Archive | December, 2012

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Spanish Literacy Obstacle for Some Seeking “Deferred Action”


By Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Arisbeth Meza came to Phoenix from Mexico City, following the path of her older sister. She was 13 and has been working ever since cleaning the homes of the wealthy. In Mexico, she studied until the 7th grade. She never got a chance to go to school in the United States, because she had to work to help support her family.

Now 21, Meza’s low literacy skills in both English and Spanish stand in her way to benefiting from a federal program that offers her a reprieve from deportation.

To qualify for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, applicants need to have been younger than age 16 when they entered the United States illegally. They must also be either a high school graduate, have a General Education Development (GED) certificate, or be enrolled in high school. They cannot have certain criminal convictions.

Those who qualify for DACA receive a two-year deferral from being deported and can contunie their work or schooling.

Came to Help Parents

For Meza, obtaining her GED certificate –even in her Spanish native tongue–is a huge challenge. She understands a little bit of English, but that is not enough for the test. When it comes to Spanish, it is difficult for her to write or make sense of punctuation. Comas and parenthesis, dashes and semicolons confuse her when she reads.

“I wanted to study when I first arrived, because I saw others doing it. But I came here hoping I could help my Mom and Dad financially,” she said in Spanish.

Meza’s situation is not unique. Advocates for “Dreamers” like her – undocumented youth who came to the country as children and who are advocating for a legal pathway to citizenship — are aware of their educational challenges.

“These are dramatic situations because these kids were not enrolled at school, perhaps out of fear that they would be singled out as undocumented immigrants,” said Carmen Cornejo, an activist from CADENA, an organization that advocates for legalization allowing Dreamers a path to citizenship. “This can also be considered a denial of their rights as children to have an education. In some instances, their family circumstances might have led them to have to work.”

Cornejo said there are opportunities for Arisbeth. Immigration authorities still consider those enrolled in GED classes for the temporary deferred action, she added.

“These kids would have a lot of problems in the long run, if they don’t enroll in a program to try to get the GED,” said Cornejo. Part of the issue is that if Congress gives support for the legalization of youth through legislation similar to the Dream Act, the threshold of education required might be much higher, she explained.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C., roughly 1.76 million youth are eligible for DACA nationally, and about 500,000 of those are younger than age 15. MPI estimates that 350,000 of all who qualify for the benefit have neither a high school diploma, nor are enrolled in school. In Arizona, an estimated 80,000 youth could benefit from DACA. There’s no data on how many of them are currently in high school or have received a diploma.

A Chance to Catch Up

In Arizona, Dreamers have faced a number of hurdles to get ahead in their education. A state law – Proposition 300 — approved by voters in 2006, bars state-funded schools from offering free GED classes to undocumented immigrants, making the path to DACA eligibility difficult for those who may have aged out of the high school system, but still wish to become eligible for the new federal program.

Proposition 300, however, doesn’t remove their right to take the GED exam altogether. Rather, advocates say, it merely bars them from taking GED classes at institutions that receive state funds.

In response, local nonprofits serving Latinos are jumping in to offer GED preparation classes for a fee. The groups are responding to a spike in demand for such services.

In October, the nonprofit Friendly House started offering GED preparation classes focused on helping DACA applicants at a fee of $300 for 10 weeks. The classes are offered in English and Spanish, and test-takers have the option of taking the GED in either language.

“We were very honest with them and told them, “This is where you’re at and this is what you need to do,” said Luis Enriquez, director of adult education and workforce development at Friendly House. “We’re not miracle workers; we’ll give you the tools. We’ll give you a good teacher. It depends on the effort you put in it.”

The program has enrolled about 100 students so far. Assessment tests showed that nearly two-thirds of them had a 6th or 7th grade literacy level in both English and Spanish.

He said it would be extremely difficult for these students to make up for six years worth of education in 10 weeks, but the program can provide clients with extra support and a plan to prepare for the GED exam.

“The problem with Spanish, is that some people speak it, but the Spanish they’re getting in the test, is academic Spanish, [with a lot] of the vocabulary they’ve never seen in social studies,” he said. “They don’t use it in everyday life,” he added.

The students that Enriquez has met are a lot like Meza. They never enrolled in school, because they had to support their family or have children of their own they have to support financially.

