild West.”

When will we come to our senses?


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Bill de Blasio's Schools Chancellor is Leaving: Who will Restore the Joy to Early Ed?

Not long before New York City’s public schools closed for winter break, Katie Lapham posted to Twitter a drab black-and-white photograph of a testing manual she had found in her mailbox, the imprimatur of Carmen Fariña in the upper left-hand corner. An elementary school teacher and long-time critic of education policy, Lapham  felt sick.  “We will continue to refuse the tests,” she wrote, with the hashtag #OptOut2018.


Within days of the delivery, Fariña confirmed that she was stepping down from her perch as chancellor—four years after Bill de Blasio had coaxed her out of retirement to run the nation’s largest school system. Her appointment had elicited guarded optimism among the city’s educators.  They took comfort in her half-century of service, including a longtime stint as a teacher in Brooklyn and principal of a well-regarded elementary school in Manhattan. But Fariña’s more recent work was suspect.

As deputy chancellor under Joel Klein, her predecessor in the administration of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, Fariña was tasked with carrying out a policy agenda that many found problematic, if not repugnant.  She was a good soldier in a regime driven by standards-based accountability, market forces, and wealthy financiers—from which, despite de Blasio’s best intentions, he has failed to fully extricate himself.

At the  press conference convened to announce the news of her retirement, Fariña noted that she had not taken the job to win a popularity contest.  She said she was “most proud of bringing dignity to teaching, joy to learning, and trust to the system.” De Blasio called her departure “bittersweet,” announcing a national search, already underway out of public view, for her replacement.

After a lifetime of service, nearing 75, Fariña is entitled to put the finishing touches on her narrative. But the cognitive dissonance could not be more acute.

She has left teachers and parents with an acrid taste, her leadership a study in alienation, mistrust, and a careless disregard for democratic governance. A battle with the parents of Central Park East I, an elementary school known for child-centered, play-based learning, became a flashpoint of her tenure as she continued to support an incompetent and abusive principal, out of sync with progressive ideals.

Fariña’s response to the city’s entrenched segregation—highlighted by a damning report issued by U.C.L.A.’s Civil Rights Project in 2014—reflected astonishing tone deafness.  Let the children get pen pals, she urged; her solution to a deep wound and massive systemic failure seemed heartless and woefully inadequate.

The chancellor brooked no dissent. While Fariña softened her opposition to test refusal amid early talk of retirement, she was a staunch opponent of opting out, silencing critique of the city’s policies, and directing her deputies and administrators to follow suit with parents and teachers.   In 2015, the New York City Council passed a bipartisan resolution in support of informing families about the right to have their children boycott the tests.  Yet, as the season of the high-stakes Common Core exams began last year, the department of education had not cooperated, parents left in the dark.

De Blasio shared custody with Fariña of universal preschool, his signature education initiative.  I welcomed the mayor’s bold venture, which began with a historic number of four-year-olds—more than 50,000—in the fall of 2014. Designed to address New York’s deep income inequality, “PreK for All” represented an attempt to level the playing field. Last fall, a limited number of three-year-olds joined their older peers.  A “game-changer,” he had called the expansion, conceding the challenges that lay ahead.

The mayor, however, neglected to mention the risk to child well-being of toxic education policies. During his first term, the Common Core standards cast a dark shadow over our youngest children, condemning them to a treadmill of benchmarks and assessment before they can even lace up their running shoes. Their human right to a rich, joyful educational experience has been violated, rote learning, worksheets, and scarce time for play foisted upon little ones whose social-emotional and fine motor skills are in formation.

I posted the news of Fariña’s retirement to my Facebook page on the day of the winter solstice. Within minutes, a group of early childhood educators had gathered, offering their appraisal of the chancellor’s tenure and venting long-held grievances. The thread quickly grew longer.

The term child abuse appeared.  A growing number of early educators across the country are anxious about the harm they’re inflicting on young children, the legacy of misguided education policies in place since the early aughts.  Malpractice, they call it, and many are leaving, beaten down by the stress.

