Family sues school officials for allegedly failing to stop bullying that led to son’s suicide

A civil jury in Saratoga County, New York is considering whether officials at Oliver W. Winch Middle School and South Glen Falls school district is liable for the suicide of a 13-year-old student who was relentlessly bullied.

Jacobe Taras wrote his family a note before he took his own life with a shotgun on April 12, 2015, the Albany Times Union reports.

“I’m sorry but I can not live anymore,” Taras wrote. “I just can’t deal with all of the bullies, being called gay, (expletive), being told to go kill myself. I’m also done with being pushed, punched, tripped. I’m sorry for all that I put you through. I love you.”

The boy’s parents were stunned to learn the seventh-grader was relentlessly tormented at school on a daily basis with anti-gay slurs, shoves, and other attacks from his classmates. In one incident, his books were thrown into a shower, according to the news site.

The Taras family sued the district for failing to intervene, alleging school administrators and teachers were aware of the abuse and failed to act.

“They knew,” Christine Taras, the boy’s mother, told the Times Union in 2016. “Everybody know the bullying was going on. But it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re just being kids.’ That’s the school’s attitude. No. We’re sending our kids to school thinking they’re gonna be safe but it’s no longer a place to learn, it’s a place to fear.”

The district’s attorney, Malcolm B. O’Hara told the news site alleges school officials “did not cause or contribute to Jacobe’s death.”

A civil trial, overseen by state Supreme Court Justice Ann Crowell, will ultimately determine whether that’s the case or not, and opening arguments started this week. The district’s board of education, Principal Mark Fish, school counselor Terri Brown, gym teacher Jason Spector and teacher Susan Lieberman are named in the lawsuit.

Crowell rejected the district’s attempt to dismiss the case in April. Her ruling shows at least one student collaborates claims school officials were aware of the bullying, the Times Union reports.

In spite of what moral development researchers have been saying for some time, administrators often view school culture as a luxury not a necessity. James Davison Hunter warns, “What one can say with certainty is that America in the twentieth century witnessed a profound transformation in its moral culture and this transformation has significant consequences for the moral socialization of the young” (The Death of Character, p. 80). This will all change in an instant if administrators are held legally liable for their school’s culture. This case bears close attention.

According to the UK’s The Jubilee Centre the following quote outlines the rationale why character education is so important for schools to adopt.  To quote The Jubilee Centre, “Many school administrators are realizing character education, once thought of as an intrusion on the school day, can actually help students perform better. A growing body of research supports its effectiveness, and educators say they’ve seen a difference in students when positive value lessons become part of the school’s culture.

“Good character education is good education,” said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“If kids come to schools where they feel valued, safe, and feel teachers have their best interests at heart, . they commit themselves,” said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They work harder, there are fewer distractions, and kids are more motivated. Of course they learn more.”  A culture in which students feel safe would be one in which a student would not be bullied for any reason.  More information on The Jubilee Centre’s rationale for teaching character in schools is available here.

San Jose high schoolers witness principal become U.S. citizen in ceremony at school

San Jose High School students recently got a first-hand look at what it’s like to become an American citizen when their principal took the Oath of Allegiance during a ceremony held in the school’s gymnasium.

“I don’t think I can hold back my tears,” principal Gloria Marchant told about 100 students, teachers, family and other community members who attended the May 22 ceremony. “Becoming an American citizen has been one of my goals since I decided to make a life here in San Jose.”

For the 44-year-old principal and eight others immigrants who participated, it was a long road to citizenship from their home countries of Mexico, India, the Philippines and Canada. Marchant was born in Chile and moved to Canada when she was in eighth grade. She lived and learned English there for 11 years before a trip to San Francisco convinced her to move to the United States, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

She landed a bilingual teaching job at San Jose Unified School District, which sponsored her work visa, and she went to work, both at school and in her mission to become a citizen.

“Someone saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself,” the principal said.

