News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Password leak on LinkedIn confirmed

According to this source, LinkedIn will be sending emails to those users whose passwords may have been compromised by the recent hacker.

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Purging and vulnerability in the internet universe

I have been purging my home office lately, and by that, I mean going through old bank statements, paid bills, insurance statements, and other sorts of paperwork to get rid of the boxes that have accumulated in my life. For instance, last night I went through a box of papers dating from years 2000-2003.  Since I’ve been told the IRS only goes back seven years (only as if that isn’t enough), I’m thinking it’s not necessary to hang onto anything prior to 2005. 

But in terms of today’s world, discarding that information is not simply throwing it out with the trash or recycling. There is a very real threat of stolen identity, and I have been SHREDDING mounds of papers–so much so that I actually overheated my little shredding machine and it quit cold turkey, refusing to take another bite; perhaps burning is a faster option? Anyway, it feels good to purge, but along with that is the realization that our personal information is not safe, and we are all at risk of having it stolen.

Meanwhile, I just heard that LinkedIn has been hacked into and millions of names have been released. Users are encouraged to change their passwords as soon as possible! As if I don’t have enough trouble remembering passwords, just add it to the list of “things we do differently” because of the internet world we live in.

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NRA and shot cops offer little comfort

My nephew was sworn in as a Massachusetts State Trooper a few weeks ago, a proud moment for my family, as well as one of continuing alarm as we hear more and more stories about officers shot in the line of duty.

Saturday’s Boston Globe had front-page stories in the Metro section about shootings in Greenland, NH, where Police Chief  Michael Maloney was killed one week shy of his retirement, as well as a shooting rampage in Chicopee on Friday, where State Trooper  John Vasquez was shot by a man with an automatic rifle; many civilians, including a school bus full of children, narrowly averted harm during the six-minute shootout in Chicopee. All this was juxtaposed for me by an article in the same paper regarding Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s speech to the NRA attacking President’s Obama’s position on the right to bear arms.

Excuse me if I’m not feeling too concerned about waiting periods and background checks for gun permit applicants, or a ban on assault weapons, which the NRA opposes.  Romney avoided mention of the controversial stand-your-ground laws currently being debated across the country and here in the Commonwealth, which are laws the NRA supports.

Depending on the state and exact language of the law, stand-your-ground legislation does not require civilians to retreat, if able, when attacked, but instead grants them the right to fight back, even in public, and to do lethal harm–all under the guise of self-defense. Aside from using this law as an excuse for deadly barroom brawls and gang encounters, other problems with the law are discussed here in this Florida article, where it notes “analysis of state data shows deaths due to self-defense are up over 200% since the law took effect,” as well as this piece from Tampa Bay News listing some examples that show, such as in the Trayvon Martin case, the victims are often unarmed.

It’s all starting to feel like the Wild West and not in a good way. It’s tough enough when bad guys have easy access to assault weapons, but to give anyone on the street access to weapons and permission to use them under the slightest provocation is a path, frankly, that terrifies me. Ask your legislators NOT to support this bill. Keep the waiting periods and background checks, increase efforts to get illegal guns off the streets, make it harder for bad guys to get weapons, and enact stiffer punishments for having them. There is no easy solution to the gunfire madness that is American society, but the NRA approach is definitely not helpful. We must demand our leaders take the steps necessary to protect our law enforcement officers and our communities.

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Walking While Black author makes a point

I have always believed racism is fear—the demonizing of those who are different—based on ignorance, which is why it was hugely important to me that we raise our children in the diverse community and school system that Lowell has to offer. More than 40 languages are spoken at Lowell High School, and from the moment they enter preschool, our children are taught to accept and respect each other’s differences, whether they are ethnic, cultural, religious, food, language, or skin color.

Like many of my white, progressive, middle-class peers, I honestly believed things were getting better for our black brothers and sisters: Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell—the names and numbers attest that we have made progress in becoming a more accepting community. But obviously, token success stories do not mean pervasive bigotry has been eradicated. I see now my optimism was naïve, wishful thinking and not routed in the reality of many black people’s daily lives.

As author Cynthia Dagnal-Myron pointed out on a segment of Democracy Now I caught on LTC channel 95 this morning: “I don’t know how much progress has been made. … [In] your day-to-day life, if you’re an African-American woman or man, you still feel the things that my parents felt. … So, for those who think that it’s over, they’re not walking in our shoes.”

Warning: if you do watch the segment linked to above, be prepared for graphic photos of Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy killed in 1955 in Mississippi. His mother, who was Dagnal-Myron’s fifth-grade teacher, insisted on an open casket so all the world could see the horror that racists had committed against this child and his family—really against all of us who wish to live in peace with each other. The connection to what happened last month to Trayvon Martin is not lost on anyone, nor is the despair from the realization that things have really not changed that much at all.

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When you don’t let facts get in the way

A while ago, I wrote about how some of my most beloved and respected family members and friends have wrongheaded political views (those completely opposite from mine). It’s as if we absorb only the information and perspectives that enforce our own beliefs, even going so far as to get different messages from the same speech or news broadcast. (What is it my smart, successful brother-in-law sees in Sarah Palin that makes him admire her when I think she is a divisive, fear monger who speaks, albeit with a pretty smile, in meaningless clichés?) An article in Sunday’s Globe, entitled “How Facts Backfire” confirmed my observations about this perplexing disconnect, noting: “There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t.”