DACA May Offer Protection

Some of them, despite their disadvantages, were able to pass the test and are already filing for DACA, Enriquez noted. The educational program offers another advantage, he said. Immigration authorities may consider enrollment in courses to earn a GED in the DACA process.

Meza wants to get her DACA application in because she feels it will protect her, especially now that she’s pregnant and about to have her second child.

In Arizona, laws severely restricting immigrants, such as SB 1070, make it mandatory for authorities to question a person’s immigration status and turn the individual over to immigration authorities.

Financial pressures could once again set her back.

Besides the expense of a second child, Arisbeth is now sending money to her grandmother to buy medicine. So, it may take time for Meza to save up enough for GED classes and application fees to apply for the federal program.

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DMV Changes Old Rules for New Adult Drivers


WETHERSFIELD —  Beginning Jan. 2., all new adult drivers 18 and over will be required to hold a three-month learner’s permit before taking a road test for a driver’s license.

That’s because the Department of Motor Vehicles have implemented new requirement changes to its 106 year-history of  no required training period for adults to complete prior to obtaining a driver’s license.

State officials said that highway safety issues, including the need to better understand how to operate a vehicle, prompted the need now for this change.

“Cars are more sophisticated today, traveling roads can be more dangerous for inexperienced drivers and some form of a learning period is required now for those over 18, just as we have done for those under 18,” said DMV Commissioner Melody A. Currey when DMV made the announcement of the change in early December.

DMV expects that more than 30,000 people annually will be affected by this change. These include teens who delayed licensing to avoid the state’s restrictions on 16 and 17-year-old drivers. The 18 and 19 year-olds this year account for about 11,000 who will need a learner’s permit as an adult.

Highlights of the new requirement include passing a 25-question knowledge test and vision test, an eight-hour safe driving safe driving practices course at driving school, which costs $125.

For more information, visit www.dmv.org.

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Hartford Issues Parking Ban


HARTFORD — Facing about almost one-foot of snow in some parts of central Connecticut, Hartford officials on Saturday issued a level-two parking ban for the entire city.

Depending on the circumstances, the parking ban may be extended beyong Dec. 29 and Dec. 30, city officials aid.

A LEVEL 2 ban parking means that all parking on city streets is banned. And vehicles parked on a city street are subject to tag and tow.

City residents may park their cars, during this parking ban, in any Board of Education, Public School parking lot. You are requested to park in a group away from the school building. Motorist parking in public school lots are responsible for the removal of their vehicle at the termination of the parking ban.

This is necessary in order to clear the school lots, officials said.

Property owners and occupants: please be reminded to shovel the sidewalk and walkways— including curb cuts— for pedestrian safety. Please do not shovel or plow the snow back into the street from your driveway or sidewalk.

According to the latest weather forecast Saturday evening, snow will be heavy at times with almost an inch of snow fall per hour. Steady snows are possible through midnight before they begin to wind down after midnight. A flurry or light snow shower cannot be ruled out overnight and through tomorrow morning. Expect storm totals to range from up to 8 inches and watch out for refreeze overnight in areas that stop snowing as lows will drop into the 20’s tonight.

Total Snow Accumulation: 4-8 inches.

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Sending Children to Live Out-of-State — a Decision For DCF, Not Courts


By Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

State lawmakers have stripped state judges of the authority to send children who break the law to out-of-state facilities for treatment.

Instead, the decision will be left to the Department of Children and Families, a state agency that has been monitored by the federal courts for decades for failing too many children in its care.

As part of its effort to reform the troubled agency — and with the approval of many child advocates — agency officials have made it a priority to avoid sending children to live out of state. But that initiative — which has resulted in almost 300 fewer abused, neglected or delinquent children living out-of-state today — at times has come into direct conflict with a judge’s order.

Last week, legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy changed the law to ensure this rift wouldn’t routinely happen. The new law puts the lawmakers’ trust in agency officials to make these decisions.

“At the end of the day, the court cannot order me to send someone out of state,” said Joette Katz, who has been the commissioner of DCF for two years and is a former judge herself.

This change comes as justices on the Connecticut Supreme Court are in the process of deciding whether the courts or executive agency should get to make these placement decisions.