The brief ceremony involved would-be citizens taking an Oath of Allegiance, the national anthem sung by sophomore Nathan Luong, and the Pledge of Allegiance, led by student Catherine Martinez. It concluded with a video recording of President Trump congratulating the new citizens, according to the news site.

San Jose High junior Robert Gamble said he was proud to see his principal become a citizen.

“I would not be where I am without her guidance,” he said. “I wanted to come here to support her, because of all that she’s taught me.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office director James Wyrough, who officiated the ceremony, said the events held in schools are “always especially meaningful,” and Marchant jumped at the chance to bring the experience to her school.

“Many of the students are on the path to citizenship themselves, and it’s a long journey,” she said. “That makes it really meaningful.”

Almost one out of four (23 percent) public school students in the United States came from an immigrant household in 2015. Between a fourth and a third of these students are offspring of illegal immigrants. So seeing someone respected within their community complete a legal path to citizenship is a powerful civic lesson. James Hunter and Ryan Olson write in The Content of Their Character, “The importance of modeling the good is especially important in the public schools because explicit moral teaching is (or is perceived to be) fraught with disagreement, controversy, or legal challenges” (p. 285). Many more naturalization ceremonies should be held in public schools.

Developing young people as good citizens is a primary responsibility of teachers and in doing this teachers work to ensure their students become good people despite the negative influences they face in society, in the media and perhaps, even from their very neighborhood.  Teaching students about citizenship and the responsibilities of being an American citizen should be of paramount importance when discussing the responsibilities and benefits of being a citizen.  A support for teachers in teaching their students to be good people may be found at the UK’s The Jubilee Centre here.

New York state high-schoolers visit with elementary students for talks about developing good character

Students at Le Roy Junior-Senior High School are helping younger students in Batavia, New York to “Believe In” developing good character, a new program aimed at strengthening the bond between schools while encouraging positive behavior.

In mid-May, the entire student body at Le Roy traveled to Wolcott Street Elementary School, where students partnered with youngsters to talk about why it’s important to display good character, The Batavian reports.

“The Jr.-Sr. High School divided the school into 30 teams that each connected with an elementary class. Each team had a student leader who facilitated the group through an introduction and a discussion around our ‘Believe In …’ visual, which listed key character traits and behaviors (Believe In … doing the right thing, kindness, honesty, acceptace, helping others, teamwork, being brave, dreaming big, and yourself),” according to a release from school officials.

“The students participated in sharing why, when, and how they show these qualities on a daily basis. Then students paired up and created their own ‘Believe’ rock, listing their chosen top character quality along with a picture.”

Public schools are often wary of talking specifically about moral behavior. Here by letting students take the lead, the why, when, and how of moral behavior are all discussed. This particularity is commendable. James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, counsels, “There have never been ‘generic’ values of the sort that typical moral education programs pursue. No one has ever believed in kindness or honesty without understanding them in the concrete circumstances of a moral culture embedded in a moral community” (The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, p. 59). The candor by which students are discussing moral traits, the contextualizing of these behaviors, and then making them “cool” is all very commendable.

The groups shared their rocks and discussed why they chose the particular character quality. The rocks were then put on display at both schools. The meeting followed up on other work between the schools, including posters elementary students decorated for the high school and a video of a “Believe” song recorded by the elementary school students and edited by the high-schoolers that was screened at the recent get-together.

The collaboration was coordinated by the elementary school’s Emerging Knights student leadership team, as well as administrators and character education teams at both schools.

“We cannot thank our students, staff and transportation team enough for their participation and making this district-wide event such a huge success!” officials wrote.

“The event was the first of its kind at our district and was a powerful moment for everyone involved,” school officials wrote. “The elementary teachers had a chance to see their old students come back to their classrooms, and the interaction between younger and older students was incredible.”

Teachers working to strengthen moral and citizenship formation in their students may find the UK’s The Jubilee Centre offers “The Knightly Virtues Programme” which is worthwhile to review for assistance on how to instill virtue in students using books students love to read.  The Knightly Virtues Programme is designed to enhance virtue literacy through stories, has been incredibly popular with both teachers and students.  So far, over 20,000 primary school pupils have had access to the programme, making it one of the largest projects of its kind. The research project has now concluded, and the full report is available here.

