A Wave of Change in the Darien Public Schools System

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When Superintendent of Schools Donald Fiftal retired in 2010 after a long reign atop the Board of Education, the town of Darien knew it did not have to look far when searching for his successor. The clear choice was Assistant Superintendent Stephen Falcone. His trajectory had been clear: Falcone came into Darien High School in the 1990s as a history teacher and by 1998 was named Assistant Principal of the institution. After having served as Assistant Superintendent since 2005, it only made sense that Falcone would take over for Fiftal when the time came five years later. The Board of Education, as well as the town of Darien, embraced the hiring of Falcone, and the transition was seamless. Falcone was now ready for a long career of his own as Superintendent.

This natural transition was abruptly cut short merely three years later. On Tuesday October 22nd, 2013, Stephen Falcone shockingly announced his resignation from the position of Superintendent. The announcement was met with shock and confusion from the town of Darien. An example of the feelings expressed from the people of Darien lies in this brief interview I conducted in the fall with former classmate of mine (Darien High School ’12) and current student at the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications Jay Alter:

Jay Alter: Bombshell from Darien today: Steve Falcone resigned today. Craziness.

Charlie Baird: That’s crazy! I wonder what led him to step down.

JA: Really bizarre, man. I was thinking Haron [referring to former Darien High Principal Dan Haron who resigned in 2012]  and Falcone both gone just a year after we graduate. It all just crumbled.

CB: But Haron finished our senior year, while Falcone steps down in the middle of the year… how strange.

JA: Something obviously happened… I’m sure the truth will trickle out in the next coming days… as for now just really strange.

The unknown behind Falcone’s decision to resign really struck the town of Darien, as depicted in the words above. However, information began to leak out the following couple of days afterward that provided more of an understanding to everyone involved. Weeks later it became known through a report by the Connecticut State Department of Education’s report that special education law had been broken on numerous occasions during the 2012-13 school year under the direction of Special Education and Services Director Deirdre Osypuk. As Superintendent of Schools, Falcone was responsible for overseeing all actions, including those taken by the Special Education and Services. Falcone had been a victim of harsh criticism from parents for being ignorant to the special education law. It is believed that Falcone’s resignation was his response to the harsh criticism.

Since October the Darien Board of Education has been forced to work without a surefire leader. In November Lynne Pierson was brought in as Interim Superintendent of Schools, but the town will not be able to rest until a permanent decision is made. In December the Darien Board of Education hired  the New England School Development Council to assist in the search for a new Superintendent. The search committee claimed the search would take approximately 120 days. However, earlier this month the Board announced that the search would be extended. Interim Superintendent Pierson will now likely remain chief of schools until June 2015, as the window for attracting top candidates for the 2014-2015 school year has closed.

In 2010, the town of Darien was confident that it had found the man who would lead its public schools triumphantly for decades to come. Now just four years later, the town anxiously waits for a new leader, unsure of what exactly the future of its education system holds.

A Glimpse Into China’s Game-Plan?

The surge of China’s economy in recent years has presented the nation with a position of power. However, China hasn’t made any major moves to use this power globally, until yesterday, when plans to construct a railway line in East Africa were finalized and signed. Funded primarily by China (they’re footing 90% of the $3.8 billion bill with Kenya covering the remainder), the project will replace and extend an existing line built while under British colonial rule. Construction of the first stretch by a Chinese firm connecting Mombasa and Nairobi (two Kenyan cities) is projected to be completed in early 2018. When finished, subsequent links to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan will begin to be built. The railway will be a huge advancement in infrastructure for East Africa, offering the countries there an opportunity to become more unified and cut the cost of transporting people and goods. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang described it as

“…a major undertaking that will boost the connectivity and integration of the East African sub region.”

The cooperation between these nations holds a handful of potential implications. First, it seems as though Africa may be ready to turn over a new leaf and depart from the chaos it has been stuck in since European colonization. This project is the largest Kenya has undertaken since its colonial period and could signify the beginning of a trend of self-development throughout Africa. Second, it is important to note China’s involvement with this project appears to demonstrate that China is interested in giving aid abroad to develop a mutually beneficial relationships with other nations. To get an idea of the breadth of the type of relationship being established, we can look to a statement by the president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, from his speech at the signing of the agreement.

“Premier Li identified five areas in which China and Africa could enhance their cooperation – in industry, in finance, in poverty reduction, in ecological protection, in people to people exchanges – and crucially, he also identified peace and security as a core concern for relations between Africa and China in years to come.”