The vast wage gap between public school teachers and those in community-based organizations also cropped up. Most of the city’s three- and four-year-olds are enrolled in settings outside the public schools. Like the children in their care, these practitioners often live in difficult circumstances, while moonlighting to make ends meet on their subpar salaries.  Such is the case nationally, the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Jeneen Interlandi.   But the problem is especially urgent in New York, threatening the sustainability and success of de Blasio’s program.

Here, I’ve extracted some comments by early childhood educators, lightly edited:

I truly hope they get someone who will respect children, teachers, families, and child development principles, and who knows and respects that children need play and outdoor time and FUN!—Ellen  Jaffe Cogan

The department of education requires two hours and ten minutes of play-based learning and one hour of gross motor [skill-building] in preKs.  Unfortunately, many preKs—both school- and community-based—believe they must get children ready for kindergarten.  If kindergarten was developmentally appropriate, there would not be pressure to do more rote-like teaching—Lisa North

The chancellor has no meaningful understanding of what early childhood education should look like, or respect for the work of early childhood teachers—Jeannette  Corey

Since Bloomberg, kindergarten has not been an early childhood grade.  That has helped to turn kindergarten into first grade.  Disgraceful!— Renée Dinnerstein

The teachers are not supported by administrators.  They are trained to be developmentally appropriate…but are told by their administrators to follow a canned curriculum that does not individualize.  There is very little time for open-ended, spontaneous play—Dana Doyle

Those who are not on the ground don’t really understand the current situation and the gross inequities—from salaries to lack of nurses and security—between community- and school-based preKs.  What they  fail to realize is 3K for All and PreK for All are completely dependent on the community-based workforce, the physical spaces we have, and the expertise we all bring—Chloe Pashman

Who will, indeed, restore joy to learning,  dignity to teachers, and trust to the system?

Most of the people whose names have been floated in this closely guarded process would do great harm, perpetuating the toxic policies that have dominated public education. Missing are Michael Hynes, the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district on Long Island, and Jamaal A. Bowman, founder and principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action middle school in the Bronx.  Each of them makes a powerful case for bringing joy and excitement back to learning, and they live and work by their words.

During Hynes’s four years in his large, diverse district, he has doubled recess time in kindergarten through fifth grade, brought yoga and meditation to all students, and  reintroduced play and project-based learning into kindergarten through second-grade classrooms, from which they have been rapidly disappearing. He understands that children cannot be deconstructed, that their physical, emotional, academic, and social selves are inextricably linked.

Bowman caught my eye in 2015, when he wrote an op-ed for the Daily News, a paean to the whole child.   A former teacher and the father of a preschooler, he understands the richness that all students bring to the process of teaching and learning, and the urgency of getting it right.  As he wrote in a piece I published at my blog a year ago:

There is unlimited talent and potential within our schools.  Children come to us full of excitement and infinite ideas. They believe and know that anything is possible. They are fearless, and not tainted by age, time, or the ridicule of failure. They are natural leaders; and when they find a passion, they’ll work vigorously to achieve mastery without provocation.

For New York’s next chancellor, we need a radical change of direction. The stakes have never been so high.


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We Love Accountability. But Who’s Ensuring the Well-being of America’s Kids?


The United States is afflicted by an inputs-outputs complex, complicated by our penchant for competition. Stuck with conventional metrics, we stint on the resources, expect stellar outcomes, and remain oblivious to the disconnect. Care, education, and health read as consumption, not investment, in our national accounting; production of the next generation has become a luxury item. Our children, and future, have been relegated to the bottom of the nation’s priority list.

The repercussions of our inaction could not be more serious. In this essay, originally published at Medium, Wendy Lazarus, director, and Laurie Lipper, chief consultant, . . . Read full article →


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Baby PISA is Just Around the Corner. So Why is No One Talking about It?


As the standardization of early education proceeds apace, assessment of young children is a hot topic among those who nurture and educate them. Inappropriate, high-stakes testing is moving down, inexorably, to the most tender stages of development, the latest front of the Global Education Reform Movement.

Helge Wasmuth, an associate professor of early childhood and childhood education at New York’s Mercy College, has been following this trend. Among his research interests are early education policy as well as the history of, and postmodern perspectives on, early childhood education. He is a renowned expert on Friedrich Froebel. In the . . . Read full article →


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