DANIEL OF THE YEAR | In Honduras, many residents feel trapped by poverty, violence, and addiction. Michael Miller has spent two decades hitting the streets and devoting his life to some of the country’s youngest and most vulnerable
Robert Davis, 16, has a white mother and black father, and until he changed schools two years ago, his fellow students never let him forget it. The clarinetist with mild autism stuck out in Normandy, his previous St. Louis school district, where 87 percent of the students are black. Robert “was the lightest kid in the whole school,” said his father, Paul Davis, 64.
In third grade, Paul says, Robert became a target for bullies. It began with name-calling but by middle school had escalated to holding Robert’s head in a toilet and slamming his arm between desks—and the district seemed unable to deal with the out-of-control behavior. In September, Normandy Middle School’s principal sent one-fifth of her students home for bad behavior, according to a report on Watchdog.org.
Robert’s could have been one more story of dashed dreams except for two things: In 2013, Normandy lost its accreditation for persistently low academic performance, and Missouri’s Supreme Court ruled that children attending unaccredited schools could transfer to better-performing ones nearby. Two thousand children left Normandy schools—nearly half the district’s enrollment.
For ninth grade, Robert took an hour-long bus ride every morning to St. Charles, a school district where 93 percent of students are white. “He started to glow, he started to smile, life just got better for him overnight,” Paul says, with a grin in his voice. Robert’s grades improved, too.
This July, the Missouri Board of Education employed a technicality to suspend the controversial transfer program. But rather than send his son to Normandy High, Paul, a taxi driver who receives disability aid, found an apartment in St. Charles for $1,500 a month. He pays rent in addition to the mortgage on the house in Normandy he’s owned for 17 years.
In September, Paul went to his son’s band concert and caught a glimpse of Robert before the performance, tuning the 10-year-old clarinet his single father can’t afford to replace and talking to two classmates. Paul had never seen Robert talk amiably with a classmate before.
“The only bad part about this is the ol’ man gotta work like a dog,” Paul says, “but it showed me I wasn’t as sick as I thought I was. So trying to accomplish things brought a new sense of life to me. So I think I’m going to do fine, just like my Robert.”
About 18 months ago, someone claiming to work for the National Security Agency (NSA) called Huntsville, Ala., schools security director Al Lankford from a Washington, D.C., area code to alert him that a student had threatened his teacher on Twitter.
NSA spokesmen told AL.com their agency had no record of such a phone call. But the tip unearthed a student carrying an 8-inch knife on school property, so Huntsville asked its two security officers to start looking at students’ social media profiles when following up on similar tips.
State education officials have discussed hiring a company to scan social media constantly for similar threats, as a number of school districts across the country have done, but for now Huntsville isn’t quite that high-tech, said district spokesman Keith Ward: “We don’t have this room that looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.”
Handling student misbehavior is a high-tech business elsewhere, though. In California, habitually truant students can be fitted with ankle bracelets or other GPS tracking devices, according to a recent unanimous appeals court ruling. Dallas and Sacramento companies that contract with school districts monitor truant students’ locations using the GPS built into their cell phones. —J.P.