Argued before the high court in October, the case in question involves a 15-year old boy from Hartford who pleaded guilty to robbery to avoid his case being transferred to adult court, where punishments are typically much harsher. The decision was made in court that Jeffrey M. — a first-time offender — be sent to live in a treatment facility in Pennsylvania.

“I felt strongly that was a mistake,” Katz said this week, who has been so unhappy with that facility shestopped sending children there.

But Jeffrey M.’s court-appointed lawyers say giving so much authority to an executive agency is a huge mistake since the court system is most familiar with these offenders.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Aaron J. Romano. “This legislation has tied the court’s hands.”

What’s the alternative? Jail?

JC — a teenage boy from New Britain — knows firsthand the impact of this initiative to keep children in state.

Unhappy with JC’s placement at the state’s juvenile detention facility in Middletown for a breach of peace offense, his family hired a lawyer with the hope she could get him transferred somewhere to get him the treatment he also needs for problem sexual behaviors.

“DCF refused to pay for those placements for treatment,” his lawyer, Naomi Fetterman, said. She was requesting he be sent to a facility out of state.

After nine months of living in juvenile detention — and minutes before a judge would hear the case on whether JC’s placement was appropriate — DCF offered his lawyers the opportunity to release him and end his involvement with the agency.

“What do you do when an offer like that is made for your client? … He was kicked out. No services. No treatment. Nothing. What do you think is going to happen when he is back in his home?” Romano asked.

It’s not that Romano and Fetterman disagree with the initiative to keep children as close to home as possible. The problem, they say, is that the programs aren’t yet in place in the state to support such an initiative for certain types of children.

Child advocates have for a long time complained that there are too little or no treatment at all for children with problem sexual and fire-setting behaviors, and girls with discipline issues

This shortage resulted in 364 children living in out-of-state facilities in January 2011. Today, that number is down to 79 children.

Katz has acknowledged this void, and is in the process of opening or converting existing facilities to address these needs closer to home, where relationships are easier to maintain and the transition back into the community is swifter. She points out that when she came into office she found many foster and delinquent children had been living in out-of-state facilities for several years.

“We are not supposed to be warehousing children. Children shouldn’t be raised in institutions and so we are building capacity here,” she said. “We need to be doing a much better job.”

But for Jeffrey M. — the case pending before the Supreme Court — those appropriate options weren’t available in state, his lawyers said.

And now that the commissioner has the final say where children who break the law are placed, they hope appeals to those placements are handled more quickly.

“The delays now go on for months,” she said.

The Judicial Branch reports that the average amount of time a child spends in a pretrial detention facility awaiting placement after having been convicted or pleading guilty is 33 days. Because of privacy issues, the department was unable to provide details as to how many childdren remain incarcerated because there is no suitable placement for them.

Nothing is permanent

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he signed into law this change so the commissioner has the appropriate authority to turn around a troubled agency.

Calling her initiative to bring children home from out of state a “highlight” of her tenure, he said “We thought this was an appropriate step to take.”

Sen. Terrry Gerratana, the co-chair of the legislature’s Select Committee on Children, agreed.

Katz’s “track record shows why this was necessary. There was no doubt in my mind that she will continue putting the best interest of children first,” the Democrat from New Britain said.

But nothing is permanent, she noted, if this unilateral authority does not work out.

“Things can change in the future and the legislative branch can respond accordingly,” she said.

If history is any indication, however, Mickey Kramer with the state’s Office of the Child’s Advocate, said DCF has a weak record.

“When DCF makes a decision on placement it is their responsibility to inspect and determine how effective it is. They don’t always do that very well,” she said. “It’s not so much as to who has that authority. It’s how they are using it.”

This was first published on ctmirror.com. Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter.

 

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Social Paranoia Feeds U.S. Gun Culture


 By Rene Ciria-Cruz

The gun has an indelible presence in America’s popular consciousness. The myth-making entertainment industry has embellished and magnified the gun’s prominent role in the narrative of the nation’s founding and rapid expansion across the continent over Indian lands and trackless wilds.

But reverence for history isn’t what’s really driving the soaring rate of gun ownership among Americans.

Today something stronger than the hunting culture or nostalgia for an adventure-filled frontier past is keeping gun fetishism alive — social paranoia. A dread of unseen threats against one’s personal safety feeds the demand for automatic assault rifles and handguns, much to the delight of obliging firearm manufacturers.