Welding students step up with donations to help veterans improve park, visit Washington, D.C.

Randy Ark, an advocate for military veterans in Springfield, Ohio, is commending local welding students for supporting the men and women in uniform who fought for the freedoms we have as Americans.

Students with the Clark Career Technology Center donated $1,000 earned from a recent Welding Rodeo to renovate Clark County Veteran’s Memorial Park and send veterans to Washington, D.C. to tour national memorials in their honor, the Springfield News-Sun reports.

Students raised a total of $3,600 by selling unique structures made from scrap metal at the Rodeo, and donated $500 each to the park and Honor Flight Dayton, a nonprofit that takes veterans and their families and caregivers to the nation’s capital.

Ark told the news site the donations are a big deal, for several reasons.

“One is to getting the money for the park, which we need, and two is the attitude of these young students,” he said, adding that it’s the second time in the last few years students have donated a portion of their profits.

Ark said local veterans are raising $380,000 to finish a memorial at the park that will feature a Vietnam area, stage, benches, and an arbor with vegetation. Funds will also pay for landscaping and engravings on the monuments, the Sun-News reports.

Al Bailey, with Honor Flight Dayton, told the news site the students’ $500 donation is enough to send at least one veteran to D.C.

“To send a veteran back to D.C. to see the memorials is $500, so we’re doing whatever we can to raise that kind of money,” he said.

Junior Zack Parcels said he was happy to put his welding skills to good use by creating a derby bike that sold at the rodeo for $50.

“It feels good just to know that the things that we can make out of nothing can sell to help the community,” he said.

Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture stress the importance of developing spheres of moral obligation. It is here where one develops a sense of responsibility for and ownership of something larger than oneself. Rural schools, their research found, are particularly strong in fostering these connections, with immigration, religion, and military being the top three. Great teachers, they write, “In addition to building greater knowledge of cultures and societies outside of the US, were aiming primarily to build social-perspective taking, empathy and general critical thinking skills” (The Content of Their Character, p. 63).

Fostering empathy, social-perspective taking and general critical thinking takes talent and skill on the part of teachers and this type of work is very challenging for educators.  To gain support to do this work teachers will benefit from the strategies offered by the UK’s The Jubilee Centre.  In particular, teachers will find information to strengthen character formation here.

Kentucky high schoolers renovate historic school for senior service project

Seniors at Newport High School are connecting with their community while fulfilling their service project graduation requirement by renovating the city’s historic Southgate School to prep for a new Newport History Museum.

“All these students live in Newport, and so they’re all doing work that will benefit the city they live in,” media arts teacher Bonnie Stacey told the Northern Kentucky Tribune. “This is a unique experience that offers a different kind of learning.”

Students learned about the historical significance of the school, which was originally built for black students only. Some students hauled furniture from the basement of the building, or cleaned off steps, while others worked on painting a fence in front of the building and finishing floors.

Some students also worked on landscaping the site, and hauling away junk.

“I’m hoping to help the community, and help restore everything for the museum,” senior Jordan Peoples said.

After the hard work, students are tasked with reflecting on what they learned and sharing it with district officials.

James Davison Hunter, author of The Death of Character, underscores the value of such activities. “It is through experience that students participate in moral community and practice moral action…. Experience is always a precursor to the possession of character and practical wisdom (p. 113). It is almost a cliché that experience is the best teacher.

“Every single one of the students will go and speak to the Board of Education about their experiences here today,” Stacey told the news site.

Senior Mercedes McCullah said she was unaware of the school’s history until she started work at the building.

“I knew what the building was because I would always see it when I would go to 4th Street,” the teen said as she painted the fence. “But working and being involved in the community, it just makes you feel good.”

Classmate Kiara Wheeler is already looking forward to when all of the hard work pays off.

