Saturday, February 7, 2015

Putting Indiana To The Test

There are plenty of people who successfully sit through 20+ hours of standardized tests.

They are called lawyers.

Even a college entrance exam only lasts four hours.

Because my elementary-aged, special needs daughters stand to be subjected to 20+ hours of ISTEP testing with their accommodations, I’ve been digging into the background of these current troubles with Indiana’s ISTEP miseries.

I am a writer and a researcher. I tell stories for a living. There’s a lot of political speak to wade through when it comes to what is happening in Indiana public education, and this is what I have deduced.

Before we get started? If I am wrong on any of these points? I am willing to stand corrected.

That said? Here goes.

In March of 2014, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed new legislation that made Indiana the first to opt out of national Common Core standards set by the US Department of Education. 

To be honest, I am glad this happened. My rocket scientist husband has had difficulty helping our elementary daughters with their Common Core math homework.

I didn't even attempt it.

From a parent’s perspective, Common Core is about learning different ways to do a math problem. Which sounds good, until students are actually required to learn and remember all three ways of doing a problem instead of the one way that works best for them.

For a kid with memory retrieval disorder, this can be hell.

If Indiana Common Core standards had been about students having some options? This might have made sense. 

But it wasn't. Pissed off parents were represented by their Governor, and Common Core was no longer the modus operandi for Indiana kids.

That should have been the end of it.

Instead, it was just the beginning of a roller coaster ride with all of the thrills and spills of an expensive, divisive, politically-charged mess. 

Better buckle up.

From my perch here in rural Southern Indiana, that doesn’t seem to be the case. 

Here’s why:

After Governor Pence’s approval of Indiana’s legislative decision to opt out of Common Core, State Superintendent Glenda Ritz received a letter from the US Department of Education Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle. Delisle indicated that without the Common Core Assessments, Indiana would be in violation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended.

A bit of background on the ESEA might be helpful.

You probably know ESEA as No Child Left Behind. The current version of the legislation was authorized by George W. Bush in 2002, and the Federal Government “required states to conduct annual testing in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 with the tests requiring alignment with state academic standards.

In English, this means that the state was going to have to take on a greater responsibility for streamlining education for every school corporation in the state of Indiana.

Because we all know that every school corporation is created equal. Inner city, suburban, rural. Completely the same in every way.

(Can you hear my eyes rolling?)

While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama called for “commonsense” changes to the No Child Left Behind Legislation. Mainly, he suggested that the Department of Education ditch the annual testing requirements. 

Because I loathe the notion of little children filling in Scantron sheets when they could be doing something productive for their brain development, you might imagine how this made me feel.

But he also asked for a teacher evaluation system in each state that “would incorporate data on student growth.”

So that sounds like testing. How else would you generate data? Am I right?

Understandably, sensible Hoosiers got hacked about these requirements coming from Washington; these mandates insinuated that we weren't smart enough to educate our children without federal interference.

Fortunately, before there was true revolt, the Obama Administration authorized waivers for the ESEA or No Child Left Behind. In 2011, Indiana applied and was one of ten states approved for ESEA flexibility. 

There were, however, strings attached to this waiver.

My mentor, a seasoned history teacher, has taught me a mantra for living. It is as follows:

“There is no such thing as rescue. The Marines are not coming.”

This is to remind me that solutions to my problems - whether at home or in my business - are best generated and executed by me. 

It is also to remind me that anyone who claims to be a Marine to rescue me from a clear and present danger is usually just an opportunist.

In 2011, Indiana had a lot of work to do for this waiver. A lot of work.

Enter the opportunists.

Like I said, I'm a storyteller. So when I am developing characters, I like to think of analogies. The players here aren’t unlike carpetbaggers after the Civil War.  They smell money to be made, and they swoop in with easy answers.

Unfortunately, these easy answers ended up costing Indiana quite a bit of political stability.

Like carpetbaggers after the truce at Appomattox, virtual charter schools like Connections Academy and K12 appeared in Indiana nearly overnight.  They were looking for just this kind of opening – a federal mandate for the state of Indiana that they could monetize.

In 2011, the Indiana Department of Education authorized an Office of Charter Schools. These charter schools were created as a means of intervention to fit with the first part of the Federal flexibility requirements.

Here’s where it gets a little weird. 

Indiana students weren’t in dire straits prior to opting out of No Child Left Behind requirements. The only children that needed intervention and improvement were already receiving it in their local school districts. All Indiana had to do was document what was already being done to satisfy the first requirement. The State Board of Education could have created an improvement plan, implemented that improvement plan, and documented that improvement plan without for-profit charter schools.

But when someone is dangling money at your legislators, sometimes they just seem to get weak.

My grandmother had a name for people who were willing to lay down for a dollar. But that's beside the point.