Up to 47 percent of Americans reported owning firearms in 2011, according to the Gallup Poll. Consequently, the U.S. has the highest rate of gun-related homicides among the industrialized countries. Changing these statistics is a formidable challenge.

Widespread anxiety over perceived impending violence explains why there are 89 guns for every 100 American civilians, as reported in last year’s Small Arms Survey; that’s some 270 million guns nationwide, the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.

Many believe the high-caliber handgun or automatic rifle is their best defense against crime. Someone may want to invade your home, rape your wife and kill your children. A gun would enable you to “stand your ground,” many are convinced.

The gun is also a tool for projecting personal power. This function has even spawned an “open-carry” movement that would allow men and women — who no one should try to “mess with” — to walk around like gunslingers of the old West.

And while no one really believes the United States is in danger of a military invasion by any foreign power, a good many gun worshipers believe that they need to be prepared for a social cataclysm of sorts, like mass unrest or a catastrophe that ultimately leads to widespread looting and depredation.

At its core, then, is a lack of confidence that the state can provide sufficient protection to its citizens. Tied to this is a profound sense of individualism, of a deeply held belief that only the individual, not the community or its laws, is the real guarantor of one’s safety.

Thus, while liberals may share some of these same insecurities, the cult of gun ownership is, as most observers already know, conservative at heart.

Writing in the New York Times, number cruncher Nate Silver draws the link between politics and gun ownership: White Republicans are more likely to own guns than white Democrats; by 2010 gun ownership among Democrats dropped to 22 percent but remained at 50 percent among Republican adults.

In its extreme form, gun worship is xenophobic and racist. Self-proclaimed militias and many so-called doomsday “preppers” fear a creeping United Nations “takeover” of the U.S. They also warn of an impending race war in which one must be prepared to defend one’s home and family against marauding and rapacious black and brown hordes.

This likely explains why whites are more likely to own guns than blacks or Hispanics and why gun ownership is higher among middle class households than poorer ones, according to Silver’s findings. And while most gun-related homicides occur in urban areas, gun ownership is higher in rural and suburban areas.

While owning a gun is indeed as American as cherry pie, it need not remain part of this country’s traditions. Owning a broadsword is not as British as steak and kidney pie, despite the prominent role of bladed weapons in British history.

It is admittedly not going to be easy to erase the prevalent social delusions that fuel gun ownership in America, but stricter laws and regulations can and should start preventing its lethal consequences. The law of the jungle through the proliferation of guns has no place in civilized life.the-hartford-guardian-Opinion

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Connecticut Gets Its First Openly Gay Judge


HARTFORD — Connecticut will soon have its first openly gay judge: Andrew J. McDonald.

On Thursday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced McDonald, who like the governor hails from Stamford, to serve as a justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court.  A 20-year veteran attorney, McDonald now serves as general counsel to the governor’s office.

“Having had the opportunity to work alongside Andrew McDonald in several capacities over the years, including both as a lawyer and as a public servant, I am convinced that he will be an excellent addition to our state’s highest court and will serve the people of Connecticut well when he is confirmed to the bench,” Malloy said.  “In each of the roles he has served, Andrew has proven to have an exceptional ability to understand, analyze, research and evaluate legal issues.  He has undertaken his legal work with a focus on giving back extensively to his community and a commitment to the equal rights of all residents.  He will be an exceptional justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court.”

For most of his legal career, McDonald served as a litigation partner for Pullman & Comley, LLC, where he chaired the firm’s appellate practice.  Additionally, he served as the director of legal affairs and corporation counsel for the City of Stamford from 1999 to 2002, when  Malloy served as mayor of the city.

McDonald said he was honored.

“Honoring the law and serving the people of this state have been the focus of my professional life,” he said. “And I will be humbled by the opportunity to continue to do both on the Supreme Court if confirmed by the General Assembly.”

McDonald graduated from Cornell University in 1988 and received his law degree, with honors, from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1991, where he was the managing editor of the Connecticut Journal of International Law.  He lives in Stamford with his husband Charles Gray.

McDonald will replace Justice Lubbie Harper, Jr., who reached the mandatory age of retirement for state judges last month.

 

 

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State’s Unemployed Will be First to Feel Fall Over the ‘Fiscal Cliff’


By Ana Radelat

WASHINGTON — Eventually, nearly every American will feel the economic pain brought on by going over the so-called fiscal cliff, but more than 43,000 unemployed Connecticut workers would be among the first.

