Schooled Reporting on education

‘Hearts without God’

Education | Texas lawmakers search for a policy solution to a spiritual problem after the latest school shooting
by Leigh Jones
Posted 5/23/18, 03:51 pm

HOUSTON—The media swarm that surrounded Santa Fe High School after Friday’s mass shooting has mostly dissipated. Cars and trucks once again speed past the campus on Highway 6, a two-lane divided road flanked by open pastures, ramshackle antique shops, and burger joints. A memorial of 10 white crosses surrounded by now-wilted flowers and stuffed animals offers the only visible reminder of the horror that unfolded at the school just five days ago.

Santa Fe, fiercely independent, like the rest of Texas, has turned in on its grief and resisted attempts to be made into the image of Parkland, Fla. Students and parents there became overnight celebrities in their campaign to end gun violence after the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Santa Fe residents just want to grieve in peace.

Locals’ unwillingness to entertain national media outlets longer than necessary may have contributed to what feels like a rapid loss of interest in this story. But the community’s approach to guns and gun control also seems like a mitigating factor. The national media narrative has focused on Texans’ stubborn refusal to give up their guns. The headline of one Associated Press story declared, “School shooting may not bring change to gun-loving Texas.” The implication? There’s nothing for “reasonable” people to see here, so let’s move on.

Texas leaders have vowed to bring change, just not the kind of change gun-control advocates want.

Hours after sheriff’s deputies took 17-year-old accused shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis into custody, a bevy of top state officials stood under a bright blue canopy just outside the school entrance and promised to do more than offer “thoughts and prayers.” Gov. Greg Abbott announced a series of roundtable discussions on school safety, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said policymakers would consider facility changes to make it harder for would-be shooters to come on campus undetected: “There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses in Texas.” One of my friends who works as an assistant principal at a south Houston high school put that into perspective: His campus has 50 entrances and exits. He said administrators there feel helpless to protect their students in such an open environment.

The day before Abbott held his first school safety meeting, federal education officials released video of a similar meeting hosted in Washington last week. Presenters there urged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to scrutinize instances of thwarted school shootings. “We could learn so much from studying how attacks have been prevented,” Marisa Reddy Randazzo, the former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service, told DeVos. Two other panelists urged educators to emphasize programs that help students better manage their emotions and make good decisions.

Texas leaders on Tuesday also discussed mental health and bullying, a stubborn problem the father of the Santa Fe shooting suspect, Antonios Pagourtzis, claims may have contributed to his son’s otherwise incomprehensible actions. School officials issued a strongly worded denunciation of claims the younger Pagourtzis suffered bullying. And fellow students gave conflicting accounts of the teen’s on-campus experience. While one student described Pagourtzis as “weird” and a “loner,” others said he just seemed quiet, but not abnormally so. Most expressed shock when they learned he was the suspected shooter.

Perhaps the Parkland shooting continued to make headlines for so long because it offered so many opportunities for reform: gun purchasing age limits, so-called assault weapons restrictions, mental health warning signs, campus policing failures. The Santa Fe shooting provided much less for legislators to latch onto.

“Every time there’s a shooting, everyone wants to talk about what the problem is,” Abbott said before Tuesday’s school safety roundtable meeting. “By now, we know what the problem is. The problem is innocent people are being shot. That must be stopped.”

But how to stop it remains agonizingly intractable. Pagourtzis used guns to kill two teachers and eight classmates, but he also brought homemade bombs. He snuck the weapons into the school, but he just as easily could have attacked his victims in the parking lot. People who want to kill others will find a way. His journals indicate he planned the attack for months, but he showed virtually no other signs of his murderous intent.

Nearly a week before the Santa Fe shooting, Abbott spoke at the National Rifle Association conference in Dallas. In what now seems like a prescient speech, he summed up the reason legislators can’t stop every killer every time, no matter how many laws they pass: “The problem is not guns. The problem is hearts without God.”

Associated Press/Photo by Rich Pedroncelli Associated Press/Photo by Rich Pedroncelli Ina Rogers (far right) with reporters on May 14 in Fairfield, Calif.

Homeschoolers face new challenge in California

Another child abuse case out of California has activists again calling on lawmakers to consider homeschool regulations they recently set aside.

Last week, prosecutors in Fairfield charged 31-year-old Ina Rogers with nine counts of felony child abuse for failing to stop her husband, Jonathan Allen, from abusing their kids. Police found nine children in filthy conditions after a 10th child ran away and called for help. Officials rescued the children in March but didn’t make details of the case public until they charged the parents. Prosecutors say the children, between 6 months and 12 years old, suffered puncture wounds, burns, bruising, and injuries consistent with being shot with a pellet gun.

Rogers told reporters who interviewed her before her arrest that she decided to homeschool her children because they weren’t getting the attention they needed in public school. But she never registered as a private school, the method California uses to track parents who teach at home. Anti-homeschool activists, as they did after the discovery of the 13 Turpin children, say officials could have prevented this tragedy if they had a mandate to check up on children who don’t go to a traditional school.

Earlier this month, homeschooling families rallied at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers not to support a bill that would have created a public registry of homeschoolers in response to the Turpin case. After hearing nearly three hours of testimony, lawmakers decided not to press the issue. One lawmaker who responded to a “thank you” letter from the Home School Legal Defense Association said he believed the legislative committee had “achieved the right outcome.”

Will that conviction hold as more details of the latest case emerge? Two key factors could influence future debate. First, Rogers claimed Child Protective Services investigated the family several years ago over an abuse claim and found it unsubstantiated. State officials have not confirmed or denied that. Second, Rogers and Allen didn’t follow existing state law governing homeschooling. What makes lawmakers think additional regulations would have brought them into line? —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times Associated Press/Photo by Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times Graduates at the Seminole High School commencement ceremony on May 16 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

High school grads trade tweets for free shoes

High school senior Sarah Agee looked forward to walking across the stage to pick up her diploma during graduation, but she didn’t want to take those momentous steps in high heels. Instead, she suggested the female graduates at Seminole High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., wear matching Crocs. For a laugh, she tweeted the shoe company to ask how many retweets it would take to get free shoes for the entire class. The response? “2018 … obviously.” Agee and her friends racked up the retweets in no time, and the company shipped their reward in plenty of time. Last week, many (though not all) of the girls wore their free shoes during their graduation ceremony. Agee’s last high school lesson? If you don’t ask, you won’t receive. —L.J.

A new perspective?

As previously noted, lawmakers often view homeschooling with suspicion. That’s a stance shared by the media, which pounced on the homeschooling connection in recent child abuse cases. But the increasing interest in homeschooling among African-American families could change that perspective. A story this month in The Atlantic touts the “radical self-reliance” of black parents who choose to educate their children at home. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 05/24/2018 11:14 pm

    Sentence from The Atlantic article: "Among them are those who take issue with homeschooling more generally, arguing that it is not sufficiently regulated as to guarantee children are getting a quality education."

    The problem with that statement is the lack of definition for the words "quality education."  After all, who determines the "quality?"

    Every parent wants their child to be able to read and write, to cipher, to know of their history and their world.  And that is why parents - black, white, Asian, Mexican, Christian, Muslim - homeschool their children: to teach them to be ready to live in the world with a confidence in who they are.

    I am glad that black parents are realizing that the public education system is not any friend to parents who want their children to be able to think for themselves. It is about time that all parents pull their children from a system that just wants to create "classes" of citizens based on standards created by people without children.

    Go to it!, I say.