His words show that this is no shallow affair. China is looking to go beyond this infrastructure project and create something longterm.  This could be very significant in terms of how China behaves in the future. Could this be the start of China becoming a more globally involved benefactor?

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27368877

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-11/china-to-finance-railway-line-connecting-east-african-cities.html

 

The Vagina Monologues on Campus

Over the last weekend of April, St. Olaf’s Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) organized two performances of Eve Ensler’s episodic play, The Vagina Monologues. The show is made up of monologues that deal with a different aspect of the feminine experience and what it means to be a woman. Throughout its life, the play has grown in size as Ensler collects more and more monologues. The monologues are based on interviews of over 200 women that Ensler conducted and then compiled into what is performed today. Some of the monologues are funny, some are tender, horrifying, and some are politically incorrect. Since its first staging in 1996, it has been translated into more than 45 languages, performed in over 120 countries, and most recently, has been re-created as an HBO film.

This was the third time that I went to see the Vagina Monologues at St. Olaf and I was really impressed by this year’s cast. Having read the book with the monologues that are usually performed at St. Olaf, I am fairly familiar with the texts and different performances of each monologue. Of all of the times I have seen the show, I would have to say that this year’s cast was the strongest cast so far. I could tell that each actress had taken to heart the meaning of their monologue and allowed themselves to live within that idea to share it with the audience. My one critique of this year’s show was that there were some awkward music cues between each monologue (the music came on right away after a monologue was finished, sometimes cutting off the final word) which detracted from the final delivery of the monologue and didn’t allow for the meaning of each monologue to sink in.

This is really one of the best things on campus to be involved in. Not only does it bring awareness to global women’s issues (struggles with body image and sexuality, domestic violence, rape, and female genital mutilation, to name a few) but it proceeds from the St. Olaf show go to support different women’s issues. This year, the GSC organized for the proceeds from ticket sales to go to the Hope Center in Faribault, which is a support center for victims and survivors of domestic violence. Tickets were $3 pre-sale and $5 at the door. They hold auditions for each production in the spring about two months before the performance weekend.

The success of The Vagina Monologues has allowed Ensler to create V-Day, which is a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. The movement has so far raised $85 million to prevent violence against women and protect those who have been abused. Since The Vagina Monologues, some of Ensler’s other projects have been released/premiered, including The Good Body, a play that deals with women’s obsessions with their appearance, and a film What I Want My Words to Do to You. Her latest play, I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World (2011), hit the New York Times bestseller list and has garnered several performances in Europe. She has also been a featured speaker several times on TED.

There are several elements of the production that critics continue to object to, including:

  • The amount of attention given to brutal, non-consensual sexual encounters compared to those that are consensual
  • Negative portrayal of heterosexual relationships
  • In “The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could”, an underage girl recounts having been given alcohol and then having sex with an adult woman––her female abuser is portrayed positively as someone “rescuing” her from the sexually abusive men of her past (why is it that sexual abuse conducted by women is overlooked as being bad?)
  • The monologues are not representative of the experience of all women (Eg. In 2004, Ensler worked with Jane Fonda and Deep Stealth Productions to produce the first all-transgender performance of The Vagina Monologues, which included a new monologue documenting the experiences of transgender women).
  • Individualist feminist Wendy McElroy stated that the play “equates men with ‘the enemy’ [and] heterosexual love with violence” and identifies the work’s inclusion of lesbian viewpoints as problematic, stating that “A play that claims to unveil the truth about vaginas but, somehow, overlooks the salutary role men play in most women’s sexuality has no credibility.”

What do you think about the function of this piece? Do you think that because it does not completely represent the experiences of all women that it should not be performed, or should it still be performed with a disclaimer at the beginning? Should it still be performed even though some of the monologues are politically incorrect or biased?

SOEMT: Over a Decade of Saving Drunk College Students

This past Friday, I had my first meeting with the St. Olaf EMT club and discovered some interesting information about the way the club functions as a non-profit organization on campus.  After reviewing our mission statement, we got into the nitty-gritty stuff and discussed available equipment and funding.  As an in-training EMT (I have my test on Saturday), I constantly have lots of equipment available, from heavy oxygen tanks to various occlusive dressings and medications.  As a result, when I peered into the superficially similar bag, I was shocked at the sparse pickings.  A lonely pulse-oximeter sat sprawled next to a lonely sphygmomanometer and tiny patient assessment tags were haphazardly strewn about the bag.  As I continued my assessment and chatted with the other members, I realized the powerlessness of SOEMT.  In training, we are trained as fully-trained EMTs, but in SOEMT, we are demoted to First Responder level.  We have no medications, no transportation, and no oxygen until PubSafe shows up.  As emergency medical personnel, we are fairly helpless.