That’s because those long-time unemployed workers will stop receiving benefits next week unless Congress acts in the next few days.

“Both houses of Congress need to grow up and make sure 2.3 million Americans don’t lose their benefits,” said Mitchell Hirsch, an unemployed worker advocate at the New York-based National Employment Law Project.

There are both humanitarian and economic reasons to continue those benefits, Hirsch said. A sudden loss of money from Washington, which the unemployed usually spend quickly on necessities, would hurt local economies, he said.

Connecticut and most other states offer 26 weeks of benefits to the unemployed. But since the recession began in 2008, the federal government has provided an extension of those benefits, at one point for up to 99 weeks, but now 83 weeks in Connecticut.

Authorization to continue the program runs out on Dec. 31, just as a series of Bush-era tax breaks are set to expire. It would cost about $30 billion to extend the long-term unemployment benefits for another year.

The Connecticut Department of Labor says an end to the long-term benefits means 43,000 to 45,000  jobless in the state would stop receiving unemployment checks in January.

Sharon Palmer, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Labor, said her agency warned Connecticut’s long-term unemployed by letter earlier this month their benefits may soon be ending.

“We also told them to continue to file for benefits because if Congress does act, we can send them the money right away,” Palmer said.

Since the recession began, the numbers of long-term unemployed — defined as someone who has been out of work for at least 26 weeks — has remained stubbornly high, representing about 40 percent of all jobless. The average duration of unemployment is about  40 weeks.

Palmer said a sudden end of benefits would force the longtime jobless to look for other social services to “stay afloat,” placing an additional strain on the state’s resources.

Last week, President Obama urged lawmakers to scale back ambitions for a grand bargain to avoid the dire economic consequences expected to occur when the Bush-era tax breaks expire and $500 billion in automatic spending cuts are implemented on Jan. 2. The president instead wanted Congress to send him legislation that would prevent tax cuts from expiring for all but the highest-earning Americans — and extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.

But as the clock ticks away toward the New Year and the fiscal cliff, the situation in Washington remains stalemated.

The Senate is in session today.  But the House has no plans to convene, following the failure last week of House Speaker John Boehner to win GOP support for legislation to prevent scheduled tax increases on everyone but millionaires.

Congressional Democrats want to extend the jobless benefits and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., both signed a letter urging the Senate leadership to do so.

Republicans resisted previous reauthorizations, arguing the original idea was for a temporary measure. But GOP leaders have not weighed in on the issue recently, giving some advocates for the unemployed hope.

Palmer of the Connecticut Department of Labor said she hopes Congress and the president will agree to continue both the tax cuts and the unemployment benefits for a short period of time, leaving the new Congress the tough job of coming up with a broader agreement on taxes and spending.

Nancy Carrington, president of the Connecticut Food Bank, which feeds those in need in six counties, said an end of long-term benefits would “add more people to the line”  of those seeking help from her organization, a line that’s grown during the recession and from the impact of Superstorm Sandy.

“It seems to be a very cruel gesture at the conclusion of our holiday season,” she said.

 

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Larson Announces 700K Grant for Health Centers


EAST HARTFORD — Two school based-health centers in East Hartford has received additional money to help provide health services to low-income residents.

Congressman John B. Larson  announced recently that the two centers will be receiving grants to help enhance and expand their ability to provide health services in the East Hartford area. East Hartford Community HealthCare, Inc. and Integrated Health Services, Inc. will be receiving $410,924 and $315,566 respectively.

“Connecticut’s school-based and community health centers bring vital medical services to our most vulnerable populations,” Larson said. “This funding will help thousands of underserved children, adults, and families receive comprehensive healthcare vital to their well being. I am glad to see this funding go to East Hartford Community HealthCare and Integrated Health Services, and I look forward to seeing them continue to improve the overall health of our communities.”

East Hartford Community HealthCare will use the funding to enhance its school dental program and mobilize a full-service dental van to address the dental needs of students and families who lack transportation.

Integrated Health Services will use the funding to open three new School Based Teaching Centers in East Hartford and to purchase medical, dental, and administrative equipment to help improve quality of care.

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Will Obama Cry for Inner City Youth?