Also disturbing, the article referenced last month’s Political Behavior journal which reported on studies attempting to change people’s false thinking by providing them with facts. The result: people held to their original beliefs despite evidence that those beliefs were flawed or incorrect. Rather than adjusting their thinking in light of contrary evidence, the study documents “several instances of a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”  Great! Facts will not alter our misguided beliefs; instead we cling to them more strongly. As someone committed to education as the solution to advance causes of social and economic justice, as well as a host of other woes, this is sad news indeed. It may be futile, but I doubt my politically wrongheaded loved ones and I will stop trying to correct each other’s misguided thinking.

Take today, for instance, when my brother sent me an email espousing the evils of gun control with a series of horrific statements about 56 million people being murdered in the 20th century (Russians, Armenians, Jews, Chinese, Mayan Indians, Cambodians…) because gun control left them defenseless. The email raved about Switzerland: “A nation that issues every male over 18 a gun. Switzerland’s government trains every adult they issue a rifle as a member of the militia. Hitler didn’t invade Switzerland because of this. He is supposed to have said, ‘Switzerland doesn’t have an army—Switzerland IS an army.’ Switzerland has the lowest gun-related crime rate of any civilized country in the world! It’s a no brainer! If you value freedom, please send this anti-gun control message to all your friends!” To which, I responded: “Yes, definitely, let’s take away any kind of restriction on who can own guns—mentally ill people, convicts, paroled rapists, drug addicts etc. Let’s also do away with any kind of waiting period, whether it’s three days or a few weeks. Why wait even one minute to own a gun? Better yet, let’s not require any identification. Let anyone of any age buy an uzi, a sawed off shotgun, AK 47, M-16, machine gun….whatever. All you need is money, no questions asked. That would be much better. NOT!” And so it goes…

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Link to LHS student’s award-winning video

As mentioned in an earlier post, here is the link to the award-winning public service announcement about the dangers of driving impaired created by Ryan Palmer, a student at Lowell High School. The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving sponsored the competition. Palmer was announced the winner in a presentation with Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone on Fox25 news yesterday morning.

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Schools in the news

We learned today that a public service announcement (PSA) video produced by students at Lowell High School has been selected for the Middlesex District Attorney’s Teen Impaired Driving PSA Award. This recognition will be announced on Fox News at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow. More details and a link to the PSA will follow (if I can get it). 

Other local school news includes a letter in today’s Sun from Superintendent Chris Scott regarding an anticipated shortfall in next year’s school budget, and the district’s attempt to cut costs yet again while maintaining programming and staffing to ensure a decent education for our children. The superintendent will present her budget to the school committee at its meeting tomorrow night, and budget hearings will be held May 27 and June 1. Given the degree of cuts required if the shortfall reaches $6-$9 million as some fear, the only responsible thing to do is fight for the resources to adequately educate our children, so where is the outcry from the community?

Also in the news, today’s Boston Globe reports that Rhode Island teachers due to lose their jobs at Central Falls High School have reached a tentative agreement with school administrators to reform the school together, including longer hours, more professional development, and new accountability measures. On the same page, columnist Kevin Cullen writes about Boston’s own efforts at turning around an underperforming school (Burke High School in Dorchester) from the students’ perspective. Cullen and the students he gives voice make a valid point that blaming teachers and staff for poor student achievement is fundamentally unfair when you consider the tremendous role other factors play in learning, such as poverty, student apathy, and bad parenting. As one student notes, “…they can’t reassign the parents, so they reassign the teachers.” These, as well as limited English proficiency, are just some of the issues most urban districts face, and yet, there are schools where students make tremendous gains in learning despite the socio-economic challenges. We have those schools in Lowell. We also have a Level IV (underperforming) school. So if the student demographics are similar, what’s the difference between those schools? We need to identify and model those best practices, and yes, hold everyone accountable to student learning, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be so punitive to one group.

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Mixed views on new anti-bullying law

You can’t legislate kindness, despite the state’s new anti-bullying law. It’s not that I don’t support the law or realize the harm bullying inflicts, or that I’m worried about another unfunded mandate the law requires for schools: “train all staff, report all incidents.” We should insist schools deal with bullying. In Lowell, we have had bully-prevention programs and policies in place for years, but are they effective and will the law help?

No doubt, the new law and recent tragedies (the Globe reports one from Alabama today) have raised awareness that bullying can be deadly and that schools must make prevention a priority. This is a huge improvement from shrugging it off as simply a rite of passage. A very long time ago, when I was bullied in the seventh grade, I hid it from my parents and teachers (something many kids still do) because of shame. I finally confided in my older sister, who advised me to stand up to the ringleader, a big, tough girl with mean friends. My days of being bullied ended with a fistfight after school, not the advice given to today’s victims, but one that worked for me. Standing up to that girl changed me. And although I have not had to put my hands on another since, I have remained a fighter in other ways.