For those of you who do not know, SOEMT is a club that provides free EMT-level emergency medical assistance on the St. Olaf campus. SOEMT2013rs Any funding we get from St. Olaf is immediately funneled into uniforms or equipment, but it does not go very far because medical equipment is EXPENSIVE.  The majority of the calls we respond to are drunken college students, despite being a “dry campus”. Drunk As such, most members are conditioned to expect the expected.  Oxygen, airway suctioning, blanket.  But what happens when there is a real trauma or medical problem?  Although we are trained to respond efficiently, we are not conditioned to expect serious complications.  As an individual in emergency medicine, I find that fact concerning.  Because, really, what happens when a student gets physically assaulted and gets a serious traumatic wound?  With no serious bandages, we cannot fix integral respiratory issues such as flail segments and with little funding, we cannot obtain valuable medical tools to perform efficiently.  Although I am very grateful to get the opportunity to work with SOEMT, I do have concerns about our effectiveness.  We cannot change the patient population, but we can have the equipment ready to respond to actual issues.  On a campus of 3,000 students, we have no triage tags or trauma dressings.  So what happens when a college student cracks under the stress and has a shooting spree.  As a SOEMT, the best I can do is call for help.

American Theater and Ola

With the year coming to a close, I find myself looking back. It should be no surprise that part of this reflection  involves the myriad shows and performances put on on campus this year, but  it did inspire a question in my mind. Why do we pick the shows we perform? Do we weigh so heavily toward American artists because we are an American school? With this in mind, I talked to a few directors and faculty about their choices.

Almost unanimously, the answer was “best fit.” Though interest and/or challenge play some role, every person I spoke to cited the campus atmosphere as the number one influencing factor. Natalia Romero, music director for 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee said she chose the show because she felt it would resonate well with the student body, and that the messages within would be felt and appreciated right now. She also mentioned how she thought that another important consideration for the show would be the actors. Different shows might required a different crop of actors currently active at St. Olaf.

At St. Olaf, the majority of shows put on by the theater department are either classical plays, or written by American authors. When you take into account the reasons behind show choice, that leaves us with this: That St. Olaf is apparently in dire need of American theater themes right now! All joking aside, it makes sense that on a campus such as ours, it’s American themes that resonate with us. Like it or not, we’re middle America, but that can’t stop us from both appreciating, and criticizing that culture through the lens of theater.

Will the CIA Finally Be Held Accountable?

Early last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to make public a report detailing the findings of a study on the interrogation and detention program of the CIA. Implemented sometime after 9/11, the program involved water-boarding and other harsh techniques used against suspected terrorists. The study was prompted by news reports that made the committee aware of the destruction of a handful of CIA interrogation tapes. It eventually was expanded to investigate the interrogation program in its entirety.

The report concluded that there was minimal meaningful intelligence obtained from the program’s tactics. The unsettling findings didn’t stop there, however. The council also discovered that the CIA provided false information about the success and severity of its practices to government officials, including the president, security council, and Congress. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), chairman of the committee, shared these comments concerning the study:

“The purpose of this review was to uncover the facts behind this secret program, and the results were shocking. The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen.”

In order to ensure that the practice of such appalling methods by the agency is permanently halted, the document must now be approved by the president and the CIA itself. Obama has expressed his support for the release of the findings to the public. However, it may be months for the report to complete the declassification process because the CIA has been been presented with quite a problematic decision.

Although the agency has acknowledged that the program had its drawbacks, there are many risks involved in allowing the findings to be made public. Some CIA officials desire to defend the program, believing in the effectiveness of the tactics used. Caution is more than necessary if they the agency takes this route, for their relationship with Congress is already on the rocks. Critiquing the document too harshly could produce many negative political repercussions for the CIA.

Recalling the discussion we had in class about past CIA involvement in coups, this would be the first time in history that potentially concrete evidence was presented to convict the CIA of their unethical measures. If the CIA does choose to allow the declassification of the report, the American public will be able to judge the evidence and conclusions, giving it the chance to develop its own opinion.

