Dropout Nation‘s editors will be spending much of this last week of the year either relaxing with family or catching up on other work. So enjoy the pieces written this month, along with the Best of Dropout Nation pieces being republished this week. One such piece, from November 2011, focuses on the lessons reformers must learn from scandals such as that involving Jimmy Savile, a British talk show host whose alleged criminal abuse of youth (along with the coverup of those activities by top officials in the United Kingdom) went unchecked for decades. Read, consider, and take action.
Chances are that unless you spend much time reading the Guardian or watching the ITV channel show Exposure, you haven’t heard much about the pedophilia scandal enveloping the British Broadcasting Corporation. Since December of 2011, producers, longtime executives, and even two former chief executives at the once-beloved British government-controlled broadcaster have been accused of covering up the spate of alleged criminal abuse of young women by the now-deceased Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey and host of the famed Top of the Pops music show who was the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the late Dick Clark.
As reported by news outlets throughout Britain, the BBC allegedly kept mum about Savile’s alleged rape of young women — including those at the British government’s juvenile asylums, inside schools, and even in dressing rooms in the BBC’s own studios — and may have even went so far as to put the kibosh on an expose of Savile’s misdeeds by staffers for the network’s now-disgraced flagship newscast, Newsnight. As more victims come forth, and additional revelations come to light, current and former BBC officials, including former Director-General Mark Thompson (now chief executive of the parent company of the New York Times) has found themselves under scrutiny for allegedly letting Savile (and other alleged pedophiles on its payroll) get away with so much for so long.
The Beeb has gotten in even more trouble after reporters and producers, in what most observers conclude was a cynical attempt to shake off the embarrassment of not revealing Savile’s alleged crimes, ran an expose on Newsnight falsely accusing a prominent member of the ruling Conservative Party of alleged abuse that had long-ago been investigated by authorities. This latest aspect of the Savile scandal led to the resignation of George Entwhistle, Thompson’s recently-appointed replacement as BBC Director-General, and has cast more harsh light on how the broadcaster the news coverage that has made it the lead competitor to Time Warner’s Cable News Network in the global journalism game.
It isn’t shocking that Savile-BBC scandal sounds eerily like the child abuse scandal that continues to envelope Penn State. After all, like the higher ed institution — whose former president Graham Spanier now faces a possible prison sentence for his alleged work with now-infamous coach Joe Paterno to cover up the former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky‘s three decades-long abuse of young men — the BBC scandal involves an institution aiding and abetting the abuse of the most-vulnerable of our children.
After all, the young women that Savile preyed upon for his abusive acts — both in his visits with teenage girls as part of hosting the Jimmy’ll Fix It children’s show, and in frequent visits to psychiatric hospitals such as Broadmoor — were no different from the young men in foster care and juvenile jails Sandusky had raped. The apparent craven unwillingness of producers, staffers, and executives at the BBC to remove Savile in spite of suspicions and confirmations of Savile’s abuse of young girls since at least the early 1960s is no different than that of Spanier, Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley, and ousted vice president Gary Schultz, who allegedly actively sat on at least a decade of evidence of Sandusky’s crimes. Even the role of National Health Service in giving Savile free reign of institutions serving vulnerable young girls is also comparable to similar actions allowed by the Second Mile, the now-defunct nonprofit the now-imprisoned criminal cofounded to apparently give himself unlimited access to the kids he wanted to abuse.
The Savile-BBC scandal, in short, is a reminder of the consequences of failed leadership and policies that allow for evil to prey upon the most-vulnerable of our children. And the scandal once again reminds reformers of why we must do so much to rid institutions of leaders who allow others to do harm to our kids — and overhaul policies and practices that make it difficult for even the best leaders to do right by them.
As we know all too well, we treat our poorest, most-vulnerable children as if they are unworthy of our love and compassion. From juvenile justice systems such as those in Indianapolis and Luzerne County, Pa., that subject far too many kids to abuse and denial of due process, to child welfare systems such as those in South Dakota, in which American Indian children made up 53 percent of all foster care wards (and often placed into the care of non-Natives in violation of federal law), even though they make up just 13 percent of the state’s children, we see young men and women being moved from neglectful and abusive homes into even worse settings.
In many cases, the men and women allowing this to happen benefit greatly, both in their ability to gain access to children they consider their prey, and even from the dollars that come with them. In Luzerne County, former judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan would eventually be convicted of judicial misconduct (including wrongful convictions of juveniles) which helped put $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars into the hands of their cronies. Meanwhile in South Dakota, Children’s Home Society collected more than $50 million in mostly no-bid contracts over seven years from South Dakota’s child welfare system in exchange for removing Native kids from the homes of their families; it also apparently benefited its former boss, Dennis Daugaard, who is now the state’s governor. And in Indiana, James Payne, who was the judge who oversaw the scandal at the Circle City’s juvenile court, managed to get a promotion from now-outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels to head up the state’s Department of Child Services; he only lost his job this past September after the Indianapolis Star revealed how he intervened in a child custody case involving his own grandchildren.
