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.

What to Make of the Passing of Fred Phelps?

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Whenever death occurs, it is standard for anyone associated with the deceased to pay their respects to the individual. This often includes remembering the deceased individual’s redeeming qualities and accomplishments during their lifetime.

But what happens when the deceased is seen as a villain, notorious for causing pain and suffering to so many people?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwKMuGrKPqM

This question will undoubtedly be discussed frequently the next couple of days. Fred Phelps, the founder of one of the most controversial churches in the world, the Westboro Baptist Church, passed away at the age of 84 in Kansas late Wednesday night.  His death comes merely days after one of his estranged children posted on Facebook (on March 15) that Phelps was “on the edge of death.”

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded by Fred Phelps in 1955. Over the years the group, based in Topeka, Kansas, has become infamous for their anti-gay propaganda and picketing of funerals.

Now that Phelps has passed, the question of how we should respond remains. Responses to Phelps’ death are just beginning to come in due to it being barely 24 hours since his passing. Sarah Plake of WIBW 13, a news station in Topeka, has already begun trying to gage the reaction locally (see here). Some people have tried to respond positively, making light of a bad situation. Plake gives an example of this through her interview with Davis Hammet, a member of the local tolerance group Planting Peace:

“We’re all saddened by [Fred’s] passing. It’s another human life gone, he’s a family man and it’s unfortunate. Although we have stark disagreements with the foundations of WBC, it’s still unfortunate that they lost a loved one.”

Hammet said the best reaction to Phelps’ death is love.

“Even if we have disagreements we have to get over it and see the higher purpose of respecting each other.”

Hammet is a great example of someone who, while acknowledging the controversial being that Phelps was, still is trying to be respectful out of the goodness of his heart.

The other responses out there could not be further from Hammet’s respectful attitude. Plake also brings these perspectives to light:

Topeka resident Linda Bierley brought pins that displayed an X’d out “Fred” on them to pass out.

“Fred has been around for a long time and he has just been such an evil-spirited man and caused so much harm and pain to families that didn’t deserve it.”

As you can see, so far the American public is struggling with the right way to react to Fred Phelps’ death. While many feel a celebration is in order, others want to still remain respectful to the deceased. Perhaps Mayor of Topeka Larry Wolgast can provide us with insight on the proper way to respond. In a statement released on Thursday, Wolgast says:

I believe we should respect the Phelps family’s right to mourn their loss at this time.  Topeka is a strong and vibrant city that will continue to move forward, past destructive hate and intolerance, as a city of compassion and acceptance.  We must continue to respect and value each individual.

I really think Wolgast is onto something here. While the Mayor acknowledges the powerful hate shown by the late Phelps, he also reminds everyone to respect the Phelps family’s right to mourn him.

Wednesday night marks the passing of an influential human being, for better or for worse, to American history. No matter how you feel about Fred Phelps, be sure to remember that this is a human being, no matter how good or bad, that has passed away. As long as you keep this in mind, you can react however you wish.

Sports’ Long-Overdue Push Forward

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The Brooklyn Nets’ 108-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday night was an impressive road win. However, this tilt between the Nets and Lakers was about so much more than the game of basketball.

At the 10:28 mark in the 2nd quarter, Jason Collins made history:

On Sunday February 23, 2014, Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the four major American professional sports (football, baseball, hockey, and basketball).

On Saturday February 22nd, 2014, minus basketball geeks (AKA yours truly), the general American population had never even heard of Jason Collins. By signing a ten-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets the next day and suiting up against the Lakers later that night, Collins certainly changed that. Within the past week, Collin’s historic move has taken the world by storm. He has received praise from practically every big name, right up to President Obama. And earlier this week, after releasing “Jason Collins” jerseys immediately following his game against the Lakers, the National Basketball Association announced that since then Collins has had the bestselling jersey in the entire NBA in terms of both physical and online sales. Let that sink in for a second: in the past week, the jersey of a thirty-five year-old journeyman who was signed to just a ten-day contract has been more popular that those of stars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant.

Jason Collins’ debut with the Brooklyn Nets last Sunday night was a victory for American society. However, when thinking about this development it is also important to consider the context in which it comes. New York Post writer Tim Bontemps analyses the timing of this major development in an article (which you can check out here) he wrote following an interview with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Silver’s reaction to Jason Collins’ signing leaves one to think:

“I have mixed feelings, because I’m enormously proud that the first openly gay player is playing in the NBA,” Silver told The Post in a phone interview prior to Sunday’s game. “On the other hand, this is so long overdue that I don’t think this should necessarily be on the list of the greatest accomplishments of the NBA.”

While Silver acknowledges the obvious need for celebration of this milestone, he reminds us to keep this event in perspective.

“This is an area where no one in sports should be too proud. Sports has led society in so many critical areas … this is one where we fell behind.”

Silver argues that sports have fallen behind the eight-ball on controversial topics such as gay rights. This is the exact opposite of how things used to be in the early twentieth century. Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball in 1947 was one of the key events that inspired the Civil Rights Movement. At that point in time, sports set the example for the rest of the nation to follow. However at some point in time, that changed. In a society that has come to know and love gay politicians, musicians, and actors, sports is still the one medium that has yet to fully embrace people who are attracted to members of the same sex. When Jason Collins publicly announced he was gay in April 2013 through an interview with Sports Illustrated, the American public immediately began to question whether a gay athlete would be accepted in a locker room. The outpouring support for Collins by his fellow players and ex-teammates put that question to rest, although questions still remain.

February 23, 2014 was a historic day in sports, as well as American society. After years of falling behind the rest of our country, sports finally took a big step in the right direction. All the professional sports community needed was a little push. And Jason Collins provided that push.