Unfortunately, charter schools did not solve Indiana's troubles.

In fact? They may have made our situation worse.

For the most recent ESEA waiver, Indiana came up with their own standards apart from the Common Core. This meant that yet another new test needed to be developed.

Time for more opportunists. Enter the test writers!

When you create a test that no one has ever seen before, you have to pilot questions for accuracy. 

Indiana had hoped to be able to pilot these questions prior to this spring’s mandatory ISTEP examinations. Everyone seemed to be on schedule and on target.

Remember, Indiana formally opted out of the Common Core in March. Superintendent Ritz had received another letter about ESEA requirements in May. 

In June of 2014, the United States Department of Education, under the direction of Secretary Arne Duncan, demanded that Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz would have to “impose a new statewide standardized test on K-12 students…to maintain control over $200 million a year in federal education funding.” 

Which seemed to derail everything. Different standards were necessary than the ones in motion.

Why? No one is certain. A Democrat White House takes on a popular Republican governor? A Department of Education Secretary with a bee in his bonnet? The Gates Foundation totally uncool with Indiana's decision to thumb its nose at their prescriptive path of data-driven reform and high stakes testing?

And, as if to twist the knife, the US Department of Education absolutely refused to wait another year to accept a test based on the state’s new education standards. This had to be done immediately, or federal funding was going to be cut off.

Forget that Indiana had standards in place and an existing ISTEP exam that could have been recycled. The US Department of Education mandated a complete overhaul. 

This wasn't good enough for the federal government. So much for being able to opt out of the Common Core and grant local control to your school corporations.

So State Superintendent Glenda Ritz went to work to secure Indiana’s funding. $65 million dollars was authorized by the legislature and spent to develop this new test according to the new Indiana state standards. 

$65 million to secure $200 million. Not bad, I guess.

The Indiana Department of Education had to exact new state standards, distribute those to educators, and come up with appropriate testing. First the standards, then the test.

All in a time crunch.

CTB/McGraw-Hill just finished creating that test last month. Complete with all of the pilot questions. For every student.

We don't really know if it will work or not. You may recall that last year's technology glitches really impaired Indiana's school children in their quest for excellence.

And all of the test questions haven't exactly been reviewed.

In normal circumstances, piloting is done on just that: a pilot basis. It allows test creators to get data to help them modify the test before the actual test so that it is more fair.

But with the squeeze from the US Department of Education, there just wasn’t time to pilot the test. So now every Indiana student has to take every potential question. Or so says CTB/McGraw-Hill.

So third, fourth, and fifth grade students now have to pilot questions in addition to taking an actual test for their evaluation. This means that third graders - 8 and 9 year olds - are scheduled in a month to be testing for 12 hours and 30 minutes.

And most of those questions won't even count.

The amount of time that students will be tested has either doubled or, in some cases, tripled. And for students with special needs or English as a second language with time and a half accommodations, this means students will miss out on valuable and critical classroom instruction and specials in order to complete the test.

Interestingly, Indiana lawmakers are currently considering scrapping the whole of ISTEP for an off-the-shelf test with standards and guidelines consistent with (you guessed it!) the Common Core. The same Common Core that Indiana sought a waiver from in the first place.

As sick as this is, it might actually be doable if the stakes were minimal.

But our kids haven’t been prepared for those Common Core standards this year.

And remember those A-F grades I mentioned earlier? They weigh into this equation pretty heavily.

Because nine year olds filling in bubble sheets with their trusty number two pencils determine their teacher's effectiveness, their school's quality, and their state's education system.

The A-F scale hasn’t been without other controversies. One charter school, Christel House, has been under scrutiny regarding their scores since their founder, Christel DeHaan, was found to be a contributor to former State Superintendent Tony Bennett’s campaign. 

Christel House’s grades were consistent As when Bennett was State Superintendent. However, the school’s grade dropped to an F in 2012-2013 “after test scores made a dramatic drop…A legislative investigation later deemed Bennett’s A-F changes ‘plausible’ and the state’s ethics commission declined to bring charges against him based on the Christel House concerns. In July (DeHaan) paid a fine for campaign law violation.

Despite all of these concerns, Indiana is moving forward to use this year’s ISTEP exam with all of its pilots and probable student test fatigue as a means of evaluating schools and teachers.

Enter more opportunists disguised as helpful Marines. 

We really should be more leery of people who seem to have all the right answers.

“’In another other parameter or any other statistical group, that would be a miracle, and I would be lauded,’ Brugioni said.”

Mr. Brugioni would bomb his TNTP-sponsored evaluations.

God only knows how much the state of Indiana is paying TNTP to be consultants.

Clearly, local control of is not in the interest of The New Teacher Project, a spinoff of Teach For America, which I actually like as an organization.  I hope one of my kids works for them someday.