The consequences of these misdeeds extend into American public education, with laggard school leaders allowing criminally abusive and neglectful teachers to work in classrooms, as well as perpetuating practices that feed into the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
Earlier this month, Lyn Vijayendran, a former principal at a school in the Evergreen Elementary system in California, was convicted of failing to inform law enforcement about alleged abuse of an eight-year-old student by one of the teachers under her watch. There’s also the scandal that continues to envelope the Los Angeles Unified School District over over the long career of former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who now faces 23 charges of what the law politely calls lewd acts upon a child. The discovery and prosecution of Berndt’s misdeeds, the revelations that Berndt may have been engaging in such misdeeds for more than two decades, and the arrest of another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, shed a harsh light on how L.A. Unified’s school leaders — including previous superintendents and the school board — have failed the children in their care.
But the abuse of our kids isn’t just sexual. The fact that L.A. Unified’s school leaders has done a shoddy job of evaluating its teachers — with 60 percent of tenured veterans and 30 percent of new hires going without performance assessments in the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality — is evidence of how poorly the district has done in living up to its obligation of providing all children attending its schools with high-quality education. Children stuck in child welfare systems — along with kids sent by districts to juvenile justice systems — get the worst of it. Just nine percent of the foster care middle-schoolers attending schools in L.A. Unified were proficient or higher on the state’s achievement test in 2006-2007, nearly two times lower than the atrocious 22 percent rate for students in the district overall. Meanwhile districts continue to use juvenile courts to solve issues with students that used to be handled by principals and deans. Schools accounted for a fifth of all status case (or offenses that would otherwise be legal if a child was 18 or 21) referrals to juvenile courts in 2009, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; this included 59 percent of all truancy cases, which account for 37 percent of all juvenile status cases handled that year. Given the dire consequences that happens to kids when they land in juvenile justice systems, schools are often as much a part of the problem as families who often use courts to resolve issues judges are just unfit to handle.
Certainly there will always be those men and women who will physically and mentally abuse our children. Chances are that some will find their ways into our schools and other institutions. Yet as seen in New York City, where school leaders have aggressively worked to toss out teachers engaged in criminal (as well as educational) abuse, institutional leaders and staff can do plenty to identify and quickly remove them. The fact that Savile, Sandusky, Berndt, and others were allowed to continue to harm kids for decades shows the unwillingness of leaders to do right by children (and their willingness to perpetuate cultures of abuse and neglect). Even worse, it shows how little the leaders and staffers cared little about the kids subjected to abuse — and did everything to protect the perpetrators (and in fact, rewarded them with promotions, book contracts, accolades, and other deals). This isn’t to say that they don’t care about children at all. It is just that when it came down to choosing their allegiances, the institutions and their supposedly pristine reputations mattered more than the damage being done to grubby men and women from the proverbial other side of the tracks.
There is plenty that can be done to rid our districts, schools, and other institutions of leaders who aid and abet abuse and neglect, criminal and otherwise. From the perspective of the school reform movement, it starts by constantly shining light and calling out laggard school leaders who don’t deserve their jobs. In Indianapolis, a possible step in the right direction may come with three newly-elected board members of the Indianapolis Public Schools district, who may end up tossing out the system’s woeful superintendent, Eugene White, after nearly eight years of embarrassment. Tossing out politicians who allow for the abuse to continue, especially through their support of policies and practices that keep abusers in their jobs is also important. Voters in California’s Assembly District 50 have made such a stand this month when it voted out incumbent Betsy Butler, who refused to support an effort spawning from the Berndt scandal to make it easier to remove those teachers accused of criminal abuse and misconduct.
Using student performance data in evaluating principals, superintendents and even school boards, as well as implementing student surveys such as the Tripod system developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education in principal and other school leader evaluations, are more-systematic steps. Meanwhile we must also continue to overhaul how we train school leaders and expand the talent pool from which they come. Given the reality that school leaders at the building level will have to have real management expertise — which is often different from being a successful classroom teacher — this also means pulling from the private and nonprofit sectors as the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation has done as part of its reform efforts.
At the same time, we must also make it easier for good and great leaders to sack teachers who are failing on the job, either in their instructional work or through criminal abuse. Ending near-lifetime employment rules that make it difficult for school leaders to toss out the criminally- and educationally-abusive alike would make it harder for laggard school leaders to sit on their thumbs and do nothing. Overhauling how we recruit and train teachers will also reduce the likelihood of those who shouldn’t be around children getting into classrooms.
For reformers, and for all of us, the Savile case is just one more reminder of why we must do so much to improve the quality of leadership in American public education, and in all institutions that are engaged with our children. Especially those young men and women who are already subjected to too much abuse from others, and deserve better than even more neglect.