The significance of this event would then be left up to us. Would we, as Americans, be able to admit to our mistakes? It’s time to put our narcissism and our hypocrisy behind us and finally become a nation that is truly an advocate of justice.

Affirmative Action?

I recently went to a lecture by Dr. Liliana Garces, from Pennsylvania State University on the implications that the 2013 Supreme Court decision Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin has had on American post-secondary institutions.

Abigail Fisher had applied to the University of Texas and was rejected. Fisher, who is white, filed a lawsuit that argued that she had been victim to racial discrimination because minorities with less impressive credentials had been accepted. Students argued that race should not be used in the admissions process if there are other race-neutral ways the institution could effectively obtain diversity. The court decided that “race-neutral” forms of obtaining diversity such as the top 10% plan were not sufficient in maintaining and increasing the school’s diversity. The court didn’t upturn Affirmative Action, but did decide that Affirmative Action programs in institutions must be under ‘strict scrutiny’ and that schools must effectively document their need to use race as an admissions factor. They will need to prove that there are no other means for obtaining race diversity in a community.

Dr. Garces spoke about the importance of looking at the intent of Affirmative Action programs. She talked about the importance of diversity to learning communities because it increases critical thinking, civic engagement and decreases prejudices. Diversity is important to preventing the harms that come from racial separation like stereotypes. Garces feels that these policies need to be in place in order for there to be diversity. She talked about how it is difficult to entirely separate race from the admissions process. Even without Affirmative Action, the Top 10% plan and “race-blind” application processes, which are attempts to remove race as a factor are still rooted in race issues and still allow universities to consider race in admissions.

In her lecture, Garces talked about some of her issues with the color-blind framework. People often consider classifying people on the basis of race as negative, but she says that it can be important to opening up the topic for discussion. Race often operates at a sub-conscious level and to Garces, identifying race can allow us to see the difference between the things that are law and what is happening in our social reality.  People often feel underpowered when talking about race out of fear that talking about race makes you racist. I think that it is important for people to feel comfortable talking about these issues.

Affirmative Action might not be the only tool for combatting the actual issues here. Numbers are important, but it goes beyond just admissions.  It is important to look at how race is affecting our everyday interactions. What kinds of experiences are people having and how do we use these as a way to learn how to better have an inclusive community? I wonder what ways we can take initiative within St. Olaf to make race an issue that we attempt to overcome and to make it part of our everyday discussions. I think that events like AuthenticOles are a good way to make people aware and are positive first steps in this process. Getting people engaged in the discussion about race would be positive for all of us.

Enough!

 

Recently, St. Olaf was mentioned in a New York Times article! But sadly, not for the right reasons.

Microaggression has been most commonly defined by Columbia professor Derald Sue as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Sadly, our campus has seen many instances of microaggression this past year. Allison’s post brought up the incident that happened on Cinco de Mayo, so I won’t go into that one,  but what about the other instances that have gone around relatively unaddressed?

The problem here at Olaf isn’t necessarily a lack of care, but rather one of action. There have been a few important student movements around campus, such as the Enough! campaign, and this week’s AuthenticOles.

Enough! describes their movement on their Facebook page as:

We are a group of concerned, committed students and allies ready to take action on campus in response to the reoccurring hate crimes that have hurt and marginalized a significant portion of the St. Olaf community. Change MUST happen – we will make it.

Their letter to President David Anderson called for an end to these circumstances on campus, with specific and upsetting occurrences from this past year:

  The phrase “What’s up with all the niggers?” written on a poster in Rand residence hall

The vandalism of the Sexual Assault Resource Network’s hallway in which the “not” sign from a series of posters reading “Rape, that’s not funny.” was torn down three separate times

The manipulation of an Oles for Justice in Palestine informational poster which read “Death in Gaza” to read “Death TO Gaza”

The theft of two Palestinian flags from the Oles for Justice in Palestine awareness hallway

The recurring theft of rainbow flags from the St. Olaf Queer Support and Outreach honor houseAnd lastly, all of the incidents and micro-aggressions that go unreported on a daily basis.

PDA’s response wasn’t very helpful. He addressed the problem only by acknowledging there was one, and reminded students of the school mission statement.

We have an opportunity and obligation to re-affirm our values, to re-assert our expectations of one another, and to re-examine the practices and programs with which we teach and reinforce those values and expectations.