By David Muhammad

Like President Obama and many others across the country, I too wiped away tears as I watched the horrifying news coverage of the tragic shootings in Newton, Conn. I immediately called my children who were still in school. I sat watching the television trying to fathom how I would respond if I got a call that a shooting had occurred at my children’s school. This brought on more tears. But for the parents of 20 children and six other families in Newton, it wasn’t an exercise; it was an excruciating reality.

I then watched and listened to our President, and like parents around the world, the shooting had affected him emotionally as well. Twenty children gunned down. He struggled to hold back tears.

It was then that my phone buzzed. I quickly grabbed it to see if it was one of my children calling back. But it wasn’t. It was a colleague in Chicago. I had emailed her the day before asking for research into one of the mentoring programs in the city’s schools for youth with the highest risk of being shot.

the-hartford-guardian-OpinionShe provided me with the information I was seeking. Then she included a P.S.: “What a devastating horrible day in CT. But frankly I wish people cared this much when it was children on the south and west sides of Chicago.”

I was snapped back into reality with the email. The tragedy in Newtown was truly horrific. But there is similar carnage carried out every day in the streets of America’s cities, especially in the President’s hometown of Chicago, where I work in Oakland, in Philadelphia, and many other cities across the nation.

In 2010, nearly 700 Chicago school children were shot and 66 of them died. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended a memorial for 260 school children who had been killed in just the previous three years. On several occasions in the past year, tens of people have been shot in a single weekend on the streets of the city. The worst three-day stretch saw 10 killed and 37 wounded in gun fire. But Google the term “Chicago weekend shootings” and the results are far too many deadly weekends to count.

Oakland, Calif. has seen a huge increase in shootings. Last year, three small children were murdered in shootings. The youngest victim hadn’t yet turned 2. Oakland has become the first city in the country to have its police force taken over by a federal court. Because of a lack of resources, the city has one of the lowest police to resident ratios in the country.

Gun violence in America is a pandemic, but there is no round-the-clock news coverage. No national address from the President with tears. No pledge for urgent change.

Why? Is it because the children who die on the streets of America’s cities are black and brown? Is it because they are poor? What makes the victims of everyday inner-city gun violence expendable?

Like the horrendous shooting in Newton, easy access to guns and the challenges of mental illness contribute to the violence on America’s streets. Like the calls for change in guns laws that have been heard following this massacre, so too do we need tighter gun control because of the death and destruction that touches the hearts of mourning mothers in American cities every day.

Speaking at a prayer vigil in Newton, Obama said, “Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? The answer is no, we’re not doing enough. And we’ll have to change.”

Mr. President, this is so very true. But it is not only these one-day mass shootings that cause us to cry out for the need to change, but also the daily gun violence that plagues our cities.

“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true,” Obama said. “No single law, no set of laws, can eliminate evil or prevent every act, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.”

We can do better in Chicago, in Oakland, in Philadelphia, and in every city in America.

(David Muhammad is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County in California and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New York City. He now consults with philanthropic foundations on juvenile justice issues)

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After Newtown, Teachers Are the New Heroes


By Andrew Lam

Long ago in my native homeland, Vietnam, I used to bow. As a grade school student, with arms folded, and eyes staring at my sandaled feet, I would mumble, “Thua thay!” – Greetings Teacher! – whenever I’d run into a teacher in the hallway or enter a classroom.

Such was the Old World tradition that honored and paid respect to the teaching profession.

That habit quickly disappeared, however, when I joined 7th grade in America. My way was entirely out of sync with U.S. culture. American kids were rowdy, wore colorful clothes and sometimes even swore at their teachers. And teaching was not mere instruction in America, I found. It was part babysitting, dealing with the unruliness that was the result of a society that increasingly emphasized self-esteem and individualism over achievement itself.

Teaching is still a noble profession but it’s a difficult and underpaid one, often with work overloads and a shrinking budget that results in classroom overcrowding.

the-hartford-guardian-OpinionWith the tragedy of Sandy Hook, however, with 20 grade school students massacred by a madman and two teachers who died protecting them in Newtown, Conn., the image of the teacher in America has gone from an underappreciated chore to that of a hero.

