If We Really Want to #protectourkids, Let's Have an Honest Conversation

We have to come together to solve these problems, and we cannot afford to continue allowing a tiny group of political opportunists to distract and divide us for their own purposes.
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As a society, one of our most important shared responsibilities is the one we take to raise children who are ready to become productive, engaged members of our communities. It's up to all of us to keep them safe, healthy and whole, so they can do the hard work of learning and meeting their full potential. Keeping kids safe and healthy requires trust and cooperation among the adults in each child's life, as well as vigilance among the members of the broader community. This is why we have laws and policies against child abuse and neglect, as well as policies and practices that aim to prevent -- or in the awful cases when that fails, to report and prosecute -- such abuse.

This is a serious issue, which is why it's incredibly offensive and dangerous for it to be politicized and trivialized, as has happened over the past few days.

Last week, former journalist Campbell Brown published an incendiary op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, falsely accusing unions of failing to protect children. This is demonstrably untrue; the union-district contract calls for anyone accused of misconduct to be suspended without pay, and fired if found guilty. Still, she repeated the lie again on national television, and then initiated a Twitter attack on AFT President Randi Weingarten (who has actually promoted reforms on this issue nationwide) to further publicize the claim. Realizing that her family ties to both StudentsFirstNY (SFNY) and the Romney campaign -- both strongly anti-union -- could explain the sudden attack, people began to ask why she didn't disclose the connection upfront. She accused those questioners of sexism, and SFNY sent an e-mail blast asking subscribers to help continue the attack online.

Anger and offense continues to mount on both sides, and most media coverage of the issue ever since has revolved around Twitter fights, phony accusations of sexism, problematic analogies and more -- everything BUT the bigger issue of protecting children.

So let's get back to that topic. For starters, in the cases of the New York teachers who were found to have behaved inappropriately, the Department of Education should investigate to figure out what went wrong. They are the ones who hire and fire teachers, and they also have the power to fire arbitrators whom they find are not taking their responsibility to student safety seriously enough. Taking a thoughtful approach to the issue and figuring out what actually went wrong would be much more helpful than using this small number of cases (which as one teacher-blogger points out, account for just .0025 percent of New York City teachers) as a pretext to smear all teachers and unions, and to give the schools chancellor an unwarranted amount of power.*

Beyond that, we need to also look at the other factors that are putting children at risk. Right now, millions of American children suffer from abuse and neglect. Our rates are among the worst in the industrialized world, as they are on child poverty (a known risk factor for abuse). As the Children's Defense Fund recently reported, in 2008-2009 alone, more American children were killed by guns than were American soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to date. These are urgent symptoms of a desperately unhealthy society, where a child is born into crushing poverty every 29 seconds, yet unions and others who stand up for economic justice are demonized.

We have to come together to solve these problems, and we cannot afford to continue allowing a tiny group of political opportunists to distract and divide us for their own purposes. As long as an elite few are allowed to monopolize and distort the public conversation around educational and economic issues -- and as long as the rest of us respond by being disrespectful and angry with each other instead of uniting to address these root issues -- we will never get around to creating a society that leaves us healthy and whole enough to take good care of the children who depend on us all.


*Note: The reason the bill in question is so controversial -- or should be -- is because it essentially gives a district's schools chancellor the ability to override the decision of an arbitrator in cases where school employees are accused of sexual misconduct. That means that if approved, it would be possible for the chancellor to fire anyone they wanted, whether innocent or guilty, as long as an administrator said they've been accused of such misconduct. This might be OK if administrators and chancellors were perfect and could always be trusted, but they're not. That's why we need checks and balances on everyone's power, which this bill would weaken considerably.

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