They are all about that test. Which makes me wonder if they truly understand how poverty affects students. Mr. Brugioni's students made incredible leaps in his classroom.

Leaps that go unnoticed by standardized tests. Because standardized tests don't account for variables like poverty.

This entire episode of educational stress has caused a great deal of political turmoil in our state. It has seriously divided our people and created a lot of bad blood.

The biggest example is the hardest for me to understand.  Indiana Senate and House leaders have been moving legislation forward to replace State Superintendent Glenda Ritz – a state official duly elected by 1.3 million Hoosiers – as the chair of the Indiana State Board of Education, a huge obviously politically motivated distraction from all of the craziness at hand.

I assume this is because the Governor wishes to appoint his own people to the State Board of Education.

The question is why.

Why not work with State Superintendent Ritz to just solve some of these problems? Why can't these two elected officials join their superpowers and take on the US Department of Education, ESEA Legislation, and the unfair waiver – the unseemly, God-awful No Child Left Behind waiver with teeth in it that started all of this mess in the first place?

Be all like "Hey Department of Education! Don’t tell us that we can opt out of Common Core and not give us all of the consequences up front. Don’t tell us out of one side of your mouth that you support local control of our schools while creating evaluation systems that negate the expertise of our administrators. Don’t penalize us for creating culturally relevant educational opportunities for all of Indiana’s students!"

But even with him being a Republican and her being a Democrat, it does seem that the Indiana House and Senate Republican Majorities really wouldn’t want to anger part of their base – a base that clearly got Superintendent Ritz elected in the first place – by getting shed of her.

When people vote, they kind of expect their winner to be able to govern.

If I were Governor, I would extend an olive branch. But what do I know?

Since I don’t have much besides what I hope is common sense, I would like to propose some common sense solutions to this mess. Simple, small government solutions to get Indiana through this year and onto next year.

First? Scrap ISTEP for 2015.

You heard me. Forget it. Tear it up. Shred it. Fini. 

“But what about the $200 million dollars that we are going to lose in Federal funding?”

Well, remember all of that money that Indiana has been saving for a rainy day? The $2 billion in reserves and an annual budget surplus of $100 million?

Let’s take 10% - just 10% of our reserves - to cover the quagmire created by the demands of the United States Department of Education. We'll build it back in interest alone in two years.

"What about the $65 million we spent developing this test? Won't it be wasted?"

Consider it stupid tax for not pressing harder against the US Department of Education. And keep moving forward.

Go back to the drawing board. Create state standards in line with an off-the-shelf test like Iowa or Stanford. Eliminate the ECA and get our kids ready for the PSAT, SAT, and ACT.

You know. Tests that will actually help in them on their journey. And less than a tenth of the cost of ISTEP.

Send the carpetbaggers packing. They came to make money off of our situation. They made it. Like I said? Stupid tax. Time to move on.

Go to Washington, Governor Pence and Superintendent Ritz. Arm in arm in the best bipartisan way you can imagine. Testify as to the bind that ESEA puts states in. Demand local control for our schools that is developmentally and culturally appropriate. Tell Senator Lamar Alexander how it is. Get our representatives and Senators Donnelly and Coats to lead the way to keep from testing America’s kids to death.

Especially children with special needs and CHINS cases. Our teachers know by October if those kids are going to pass by Spring. Let our schools create appropriate intervention plans for each at-risk child that move them on a path toward steady growth, no matter where they begin on that path.

If we must have charter schools, we ought to hold them to a higher standard than our public schools. Call them what they are – for-profit companies taking public money. They can refuse students; a public school cannot. They should be held to higher standards.

And for the love of Pete, reconsider the basis of the A-F ratings. If a school is in trouble, intervene with love and support, not punitive, restrictive practices that are akin to bullying. Help communities buy in as stakeholders and take pride in their schools.

Reward progress and innovation. Instead of offering parents $100 grocery cards to lure them into charter schools, start 529 accounts for students and give them visions and dreams for college.

Our young people deserve an end to the fighting and backroom deals. The grownups need to model decorum and respect, even if we disagree.

We can do better. 

We have to do better.

Our future as Hoosiers depends on it.

UPDATE: I've learned that some Indiana charter schools are attached to nonprofits instead of being for profit. That might be alright, but I still think they deserve some scrutiny. Just like any contractor attempting to do business with the state.

UPDATE: I've heard from four members of the Indiana State Board of Education. They are sympathetic to parental and educator concern about the length of these exams. One went so far as to say that hours have been spent on the telephone "making calls to state and federal specialists in the hopes of finding another alternative."

They've vowed to continue fighting. I appreciate their work.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We Are Newtown

What happened at Newtown, CT on Friday rocked our nation to its very core.   