“One day we’ll take our children here and we’ll tell them we helped make that,” she said.

One of the challenges of being a teacher is trying to instill in young people a sense of obligation to others than just the self.

The UK’s The Jubilee Centre  has a useful paper about teaching students to serve others and not just themselves. The paper, can be found at The Jubilee Centre for Character and Values Portal.

TN student recognized for taking initiative to replace school’s tattered American flag

Johnson County Middle School student Andrew Reece takes Flag Duty seriously, and his dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Two years ago, Reece agreed to raise the American flag at his school every morning and lower and fold it each afternoon, with the help of Flag Duty teammate Donnie Curd. It’s an exercise designed as an opportunity for students to demonstrate responsibility and citizenship.

So when the 13-year-olds noticed the school’s flag was in tatters, Reece decided to take action, The Tomahawk reports.

“I was lowering our flag, and I saw that it was ripped and felt that we needed to have a new one,” he told the news site. “I decided to write a letter and ask our state representative if we could get a new flag.”

Tennessee state Rep. Timothy Hill got the message, and he was so impressed by Reece’s diligence that he delivered a new flag in person earlier this month. He also presented Reece with a letter recognizing his efforts and a state flag that “was actually flown over the state Capitol,” Hill said.

This Andrew’s initiative is a timely reminder of the nature of morality. James Davison Hunter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, “Morality is a vision of moral goods shared by a community; the attitudes, aspirations, sensibilities, and dispositions that define its highest aspirations for itself, and how those moral goods find expression in every situation in daily life.” This action and the response of the state representative reflect these higher shared values.

“We do get a lot of calls for a flag, but this was different; something that we do not get often,” Hill said. “I really appreciated Andrew’s request and effort of personally writing to us, which demonstrated his commitment to his assignment and patriotism.”

After Hill presented the new flag, the boys proudly lowered the old one to replace it.

The old flag will now be retired according to The Flag Code, which requires a flag burning ceremony. Flag burning ceremonies are routinely conducted by most American Legion Posts, though many Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops retire flags, as well.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has a very interesting article, Living Within Reason, that outlines the thinking of Thomas Aquinas on cardinal virtues that people should acquire in order to live a good and just life.  Teachers and principals working to strengthen the moral and citizenship formation of their students could think about how they could incorporate the pursuit of these virtues as part of the daily experience of students.

‘Daughters of Worth’ nonprofit reaches out to engage, inspire young girls

North Carolina mother Liz Liles is making it her life’s mission to help young girls in her community.

Liles told The Daily Reflector she was adopted as a child and struggled during her youth with questions about why her birth mother gave her up, an insecurity that had a strong impact on her life and ultimately compelled her to reach out to young girls questioning their own worth.

“A lot of that deep-rooted insecurity stays with you, and it really begins to shape the way that you see the world,” she said. “Unless you really heal from those wounds, they just go with you.”

That realization became especially clear when Liles, a mother of two boys, moved back to North Carolina after a failed marriage. She accepted a job at The Salvation Army that put her in regular contact with young girls facing serious life traumas, including one girl who was gang raped, and another who fears for her life and sleeps with a knife under her pillow.

“That really opened my eyes to the needs that are here,” Liles said. “We don’t realize the depth of the need that’s in our own backyard.”

Especially when children feel abandoned by their parents, deep psychological deficits persist. Research shows the heightened importance here of adult examples, encouragement, and mentorship. Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture state that it is “far more poignant and influential” than merely classroom instruction (The Content of Their Character, p. 285).

The situation convinced Liles to create the nonprofit Daughters of Worth in 2015. With the help of volunteers, Liles created GLAM (Girls Living A Mission) groups at area elementary schools to mentor young girls. The GLAM Girls, which have steadily grown from about a dozen to roughly 90 girls, take field trips together and work to help groups like the Community Crossroads Center, a Greenville homeless shelter.

“We try to give them experiences they may not have had outside the group,” volunteer Alyssa Hardee said.