Indeed, if TIME Magazine were to pick its Persons of the Year, it is hard to imagine that Victoria Soto and Dawn Hochsprung would not make the cut. Soto, a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook, hid her students and shielded others from the bullets of Adam Lanza, the assailant who committed one of the worse mass killings in the U.S. history. And Hochsprung, the school principal and mother of five, reportedly launched herself at Lanza, trying to overpower him. Both Soto and Hochsprung died protecting their charges.

But long before the Sandy Hook tragedy, many Americans already knew that a good teacher could, if not save, then change and inspire lives for the better.

Many luminaries from humble beginning continue to cite teachers as the main reason of their successes. Tom Hanks, for instance, thanked his high school drama teacher when winning his Academy Award for his role in Philadelphia. Oprah Winfrey is famously quoted touting the success of her elementary school teacher, Mary Duncan Wharton. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan,” she has said. “She so believed in me, and for the first time, made me embrace the idea of learning. I learned to love learning because of Mrs. Duncan.”

And James Baldwin owes much of his formative years to a white schoolteacher who recognized his talents, took him to plays and brought him books. “She was really a very sweet and generous woman and went to a great deal of trouble to be of help to us, particularly during one awful winter,” he recalled in Notes of a Native Son.

My first teacher in America was Mr. Kaeselau, a man whose compassion and kindness comforted my otherwise painful life in exile. Mr. K taught 7th grade English and spent his lunchtime tutoring me when the language was still unfamiliar to my Vietnamese ear, difficult on my tongue. He gave me my first book to read. He drove me home when I missed my bus.

But while influential teachers continue to instruct and inspire many youngsters in this country, the profession itself has taken a hit. While the media loves salacious narratives of the teachers who fail in their duties – there’s that recent conviction of the Texan teacher who had group sex with four high school students, and the ongoing saga of the Modesto, Calif., teacher who eloped with his student, abandoning his wife and kids – many potentially good teachers leave the profession for better pay.

Disaffected teachers cite the lack of parents’ involvement as a primary cause of faltering of education and overcrowding as a major cause of stress.

And even if respect is still associated with the profession, the economy is far from showing its appreciation. Many bright young people who would have gone into teaching have told me they were deterred by financial insecurity. “The only way we are going to make gains in education is if the quality of teachers goes up — and in our capitalist society, that quite simply means paying teachers more,” writes Matt Amaral, a high school English teacher. “This might be the single-biggest solution no one is talking about.”

“I would consider teaching seriously but if I ever want to own a house in the Bay Area, I might as well forget that profession,” a graduate from UC Berkeley once told me. In Silicon Valley, in order to keep talented teachers, there are now housing units being built for many who couldn’t afford a home, as the average salary for a beginning elementary school teacher is around $40,000 in a county where the median income is around $85,000.

Student-teacher relationships seem to suffer in a world defined by social media like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, not to mention sites like RateMyTeacher.com. So many students now blog and tweet about their teachers, and teachers, fearful of defamation, vigilantly troll the Internet. The children’s hour has extended to 24-7 online, and this too adds to the stress of being a teacher.

“Teaching is not a lost art,” the historian Jacques Barzun once observed, “but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”

But perhaps that regard is no longer lost at this extraordinary juncture in American life, after the tragedy of Sandy Hook. The deaths of the innocents and the heroic sacrifice of the two women have ushered our nation to a turning point. Along with the collective need to reevaluate the country’s lax gun control laws, is a renewed reverence of the role of the teacher.

Many, from Peggy Noonan to Fr. Jonathan Morris, a well-known Catholic priest, now refer to ours as a “culture of death” – from gun obsession to blood-soaked video games to daily stories of gun violence to our drone wars abroad –but two women stood at the door of life. If there was unspeakable carnage at Sandy Hook, there, too, was unimaginable sacrifice. What’s more noble, after all, than to give up one’s life so that others may live?

The teachers who died protecting their charges speak volumes to tender human relationships that have always been at the core of the teaching vocation. And so, almost four decades after I gave up that old tradition, to Victoria Soto and Dawn Hochsprung—to all dedicated teachers—I bow.

New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” (Heyday Books, 2005), which recently won a Pen American “Beyond the Margins” award and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” from which the piece above was excerpted. His next book, “Birds of Paradise Lost” is due out in March 01, 2013. He has lectured and read his workwidely at many universities.

Follow Andrew on Twitter https://twitter.com/andrewqlam

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