I can't imagine identifying my baby's body at the same school that I dropped them off at hours before.  I can't imagine my child, covered in the blood of other children, telling me that she played dead in order to stay alive.  I can't imagine being at a fire station, anxiously waiting for my babies to return, only to hear that there are no more survivors.

And yet I must imagine it.  Because this happened.  It really, really happened.  In a place where no one thought it could ever happen. 

We big people have to make sure that it never happens again.

Like most Americans, I've been glued to the news.  Probably because I live in a place a lot like Newtown.  A place where everyone knows my kids and where I know everyone - or at least their cousins.

Like a lot of other parents in America, I struggled with sending my children to school yesterday.

There's a doorbell on my son's junior high school - much like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary.  You ring the buzzer, and it unlocks the door.  A camera shoots an image to a fuzzy black and white screen, where a secretary not versed in law enforcement buzzes people in.   

There's an unarmed security guard at my son's high school, and someone at a guard shack who is supposed to ask me where I'm headed.  She usually just waves me on.  When I visit his school, I sign in, grab a badge, and go unescorted anywhere I want to go in the building. 

My mom has worked in an elementary school for 26 years.  She's the secretary at a large school in another town.   She also has the same security set up as the one at Sandy Hook.  She can see people coming in - but she can't see what they are carrying.  She is the first line of defense for her school.

We worry about her safety. 

A friend of mine is a teacher's aide.  She's been assigned to just one student.  He hits, claws, bites, and threatens to kill her.  Daily. 

She's afraid of him.  She continues in this position because she and her family need the income.

Right after watching the CNN coverage of the Interfaith Memorial Service in Newtown, the phone rang.  It was our superintendent with a recorded message about how we take security at our schools very seriously.

I love our school corporation, but the methods of security have not increased as dramatically as the needs of the population they are serving.

Recently, at a local Rotary Club meeting, I learned of the consequences of the severe lack of mental health services in our community. 

We had a young man in our town commit a murder - extremely rare in our neck of the woods.  He was suffering from untreated mental illness.  He was treatable.

Why?  He couldn't afford the treatment.

So now, this young man is in prison.  And the cost to society - a dead woman, children without a father, and the cost of prison upkeep - is far more than his medication and treatment would ever have been.

People around this county like to hunt, and I'm the rare person who doesn't own a gun.  But even my hunting friends scratch their heads and wonder why anyone would need to own an AR-15 for any purpose other than killing a person.  It is a semi-automatic version of the M-16.

And, hey boys?  Despite what this ad suggests?  A gun won't make you more of a man.

An AR-15 is a weapon of war that I can just go and purchase nearly anywhere.  And plenty of ammunition to go with it.  I don't have a criminal history, but what in the world do I need with an assault rifle if I'm not in Afghanistan? 

Can I use a different kind of rifle for hunting, or does my need to feel like a badass trump public safety?

As an aside, it's interesting how the NRA has been strangely silent throughout this tragedy.  Their Facebook page has disappeared, right after claiming 1.7 million subscribers.  Why not use this time to champion second amendment rights?  Where is the gun lobby now?

I keep hearing that it is time for meaningful dialogue.

I'm ready.

First, the lack of mental health care for people in this country is appalling.  I have a dear friend whose 18 year old granddaughter has started hearing voices.  The facilities can take her for three days at a time as an emergency, but that isn't long enough to get this young woman stabilized with any meaningful accuracy.

As this article suggests, the threat of someone with mental illness becoming violent - which is rare - diminishes considerably when that person can receive adequate treatment.

So, step one?  Get the APA and the AMA to give their recommendations for those facing a mental health crisis - and then put that at the top of the list for nationalized health care. 

And while we're at it, let's lose the stigma against mental illness and the need for therapy.  If we all had a good therapist and a Sunday afternoon nap, we'd probably have world peace. 

Second, create a buyback program where people can trade their guns for cash.

Third, create a license for firearms that feeds into a national database.  Make the license at least as difficult to obtain as a driver's license.  If we can require people to have automobile insurance, we can require them to have proof of a safe in which to store firearms.  Stop allowing unlicensed kids to do target practice at shooting ranges.  License the bearer as well as the firearm.

The final step is two-fold.  First, increase security at every school in America by placing a police officer at the front door or perimeter.  These can be recently discharged veterans who are trained to sniff out danger.  This need not seem like a prison guard - we need to teach children that police officers are their friends, and there's no reason why the presence of a cop - a helper - need be intimidating to children.  

Next, install an alarm system that a teacher or staff member can activate that would send teachers and children into lockdown mode, just as they would alert the school to fire or inclement weather.  No more principals throwing themselves at gunmen while yelling down hallways to alert teachers to danger.  No more students threatening teachers and staff without dire consequences and a strong action plan that secures the health and safety of all students at school.

