DENISE CROSBY: Lessons learned from controversial school assembly
By Denise Crosby email@example.com October 8, 2013 6:22PM
Phil filming for the biography Channel Courtesy of Phil Chalmers
Updated: November 10, 2013 6:24AM
Phil Chalmers is obviously a man who knows what he’s talking about.
Billed as “the leading authority on juvenile homicide and juvenile mass murderers,” Chalmers has interviewed more than 200 teen killers and school shooters, as well as plenty of serial killers including Charles Manson and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. According to his website, the author of the book “The Mind of a Teen Killer” has also appeared on plenty of national crime shows, and says he delves into the minds of offenders to better understand why they kill and how society can stop them.
As someone who loves real life crime shows and books myself, I’d love to be in an audience to hear what he had to say.
But the question is, would I want my teenage kid listening to him?
Annah Mitchell, who has two students at Metea Valley High School, would answer no to that question. In fact, after Chalmers and his wife Wendi spoke last Wednesday to an all-school assembly at the Aurora school, she fired off an email to school officials that included a laundry list of concerns about some of the things discussed by this Ohio couple who give anti-bullying presentations nationally.
In addition to some of the graphic images shown, she was upset the speakers seemed to indicate that how girls dressed was associated with sexual assaults.
“My own children are questioning things we’ve discussed over the years” she wrote, “and wondering if I’ve somehow armed them with the wrong information.”
Mitchell, who did not hear the presentation, was also disturbed the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case was part of the presentation. In a phone call, she told me later that her son, who is black, was particularly offended Chalmers seemed to put Martin at fault. And under no circumstances, she said, should a photo of the shooting victim’s body have been displayed.
At what point, she asked, “did Trayvon’s story tell the tale of bullying? Their position on this case was not warranted or needed.”
School officials agree that parts of Chalmers presentation went too far, and it should have been vetted more carefully. Metea brings in a major speaker a year to anchor the monthly Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) discussions. Principal Jim Schmid told me the school’s police liaison officer saw Chalmers in person and thought the overall message about teen safety, decision making and support was important for students to hear.
He admitted that, while the administration saw clips of the presentation, they did not view it in its entirety. The biggest concern: the Trayvon Martin segment that was likely added recently, and which, we all know, had such a polarizing affect on the entire nation.
“It did bother me,” said Assistant Principal Joy Ross, who is from the Bahamas. Both she and Schmid agreed that, had they known Chalmers would bring up such a sensitive topic, they would have advised him “not to touch that subject.”
On the other hand, they realized this presentation — which also included topics from eating disorders to sexual activity — would be edgy and “have the potential for controversy.” Schmid said he heard from about a dozen upset parents. He also made it a point of polling about 100 students after the assembly about their reactions in an effort to “help keep me grounded.”
Most of the students, he said, liked that edginess and felt the topics reflected real life. Some even thanked the principal for treating them like adults. About 10 percent, including African-American students, had issues with the topics or were offended.
Which doesn’t come as a surprise when you consider the fact two people can hear the same set of words, yet come away with totally different meanings. Some parents even had multiple kids at the school who came home with polar opposite feelings, Schmid noted. Yet parents also told him those differences in opinion later led to “meaningful discussions in the family.” And it did the same thing in the classrooms, he added.
In the days following the assembly, Ross has spoken several times to the Chalmers, who were appreciative of the feedback.
So the question becomes, how far do you push the envelope to promote education and growth. “It can be tough,” admitted Schmid. “We look for that balance.”
While acknowledging the difficulty in trying to determine, or even control, what presenters will say, he readily admitted the school can learn from this situation. Ending a gracious response email to Mitchell, he wrote “your points are well taken; thank you for your insights.”
In other words: Your opinion matters to me.
As far as I’m concerned, that could just be the best lesson of all.