Times have changed, and violence is not the prescribed approach for school bullies. Last week, the Lowell Public Schools in conjunction with the Lowell Police Department and the Middlesex District Attorney’s office hosted a community meeting on “Bullying and Violence in the Wired World.” (Dick wrote about it here on his blog.)  The cyber-bullying event explored the role technology has played in making bullying more pervasive, damaging, and deadly.  (View the taped meeting at Lowell Educational TV‘s website.) The day before the Lowell event, Boston Globe Magazine published an article on the topic that raised some sobering concerns about these programs. According to the report, there is little evidence the programs are effective: “…here’s what has gotten lost amid all the legislation and finger-pointing: None of the current anti-bullying programs, despite their fanfare, have been successful in reducing actual bullying among American students in any meaningful way.”

The article also noted that programs should focus on bystanders rather than bullies and victims. Many of Lowell’s programs address bystanders as key players, with tools such as “kindness walls” and “bully boxes” as ways to sensitize and empower students who stand on the sidelines. Yesterday, the Globe published another story about how communities are using the law to jumpstart discussions and policies around bullying. Even if you can’t make meanness a criminal offense and you can’t eliminate bullying behavior completely, these efforts should heighten awareness, impact the way we deal with these issues, and ultimately improve our school communities—hopefully no fistfights needed.

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Health insurance reform brings hope and despair

Watching the votes for healthcare reform last night brought a mixed bag of hope and despair—hope that finally we would begin to move in the right direction, and despair that this issue would continue to divide our nation in harmful ways. The negative voices will not be silenced, and as always with criticism, the no voices appear louder and are more destructive. Today’s media coverage continues to be filled with the doomsayers and their horrific predictions about cost, bankruptcy, and cries of socialism as well as promises to repeal the law. I can’t help thinking back to the decision to invade Iraq when there was little talk of outrageous costs, or the number of lives that would be lost or damaged, or any plan for how it would end.  Aren’t many of today’s naysayers the same people who supported that expensive act of aggression, and who now claim we can’t afford to provide decent healthcare to our citizens? This bill, as imperfect as it is, is where we begin because without it, we have no national starting point (see today’s Boston Globe for the bill’s impact on the Commonwealth’s healthcare reform).  

Amid all these accusations and predictions of doom, however, there is another very real and great loss we all share. That is, the loss of belief in our system of government.  Both sides of the aisle have become so divided as to be nearly paralyzed except for exchanging barbs, and citizens are disillusioned with the prevailing sense that all government is corrupt, all politicians self-serving, and there is little to be hopeful about. For that reason, I was comforted by James Carroll’s column about spring and moving forward, about human spirit, and our ability to change. As hopeful as Carroll seems and as much as I applaud the healthcare reform bill, there are many who are strongly opposed, who gather strength in their own negativity and promotion of fear. Somehow we must find a way to come together as Americans, regardless of party, to solve the difficult challenges ahead. To do that, we need true leadership that will inspire people to believe in democracy again, to insist we work together, and to show that better days lie ahead for all of us. During an election year, that will not happen unless citizens demand it.

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Not everything bad under the Sun

Despite an out-of-left-field attack on me in today’s “Chat” by Kendall Wallace, good friend and staunch ally of  LHS Headmaster Bill Samaras as well as chairman of the Sun board,  I’m sticking with my compliment regarding recent changes to the paper. Yesterday I visited Jim Campanini, the managing editor of the Sun—a man known to dish out his own criticism with wild abandon while also taking his share of written abuse, particularly in the blogs.  LiL can be especially harsh, so can Dick Howe on his blog, and I’ve certainly written a litany of critiques. One thing about Campy, no matter how pointed my criticism, he always gave me ink in the paper when I asked for it. (For a review of my past letters to the editor, check out the Published Articles page; here is a recent one.)  When Campanini greeted me outside his office yesterday morning, I held out a small bag and announced:  “I baked you muffins because I heard it would get me good press!” Someone laughed behind me, but Campy’s face froze. “It was a joke,” I said. “I’m kidding.” He retorted, “So, you believe what you read in the blogs!? Where’s the gown?”

Along with being critical, I like to give credit when it’s due, and I have noticed a marked improvement in the paper’s substance and coverage of local issues over the past several months.  For instance, instead of running one story after a school committee meeting (usually the most controversial), the Sun now publishes several stories over the week, or the paper will run an additional article that gives a synopsis of other issues discussed at the meeting. Providing this space to inform readers about issues in the schools is an important community service. The paper’s enhanced coverage has included more substantive articles on other local issues as well, such as the vocational school and city council concerns. I had noticed the change and wanted to let him know I appreciated it. He accepted my praise graciously. We then went on to have a heated debate on various topics, school related and otherwise, as we both tend to vent our opinions stridently and seldom agree. (The lowfat, high-fiber muffins remained uneaten.) Despite better local news coverage, however, I suspect the slurs from Mr. Wallace will continue as long as I keep pushing for improvements at the high school, which, by the way, is nothing personal against his dear old friend, but simply the job I was elected to do.

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