Let's have a better way. 

How do we pay for this?  Tax ammunition.  That ought to generate some pretty good revenue.  Also, I wonder how much money we allocate for standardized testing, much of which is developmentally inappropriate anyway?  

In order to prevent another Newtown, we have to prevent criminals from ever becoming criminals.

How do we get Congress on board?  I know, these guys are willing to plunge us over a cliff rather than compromise.  

One of my friends said this:  "It is mighty easy for a politician who sits in an Ivory Tower in Washington behind guards and scanners to decide not to do anything about the gun laws and gun violence. They and their staff members lead protected lives of privilege. If they refuse to make serious change, I propose elimination of all Capital Hill security at the same time. Turn about is fair play, right?"

If it's good enough for Congress, it's good enough for our kids.  And I think in the light of this tragedy, where all Americans can see the faces of their children when they see these precious angels at Sandy Hook?  I think they are willing to listen.

Since we have tolerated violence as inevitable, and since we have denied money for mental health awareness and treatment to the most vulnerable of our citizens, we must deal with the consequences so that no other parents deal with the devastation at Sandy Hook.

While all I can truly do for the families and first responders at Sandy Hook is pray and offer meager condolences, I can honor the memories of these tiny people and those that cared for them by combining my voice with others to help bring about real change.

So can you.  We are Newtown. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Victims Of Rape Potentially Guilty Of Federal Crimes?

When did sanity and common sense fall out of fashion?

Today, I learned that the Quiverfull superstars The Duggars of TLC's '19 and Counting' fame are actively campaigning for Todd Akin.  

And it hit me like a truck - of course!  It's because the Patriarchy movement has found its voice in the Tea Party.

To be clear, I do not like abortion.  I don't know anyone who truly does, be they pro-choice or pro-life.

But, regardless of how I feel, how can we as a freedom-loving culture possibly mandate a forced pregnancy for a woman after brutal rape or incest?

It's important to note that many Patriarchy proponents would not allow for an abortion to save the life of a woman in the event of an ectopic pregnancy or any other situation that would put her life in danger.

If these guys had their way nine years ago, you wouldn't be reading this post.

We had a pregnancy - a baby.  The position of that baby in my body threatened my life.  We were fortunate enough to have a physician who was compassionate and helped me make a choice because my life was indeed in grave danger.  I was bleeding internally.  Something drastic had to happen.

I grieve the loss of this child daily.

Daily, I am thankful that I get to be the mother of four amazing children.  Thankfully, I am not dead because of some stupid law thought up by heartless, controlling bureaucrats intent on foisting their religious convictions upon me.

I am grateful that I still have a choice in the matter of my own life or death.

These 15 (13 men, 2 women) are asking for laws for situations that the majority of them will never personally encounter.  They will not know what it means to sign the papers in the hospital to terminate a pregnancy.  Hopefully, they will never know rape, but if they do, they won't have to worry about a resulting pregnancy.  Save the two women.  I'd love to know what they are thinking.   

Bad things happen.  There are sociopathic rapists in our world.  There are pregnancies that end up hurting the women that carry them.  There are women who choose to keep their babies, regardless of how they were conceived.

And then there are women who could not fathom carrying a child conceived by a rapist for nine months who will then have parental rights and access to that child.  She'll never be rid of her perpetrator.  Never. 

But we're really thinking of making it a federal crime for these women to choose to abort a fetus conceived by no will of their own?  Really?  Criminals for taking a morning-after pill? 

Where is it going to stop?

These 15 politicians who want to take away this choice from victims of rape and incest?  They won't raise this kid or provide any stipend for help.  They won't authorize mental healthcare for the woman's healing, let alone healthcare to pay for her medical expenses, maternity leave, or prenatal visits. 

Don't believe that's going to happen?  "A bill in the Pennsylvania House proposing the reduction of welfare benefits for low-income women contains a provision requiring a woman who became pregnant from rape to prove that she reported her assault." (Huffington Post Politics, 10/25/12)

So now she has to prove that she was assaulted before she can receive benefits?  Hope she doesn't try to get a rape kit processed to prove assault - she'll have to wait in a line of 221,000. 

The Patriarchy Movement has its foot in the door.  And if we give them an inch, it is just a matter of time before they get their entire agenda codified into law. 

Victims of crime deserve better treatment than to be potentially locked up in federal prison.  Demand that those who represent your wishes in Congress (be they Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green - whatever) keep abortion legal for rape and incest survivors.  Allow survivors to deal with impending pregnancies as they choose, not as the government chooses for them.

Maybe we could put our energies into locking up the 221,000 rapists who are out there on the loose instead of browbeating their victims and making demands on them.  Women - all women - deserve better.