The AuthenticOles movement had Story Telling, where they wanted to get fellow Oles to share their experiences here. “If you are a person of color, queer, low-income, struggling with body image or a mental illness, you have a story. If you are none of those but want to know more you are invited, too. Let’s stand together in solidarity, Oles. We are AuthenticOles.” Cynthia Zapata, a student involved with the group, explained what the purpose and goal are:

Authentic Oles was based on stories. We, as Oles, are not able to fit the mold that has been made by the structure, but so many people think that we do. Our whole idea was to have a conversation, to give a safe place for students to tell their stories. If people know that the reality they perceive is not actually what is, they can no longer ignore it. People have been “unveiled.”

This is a institutional problem. And administration and students keep throwing band-aids on it when the problem isn’t a wound, it’s a broken bone. Authentic Oles was not about fixing this. The first step in fixing the structure is to fight ignorance with knowledge. When people are aware of the structure and how they play as agents in it, they can become more active in changing it.

St. Olaf is supposed to be  accepting and a place of welcoming. The population here is inspiring, talented, overachieving, and intelligent. So why do we keep having the same conversation? The students here don’t seem like the type to be disrespectful and so insensitive, yet that’s where we are. Am I missing something here? With so many steps to encourage students to get involved and take a stand, why do these incidents still happen? I thought St. Olaf would have been better at responding to these events, and that administration would give some more concrete answers as opposed to vague statements. Hopefully these microaggressions will stop with the coming year, or maybe we just have to learn how to become for active for different voices. 

Examples of Microaggression:

http://stolafmicroaggressions.tumblr.com/

http://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/racial-microagressions-you-hear-on-a-daily-basis

Revenge of the Lawn

“The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but you still have to mow it.” – anonymous

the-great-lawn

Green as far as the eye can see, stretching off into the horizon, a hazy blur, the sweet smell of wet earth and fresh cut grass, and the sound of accompanying sneezes. This is one of the defining images of the American dream, the lawn, man’s own little patch of paradise to manage. Mark Dery, a freelance journalist and the author of this article, describes the lawn as “suburbia’s shrine to private property and naked self-interest” where “the Lord of the Manor is free to indulge his control-freak tendencies to the fullest, weed-whacking the specters of social chaos into submission, working out his personal issues, as we like to say, with mower and leaf-blower”. In our class, we have discussed the significance of the suburban Levittown home in the American dream. One of the images that accompanies this dream is the moat of green grass surrounded by a white picket fence. In this article, Dery discusses the significance of the lawn in the American dream, its origins in the stately acres maintained by those in the upper classes, the many difficult ways in which we work against the nature to maintain our suburban paradise, and so on. He delves into the cultural myth that is the lawn, exploring its greater significance in the American mythos.

images

http://boingboing.net/2014/05/07/the-revenge-of-the-lawn.html

Box-Out: A Lesson in Sensitivity

At St. Olaf, we live in a world that is very sheltered and very privileged. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can occasionally lead to the creation an inadvertent insensitivity toward certain serious issues. An example of this insensitivity was seen in Habitat for Humanity’s recently canceled “Box-out” event. The event was planned to feature campus bands as well as a competition to see who could create the most “creative” box structure. What they failed to realize during planning however, was how offensive this “box-out” would turn out to be.  The purpose of the event, according to an apologetic email sent by Habitat executive members, was to “raise awareness about an issue that is often overlooked by society and the St. Olaf community and help create a productive and meaningful discussion.”

However, by asking students to build the most creative structure, the exec board carelessly made two giant mistakes. First of all, it inadvertently indicated that all those who were homeless lived in boxes. Though I am aware that this wasn’t in any way Habitat’s intention, the proposed event appeared to be a gross misrepresentation and trivialization of a worldwide epidemic. Secondly, this contest really belittled the issue by turning a serious issue into a fun, light game. As one student put it: “It was like they were saying, ‘come have fun and be homeless for a night, it’ll be great.’”

Though I ultimately do not believe that habitat should have had to talk to the dean, the president, and the provost about the event, I do think that the backlash from it was an important lesson in sensitivity for the student body. No matter how you color it, St. Olaf students live in a bubble. As a result of this Ole bubble, it can be very easy to find yourself separated from the world around you. The fact that no one in habitat recognized the offensive nature of this event demonstrates this perfectly. Their goal to raise awareness was great but they were simply so far removed from the issue at the time that they couldn’t see that they were going about achieving that goal the wrong way. Hopefully, in the future, students will think a little bit more about the implications their events before putting them in motion.