Year in Review: Heroes and villains
New roles and responsibilities for students, teachers, and parents emerged in 2019
Young men paid the ultimate price to save their classmates from gun violence. Teachers marched through the streets, demanding change. Prosecutors uncovered corruption in the high-stakes world of elite college admissions. Clashes characterized the field of education in 2019. The struggles that students, parents, and educators endured taught them important lessons they can carry into the new year.
January brought the release of the long-awaited investigative report into the 2018 Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The report cited failures by school security and local law enforcement in the horrific event in which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shot 34 people, killing 17 students and staff members. School Resource Officer and former Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson hunkered down in a stairwell for 48 agonizing minutes while the attack unfolded. While the report unflinchingly documented a sobering list of human and procedural errors, the authors also plainly stated that “the one true cause that resulted in 34 people being shot and/or killed” was the shooter himself.
Schools across the country worked overtime this year experimenting with a vast array of security upgrades and training exercises. Survivors of the Parkland shooting complained that they were “sitting ducks” under a popular protocol that instructs teachers and students to remain in their classrooms rather than flee during a shooting. New tactics emerged, many of which contained an option to run away or even fight back. Several states, including Texas and Florida, introduced new legislation or expanded existing laws to arm teachers and school personnel.
In May, two deadly shootings were cut short by young men who hurled themselves at the armed attackers. Riley Howell, a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, tackled a shooter who opened fire in his classroom. Howell’s selfless act cost him his life but bought enough time for a police officer to enter the room and capture the suspect. Days later, high school student Kendrick Castillo and two others acted similarly at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado. The three boys made split-second decisions to run toward a shooter, cutting off an attack. Castillo died, but his and his classmates’ actions prevented the assault from developing into a larger tragedy.
Numerous other incidents ended before they began. A quick-thinking high school security guard and former University of Oregon football star rushed a student pulling a shotgun out of his trench coat at a Portland-area high school in May. And in two separate December incidents in Wisconsin, veteran police officers shut down potential violence before it escalated. —L.E.
A massive college admissions scandal dominated education news for much of the year, due in part to the numerous celebrities tangled up in it. Operation Varsity Blues remains the single largest case of its kind ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The investigation led to charges against actresses Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and Lori Loughlin of Full House and more than two dozen other wealthy parents.
The federal government filed formal charges against 53 people alleged to have participated in the nearly decadelong scam in which parents paid tens of thousands of dollars to an admissions consulting company. That company used the funds to manipulate the college admissions process for elite schools like Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, Yale, and others. In some cases, the company bribed coaches to create fake athletic recruiting profiles for students who didn’t even play the named sports. In others, testing officials accepted payments to inflate scores for students taking the SAT and ACT college entrance exams.
The scam’s mastermind and owner of the consulting company, William “Rick” Singer, quickly agreed to cooperate with investigators, paving the way for the Justice Department to pursue charges against 33 parents and 20 others, including coaches and test proctors. To date, 29 people have pled guilty, 14 of whom were sentenced already. Huffman served a highly publicized two-week stint at a minimum-security prison in the San Francisco Bay Area in October. —L.E.
Students in the nation’s second-largest school district returned from last year’s Christmas vacation to find themselves suddenly on break again during January’s six-day Los Angeles Unified School District teachers strike. Both sides claimed victory in the end. Teachers won a 6 percent pay raise; the addition of 600 nurses, counselors, and other support positions; and the reduction of class sizes—all of which the district claimed it offered prior to the strike. District officials warned, though, that a $500 million budget deficit still loomed at the end of the school year.
February brought a three-day strike in Denver that resulted in an 11 percent pay raise, as well as a two-day walkout in West Virginia nearly a year to the day after a nine-day strike there launched the #REDforED movement. A wave of “sick-outs” in March followed in Kentucky, and teachers in Oakland, Calif., also went on strike for seven days.
After a quiet summer, the new school year roared in with controversy in the nation’s third-largest school district: the Chicago Public Schools. Teachers there stopped work for 11 days in a standoff with first-year Mayor Lori Lightfoot. In the end, Lightfoot, a Democrat, agreed to a 16 percent pay raise for teachers and committed to shrinking class sizes over the next five years. —L.E.
This year, survivors of sexual misconduct demanded institutional accountability for the damage that abusive university faculty wrought in their lives. Numerous victims groups filed lawsuits against several prominent schools, accusing them of ignoring or mishandling complaints and propping up serial abusers. They demanded accountability at Ohio State University, UCLA, and most notably at Michigan State University, where the now-convicted former sports doctor Larry Nassar preyed upon hundreds of young gymnasts over decades of employment by the institution.
The U.S. Department of Education fined Michigan State a record-setting $4.5 million in September for its failure to adequately respond to ongoing complaints about Nassar’s conduct.
The nation’s military academies also were forced to take a sober look at their campus cultures when a Pentagon survey revealed troubling increases in sexual assaults at the Army, Navy, and Air Force academies over the last three years. —L.E.
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