If you or someone you love has been hurt sexually and need help, please contact the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.  Click Here for the link.  You are not alone; they can help.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Billy, I Hardly Know Ye

I might have lost a hero yesterday afternoon.

The first time I heard this man speak,  I was six years old, visiting my great-grandparents home in Orlando.  The year was 1981.

It was after supper.  A "farm supper," Grandma had called it.  My baby brother and I were sitting on a latchhook rug playing with his squeaky Seven Dwarves that my great aunt had purchased for him.  Grandpa turned on the massive console television, and there was a man singing.  We stopped playing, and we watched the man sing. 

Grandpa noticed that we noticed.  He leaned forward in his recliner to explain what we were seeing.

"That's George Beverly Shea," he explained.  "He's singing about Jesus."

And then a lot of people in the stadium audience started clapping.  And then a man started talking.  I don't remember all that he said, but I remember feeling warm all over.  Then that George Beverly Shea started singing a song I had never heard before, called Just As I Am.

It reminded me of Mr. Rogers.  Mr. Rogers liked me just the way I was, and apparently, so did this Jesus character.

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon, where I saw this headline:

"Billy Graham's Organization Removes Mormonism From Its List of Cults.":

Most people know that I have long been an advocate for cult and spiritual abuse survivors.  That I have studied cults in depth for over a decade.  That I wrote and produced an award-winning independent film about spiritual abuse. 

What they might not know is how I've invited Mormon missionaries into my home on many occasions for a meal and to listen to their recruitment speech.  Often they are teenage boys who are hungry.  So I feed them and listen.

And I ask questions.  So many in fact that the local bishop often sends different missionaries to meet with me the next week.

It is my strong conviction after speaking with a number of ex-Mormons and Mormon missionaries and after reading several perspectives (including Mormon ones) that the Mormon church is indeed a cult.

It used to be a conviction shared by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Until a Mormon decided to run for President.  As a Republican.  The reference to Mormonism as a dangerous cult on their website is no more.

Yesterday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association took out an ad that asks Americans to "cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles..." 

I wonder if biblical principles include the following:
Secret underwear cliches and Big Love jokes aside, I know that I am running the risk of treating the faith of a potential President as non-eminent.  But in this day and age, this seems a normative practice.
Remember in 2000 how we constantly heard of the faith of George W. Bush, and how the President drew upon that faith to make tough decisions in the White House?

I also hearken back to the Jeremiah Wright scandal - the question then was 'how could Obama sit under a man like Jeremiah Wright and not be affected by his radical teachings?'  After all, Franklin Graham, Billy's son and the presumed heir-apparent of the $127 million dollar Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has questioned whether President Obama, a man who claims Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, is truly a Christian.

So it seems to beg the question: why isn't Franklin Graham up to the task of questioning the $4M that Mitt and Ann Romney gave to the Mormon Church.  Sounds like the Romneys are more than nominal Mormons; after all, in the last debate, Mitt Romney claimed to be a pastor in his church.  And four million seems to make him pretty vested in the LDS Church.  Does this not deserve scrutiny?

At the very least, Franklin or some other high ranking evangelical should ask Mitt publicly what his relationship with his precious children and grandchildren would be like should they choose to leave the Mormon church.   

Or will the Romneys get some sort of celebrity pass on the command of shunning in order to cement Mormonism as another harmless version of Evangelicalism?

But I suppose that if Romney is asked about anything, he can justifiably lie about it.  Misguide, redirect, offer a five point plan without really telling American voters what it is really all about. 

And even if he does tell us, will it be the truth?

But back to my hero. Billy Graham is 94 years old.  Hopefully, he is merely a figurehead of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  The text of the Wall Street Journal ad just didn't ring true with me.  This is a man who historically has invited all candidates to the table and prayed for them.  He's never gotten involved in politics historically, except to provide spiritual counsel to sitting Presidents.

I'm going to retain my childhood memory of Billy Graham as the man that told me that Jesus loved me.  But the organization that bears his name ought to explain to their contributors that they are using their hard-earned contributions to gain political power and prowess through thinly-veiled political ads that look something like this: 

We question Obama's Christianity; we love Mitt's father, George and believe Mitt to be following in his footsteps.  It's too theologically damaging to talk about Mormonism as a destructive cult.  Now, vote for someone who will support Israel and protect the sanctity of marriage. 

Gee.  I wonder who the BGEA is endorsing for President.  

As a taxpayer, I don't wish to support a parachurch organization obeying the letter of the law by the skin of their teeth while endorsing a political candidate with millions of dollars of print advertisements that  seem as carefully crafted as a man washing clean pots in a soup kitchen with buttoned sleeves.