“I guess my experience of being a school counselor, seeing what some girls are up against, I just see so many of them struggling with not having positive interactions or role models,” she said. “I just thought it was really important to be someone who could make a difference.”

In more recent years, Liles has expanded the program to offer “Notes of Hope” for first- and second-grade girls to offer regular, positive affirmations, as well as “Grace Gifts,” which offers lessons about financial management and philanthropy. In total, the Daughters of Worth programs have reached about 300 girls.

Kelli Joyner, a counselor at H.B. Sugg Elementary, said many girls at her school have received the “Notes of Hope,” and it’s obvious Daughters of Worth is making a big impact.

“They tell me, ‘I have my other ones pinned up in my room,’” she said. “It means a lot to these girls.”

When teachers and principals think about how to motivate students who have suffered setbacks and adversity in their lives, there are lesson plans at the UK’s the Jubilee Centre. These lessons plans focus on flourishing from the margins and can be found here.

Love & Rigor Underlie Strong Culture and Character

A few days into our first year at Rocky Mountain Prep, I was walking through our office when one of our founding parents Sarah, pulled me aside. “You’ll never guess what my kindergartener told me over dinner last night,” Sarah shared. “We were halfway through dinner when she declared, ‘Mom, spinach isn’t my favorite, but I’m going to persevere.’ ”

Since that moment almost seven years ago, I am reminded daily of the power of our PEAK values – Perseverance, Excellence, Adventure, and Kindness – and the importance of supporting the character development of our students. Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP) is often recognized for our strong academic results: Our founding campus, RMP Creekside, was recently nominated as one of the three best elementary schools in the state as a Colorado Succeeds Prize finalist. For many of our parents, though, what they value the most about our program is our commitment to these PEAK values and how we encourage students to align their actions at school to both our community’s values and to their family’s and their personal values. This is one of the reasons our RMP: Southwest campus had the strongest parent satisfaction of any public school in Denver.

I’ve learned that two things help our PEAK values come to life for our scholars: leading with love and daily reflection.

Every great teacher I know builds a loving classroom culture to create what social science seems to rediscover all the time. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates the basic importance of both safety and belonging. Recently, Google discovered that the highest performing teams have strong psychological safety amongst the team members.

At RMP, in order to meet these needs, our teachers lead with love. We honor each student by learning what makes them unique, what they love, their backgrounds and stories. We ensure that every adult in our building knows our scholars’ names, and gives a big smile, high-five, hug or handshake when they meet in the classroom or hallways. Leading with love also means we challenge our scholars. When you love somebody, you hold them to high expectations.

Within the loving, safe environment at our schools, we create frequent opportunities for our students to reflect on how their behaviors align to our PEAK values. For example, to begin and end each day, our scholars have a community circle in their classrooms where they reflect on how they lived out our values, and where they could have done better. Last week, I heard a scholar demonstrate this with one of his teammates, sharing, “McKiya showed a lot of stamina and perseverance during our math mystery work by not getting frustrated when we got stuck and trying a bunch of new strategies.”

In addition to its effect on our scholar’s lives, this culture of love and reflection has impacted me as school leader directly. Three years ago at one of our campuses, five minutes into breakfast, a second-grader went over to his teacher and whispered, “Phil [name changed] isn’t showing kindness or excellence this morning. He told me he brought a weapon to school in his lunchbox.” The teacher immediately searched his backpack, found a knife, and was able to diffuse a potential nightmare scenario for our community.

While I can’t ever know if that student intended to cause harm, I do know that our culture of love and reflection is integral to our students’ achievement and growth as good, moral people.

Student born with no hands wins national handwriting contest

Chesapeake third grader Anaya Ellick had her sights set on winning the 2018 Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest for cursive, and the hard work payed off in May when she took home the trophy.

What makes the feat all the more amazing is Ellick was born without hands, WVEC reports.

“Anaya is a role mode to everyone,” said Sarah Cannaday, Ellick’s teacher at Greenbriar Christian Academy. “Her classmates see her and see her doing the same tasks they are and they are often amazed that she can do just as well as they do, sometimes even better.”

