COLORBEARER OF ATHENS, GEORGIA LOCALLY OWNED SINCE 1987
March 9, 2016

A Crisis at Cedar Shoals, and an Opportunity to Do Better

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Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Over the past several weeks, a fire has raged on the east side of Athens. The Cedar Shoals rape tragedy and the ensuing response by school and law enforcement personnel have shed light on some daunting problems in our community. Like many people, I have followed news accounts closely. What I’ve read in the newspapers, social media and online comment sections indicates a very real sense of crisis in our school district. And it goes beyond the tragedy at Cedar Shoals. The choice we face is pretty straightforward: put out the fire and rebuild, correcting the mistakes that contributed to this disaster, or continue to fan the flames and burn our school district, doing further damage. I hope we choose the former—I hope Athens can find a way to turn this terrible negative event into a catalyst for lasting positive change.  

What We Agree On

Many of us agree on several points:

• Rape is never acceptable. Communication breakdowns and systemic dysfunction led to the completely inexcusable and indefensible situation at Cedar Shoals. No one defends the actions of the alleged perpetrators or the response that led to them remaining in school after the assault. That can never happen again.

• As I heard a very engaged parent say at a CCSD open house tour a few years ago, her family judges our schools by three simple questions regarding their children: Are they safe? Are they learning? Are they happy? The systemic failure at Cedar Shoals missed the mark on all three of those standards, and in the aftermath it has called into question our community’s essential trust in our district as a whole.

• The district’s initial response was lacking. There are a variety of explanations for this, including personnel and privacy concerns, and there were obviously breakdowns of appropriate protocols—people did not do what they were supposed to do. The district is addressing those shortcomings. The district has replaced the principal and implemented new safeguards to assure better communications between district, school and police professionals. These are all actions that reflect CCSD’s willingness to make necessary changes.

• None of us in the general public have complete information about the Cedar Shoals situation. The district and our school board (who are, after all, our friends, neighbors and representatives) should make decisions based on the fullness of their knowledge and experience.

It is always worth remembering that events like those at Cedar Shoals provide an opportunity to learn. The horrific Cedar Shoals rape reveals a recurrent and vexing problem that was apparent long before this event unfolded. Specifically, there is a lack of discipline among some of our students, and a perspective that teachers are not adequately supported in their ability to create and maintain order in their classrooms. How can we, as parents and citizens, provide this support and encourage the school district to do the same?

What Should We Do?

A series of community conversations might be a good start. The overarching question to address in these forums would be, “How do we define effective discipline, and how do we achieve it in our schools?” Productive meetings would include the district, law enforcement, social workers, school psychologists, counselors and family engagement specialists, teachers and media specialists—the people who are doing the work every day and are most affected by these policies—as well as students, parents and interested community members. Conversations like these would allow the community to become better acquainted with the specifics of our policies, how they play out in the schools, why those policies exist and changes that might be justified. The current state of crisis provides an opportunity for Athens and CCSD to come together to address this problem of discipline in our schools—what do we even mean by that, and how do we better achieve it? And in moving forward, regular communication between frontline educators and district officials needs to be enhanced.

Somehow we have to balance effective and consistent discipline with the fact that “no excuses” policies are most detrimental to students who need the most help. “Zero tolerance” means we turn our back on troubled kids in favor of well-behaved kids who don’t need as much guidance in the first place. So how do we strike an effective balance? How do we provide a nurturing, inclusive learning environment with strict standards for good behavior? There is not a simple answer to this complex problem. Plenty of people have told me in recent weeks that we have to address discipline in our schools.  Of course, I agree. We can begin to find answers by coming together as a community, defining what we want for all the kids in our school district, then implementing those ideas for our kids, and for future kids in our community. Parents will only continue to invest and participate in our public schools if their children are safe, and I believe we must trust our teachers and administrators with disciplinary tools just as we trust them to educate and care for our children.

Support Superintendent Lanoue

A disturbing tendency—which has been exacerbated by social media’s ability to rapidly spread and “share” anger within a community—is assuming the worst of those at the top. In this case, that is CCSD superintendent Phil Lanoue. But to suggest that Lanoue should now be dismissed is short-sighted, ill-considered and ultimately self-defeating. Those loudly criticizing Lanoue’s role are clearly making assumptions and conclusions beyond what is supported by facts. How quickly some would have us forget that under Lanoue, our district has thrived and improved by any objective or empirical measure. For the tragedy at Cedar Shoals, mishandled at whatever level, to completely negate CCSD’s progress under Lanoue’s leadership is just not realistic. (If you have a few minutes, see my piece published in the Washington Post a few months ago detailing many of our district’s recent successes.) Anyone familiar with our district views our superintendent as an outstanding leader. He is not perfect, but overall he has been an exemplary and visionary leader for CCSD. Our district is in a far better place than it was when he arrived seven years ago, and running him out of town would be a self-inflicted wound for our community.  

We need a constructive conversation, not continued finger-pointing, blaming and public shaming of our entire school district and leadership. We have problems in our schools and in our neighborhoods—let’s get to work on addressing and solving them. I hope we will welcome back Lanoue, who has always insisted there is more work to be done in our schools and who always pushes us to do a better job of educating each child in our schools. As a Cedar parent said at the board meeting a couple of weeks ago: “In a partnership, you don’t bail and you don’t go for blood. You figure out how to nurture the relationship and make it healthy again.”  

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