I would call upon the IRS to carefully examine and investigate whether the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is violating the terms of their 501(c)3 agreement in purchasing these ads.  If they are found to be acting as a political action committee, they need to follow the rules accordingly.  

And if they are found in violation, they need to be taxed appropriately.

I love you, Billy Graham.  I wish you were doing what you do best: inviting people to allow Jesus Christ to come into their lives and change the landscape.  Reminding people of their brokenness.  Binding up wounds.  Inviting people to the Lord's table.  

And not giving cult groups a pass for the sake of political expediency.  

Monday, June 25, 2012


The spring before my junior year, I was invited to do something extraordinary.

A new residential magnet school for gifted and talented students was starting up in our state.  I had applied and was invited to become a part of this new venture.

In 1992, I graduated from that institution that I helped build with 141 of my classmates.

There are a few things that I've learned since that time about educating gifted children.  I've now parented four high-ability children for a number of years.  And mind you, these are strictly my observations of what I see as general trends.  Variances, of course, exist within individuals.  This is not scientific data.

Gifted children tend to be high-achieving procrastinators.

They are rebellious if rules seem arbitrary with unsatisfactory explanations.

They are compliant if they love the authority figure.

They don't make friends remarkably easily, as a general rule.  When friends are made, they are made for life.  Often friends outside their ability level are much older.

They read more than is probably healthy.

They do not wish to be rewarded for their giftedness with more tasks.

They sometimes have difficulty expressing their feelings but are also hypersensitive.

They 'think outside the box', preferring to believe that boxes are really just arbitrary constructs that may no longer be working models, if indeed they ever worked at all.  And yet a working model that they themselves generate will be cherished as a tradition for many years to come.

They save things - scraps of paper, ideas, material culture, people.

They compare themselves to other high-ability people, and they tend to negate their self worth based upon their personal performance.  This can sometimes look as if they are looking down on others when, in actuality, the opposite is true.

They play games and see debate as a sport.

They shame themselves for not being stellar students in every discipline.

They tend to overlook problems in others, mainly because they themselves struggle with appropriate social skills.

They appear to disassociate when, in actuality, they are making a connection or solving a problem.

They work better alone than in a group, and they will take on monumental projects just for the challenge.  If they work in a group, it is truly better for each person to take on a task and see it through to completion.  Alone.

They use big words.

They hate not knowing what something means.  They feel they should know what everything means.

They see incredible value in things that seem statistically or socially arbitrary to popular culture.

So, imagine 142 gifted and talented teenagers with varying degrees of introversion, self-aggrandizement, self-depreciation, and socio-economic backgrounds all being thrown together in what amounted to a two year melting pot of a summer camp.

Yes, we fought.  Epic battles of will and anger that only teenagers can call forth.  Well, teenagers and third-world dictators.

Yes, we procrastinated for the adrenaline rush of waiting until the last minute (and sometimes beyond the last minute) to finish a task.

Yes, we took liberties.  When our professor told us we could bring in a 3x5 card with notes for an exam, we brought in a 3 foot by 5 foot card.  Because scale wasn't specified.

Yes, we bucked the system.  If we didn't respect you as a professor, i.e. if you made arbitrary rules that you could not explain to us, we chose not to perform for you.  And if you're reading this, we probably talked about you.  Mercilessly.  And we still probably do.

Yes, we worked hard.  If we did respect you as a professor, we would work round the clock for days, shunning food and sleep to exceed your expectations.  And if you're reading this, we probably talked about you.  Adoringly.  And we will never forget you.

Yes, we dated each other.  Generally, this ended badly.  If you are wondering why, see the aforementioned attributes of gifted teenagers.  But unlike other teenage dating experiences, we chose to maintain people as friends.  Perhaps there was a hiatus.  A cooling off period, if you will.  But gifted kids can't throw people away.  We worried about these people and could never seem to permanently write them off.  They are part of our collection, and we are hoarders.

Fortunately, we matured and learned boundaries.  But we still maintained an appreciation for one another, regardless of how big the drama truly got.

Like most teenagers, we wondered if we had what it took to make it in this world.  But by 'make it', we wondered if we had what was necessary to make a difference.  Shake up the status quo.  

Yes, we were needy.  Yes, we were horny.  Yes, we were jealous of each other.

And yes, we've grown up.

We reunited this weekend after twenty years of being separated.  It's tough to get 142 adults in the same room together.  A few couldn't come because of scheduling conflicts or abject circumstances.  One of us has gone to his reward.  We missed everyone who wasn't present.

Thankfully, we've matured.  Well, at least enough to recognize that as lone wolf individuals, we aren't really all that important.  And yet we are incredibly important as both individuals and a collective.  It's a strange paradox.  I am not sure that I have my head quite wrapped around it yet.