Ellick was honored with the Zaner-Bloser 2018 Nicholas Maxim Special Award for Excellence in Penmanship during a May 9 presentation with her teacher, parents, classmates and administrators at her school. The Nicholas Maxim Award is for students with cognitive delay or intellectual, physical or developmental disabilities.

A team of occupational therapists review entries and pick a winner. The annual award is part of the national Zaner-Bloser handwriting contest, which has recognized the outstanding penmanship of K-8 students nationwide for more than three decades, according to the news site.

Ellick, a soft-spoken and humble 9-year-old, said her key to success is simply not giving up, despite some who doubted her ability. She won a similar handwriting contest for printing two years ago.

“People said I could not do it,” she said. “I would tell them I could do it.”

What is apparent in this story is Ellick’s total lack of victimhood, of not being defined by her disability. What it also shows is that the pendulum in some schools is swinging back from self-expression to self-discipline. This research can be found in The Death of Character, written by James Davidson Hunter. Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture are encouraged by this shift.

Ellick said it felt good to be recognized for her hard work.

“I felt happy, excited, and proud of myself,” she said.

Cannaday told WVEC Ellick’s personal drive is infectious, and not just for her classmates.

“She’s just really inspired me to work harder, because I look at her and she never says ‘I can’t do it,’” Cannaday said. “She never makes an excuse.”

Teachers with younger children will find this resource, from the UK’s The Jubilee Centre helpful for teaching students about virtues they should be acquiring at a young age.

High school students spend Spring Break building home for elderly widow

Boston College High School student Tai Thurber spent his April vacation in Belize, but he wasn’t lounging on the beach or checking out the local tourist attractions.

Instead, the Dedham, Massachusetts 17-year-old and 11 of his classmates toiled in the hot and humid Central American climate for three days to construct a new home for a 72-year-old woman who lost her husband and was left with nothing, Wicked Local reports.

The work, part of a joint program between the school and Hand In Hand Ministries, is designed to expose students to different cultures and the life-changing effect their hard work can have on folks in need, whether it’s through housing, healthcare or education.

“I’d never been to Belize and it was kind of a new experience,” Thurber told the news site. “I wanted to go because we wouldn’t be going to touristy places and we would get a feel for the real culture of the people.”

“It was 80-90 degrees with 100 percent humidity most of the time,” he said. “It was very different climate than we are used to here.”

The students hauled materials, hammered, panted the home, which was constructed on concrete slabs to keep it high and dry during flooding. As part of the Hand in Hand project, the 72-year-old widow agreed to help on two builds, and she worked alongside the students throughout the construction.

“She couldn’t really hammer, she helped paint a lot,” Thurber said. “It was cool to see that even though she couldn’t do the hammering she still wanted to contribute.”

Students also attended a house blessing on the fourth day of their trip, and bought a mattress and supplies for the new home owner, Wicked Local reports.

“When she moved in she only had a mat and some clothes,” Thurber said. “It didn’t seem like a big deal to us, but it was life changing for her.”

Catholic schools are particularly effective in promoting community service, researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture found. Political scientist David Campbell found “that private school students were more likely to engage in community service than their public school counterparts and that the Catholic schools primarily drove the effects” (The Content of Their Character, p. 122).

Students paid their own way for the trip, and raised funds to give out gifts to kids at a daycare for children with HIV. Thurber said the mission work, and his experiences with the local folks in Belize, offered lessons for students, as well.

“I was surprised by the happiness of the people there despite the fact that they had so little,” he said. “They seemed happier than we are.”

“They say you get more out of these trips than you give,” Thurber said. “It’s not a cliché. It actually happens.”

An Insight Series paper titled ‘A Simple Act of Charity? The Characteristics and Complexities of Charitable Giving in the United Kingdom‘ from the UK’s The Jubilee Centre is available here for teachers and principals who share the idea that charitable giving of one’s time and effort helps develop students’ moral and citizenship formation.