My family lovingly dubbed this reunion NerdCon2012.  But this shouldn't be seen as disparaging. My children have benefited tremendously from their relationship with my Academy friends.  They are helping my kids prepare for SATs and choose college majors.  They have given my kids advice about life.  They have taught my kids to play games and to relax, something that was damned near impossible for us at their age.  Well, I mean we played plenty of games, but that relaxation part was something else.

As a reuniting class, it doesn't matter how much money we make.  It doesn't matter how many degrees we hold.  It doesn't matter what we wear. What matters to us now is that we are together.  That we see each other as quirky, crazy people who have a place in this world even if that place is only within our group.  We shelter each other from storms.  We love ourselves in spite of ourselves.

We're married and partnered.  We're falling in love. We have offspring.  We've changed careers almost as many times as we've changed colleges.  We've had tough losses.  We've been hurt.  We have missions in life.  We fight good fights. We are creating and achieving, and we are relaxing and laughing more instead of less.  We are still anxious, but we're healing.  We still read entirely more than is healthy.  We inspire each other to try new things.  We will never be finished with our life's work.

And like no other people on this planet, we understand each other.

I think we're far more compassionate than we used to be.  We're older.  Hopefully wiser.  We're gentler with one another.  We know that our time on earth is limited.  We're hoping to make the most of it together.

I'm really glad that I accepted the invitation to become a part of the Indiana Academy.  I thought I was just going to a school.  I didn't realize that I was choosing new family members.

I love you guys.  Looking forward to our next 20 years.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We Are Spiritual Abuse Survivors 

Wrote this epic piece for our blog over on the Paradise Recovered website.

Thought you'd might like to come over and take a look.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Better To Marry Than To Burn?

Waking up this morning to something disturbing.  Yeesh.

Proud of the Facebook group Do Right BJU, as well as other IFB whistleblowers that I have networked with overtly and covertly for a number of years.

I am both frustrated by these stories of abuse and also encouraged by those who are standing up and speaking out.  The social and financial consequences for these dear people talking about egregious abuses have proved an incredible price to pay, but they are continuing to use their voices.  

And thank God they are.

To believe that child molesters are somehow okay to marry women with children or okay to be placed in positions of power over children because, well, they got 'saved'?  

The state thinks otherwise.  Science says otherwise.  Common sense says otherwise.  

I believe Jesus himself would have said otherwise.

A pastor counsels a woman to marry a sex offender because "it is better to marry than to burn?"  

Really?  REALLY?!?  Even if that means putting her children in jeopardy of being sexually tortured?  

How many more kids are going to have to suffer LIFETIMES of pain and sorrow because of a scriptural technicality whose interpretation is for people to get hitched regardless of their ability to be a good partner?

Something tells me that the Apostle Paul wasn't talking about a child molester marrying to satisfy passions in marriage instead of with children.  Besides, child molesters are perfectly capable of carrying on relationships with spouses while violating the most innocent among us.

And by burn, I think Paul means burn with passion, not burn in hell.  But that's another topic for another day.

In any event, it doesn't take a lot of searching the scriptures and years of pastoral training to figure this one out. 

Why would a pastor NOT ask simple questions like, "What is your attraction to this person?  Why do you feel that this person is safe to be around your children?  How can your relationship with this person possibly trump the one you have with your children?"

And then why would a pastor NOT say, "I have some reservations about performing this wedding," outline those reservations, and get that potential spouse some counseling for their own boundary issues?

And why doesn't the State insist upon psychological testing and counseling for registered sex offenders and their intended spouses prior to granting a marriage license?  I'm wondering if these women and men really do believe that a state of salvation makes their intended offender spouse immune from molesting children.

Because if a person decides that a sex offender needs access to their kids?  

I'm calling that failure to supervise.  I'm calling that neglect.  I'm calling that child endangerment.

And the State should as well.

I'd tell that woman or man wanting to marry a sex offender (if s/he really does and isn't being manipulated and coerced into doing so) that their picker is broken.  All busted up, in fact.  That they need to select a person to partner with that will benefit them and their children.  

That their children should come first.

And I would absolutely refuse to officiate the ceremony.

I really do hope that even the most depraved individual can make peace with God and make things as right as they can to the people they've hurt.  

But that doesn't mean that we take risks with children.  

It doesn't mean that we negate the consequences of society because s/he claims recovery.  

And it sure as hell doesn't mean that pastoral types should check their common sense at the door in order to create some supposed story of ultimate redemption.  

After all, a sex offender changing and becoming a family man would be a pretty great testimonial to share with other pastor friends.  

And if he slips up and molests kids?  Well, he's "backslidden," and the pastor, of course, bears no responsibility.  

Until now.

Because to teach people otherwise from some sort of self-proclaimed spiritual authority in order to validate the success of their ministry?  Criminal.