Tony Orsini of Ridgewood, New Jersey's Benjamin Franklin Middle School has decided to become a celebrity. When I first wrote about Mr. Orsini I simply thought him foolish and clueless (well, I said, "crazy" but I have been - quite effectively - told I should not have phrased it that way," and friends on Twitter who live in Ridgewood and have children in the schools there tried to assure me that "Tony" was not a bad guy, just desperate and out-of-ideas.
But some things have become obvious to me in the days since: First, the comments on my previous blog from parents and students in Ridgewood have shown me that Mr. Anthony Orsini has presided over the creation of an unbelievably toxic middle school environment. Despite all the benefits of a fairly wealthy community, Orsini's school is one continuous, 24-hour-a-day bullying-fest, with angry, uninformed, poorly communicating adults modelling the worst possible behaviours for their children.
Bullying, in my view of the world, is not a "kid issue," but an adult-created environmental issue. As studies have shown, schools typically make bullying worse, and more acceptable - not the opposite. So, if there is a problem in Ridgewood, and there sure seems to be a problem, it is not with Facebook, but with Orsini and the community's other adults.
Second, this, though not a crisis like many impoverished middle schools face, is an apparent disaster - a disaster built by an uncaring and disinterested suburban community. Listen to this parent:
"I'm a parent at Orsini's middle school and I can tell you -- he's not afraid that kids know more than him or whatever else your theory was...he's afraid that some kid is going to commit suicide or another violent act. He's afraid that a kid is going to be harmed emotionally and so badly that she never really recovers. He has been called-on by parents who are beside themselves with their children being targeted and nowhere to turn, no easy way to get "authorities" involved (he's the closest they have to an authority who will take it on). And I'm certain that he's afraid for how all this is impacting his students' learning. Personally, I think those are worthy things to be afraid of and I do not blame him for reacting. His tone was guaranteed to rile some up, but for god's sake people, give the guy some help! What else would you have him do, realistically, there all alone on the front line, with another kid crying in his office and unable to attend class?"Yes, bullying at Benjamin Franklin is so bad student suicide has become a real threat, the community's authorities (I assume this means the police) are refusing to assist (despite the case in Massachusetts), the parents are no help - leaving this principal "all alone." Charming place, this Ridgewood, New Jersey. Combine that with a school so uninteresting in pedagogy that the principal declares that no homework requires research or outside learning ("Over 90% of all homework does not require the internet, or even a computer. Do not allow them to have a computer in their room, there is no need"), and there is a recipe for disaster which should have been addressed by parents and community long ago.
Google Mail Goggles - that pause before you send option on your email account. Why else would someone send out such a foolish email? But after seeing Tony's act across every media form this weekend, it becomes fairly obvious that this is a guy bored with his job, and looking for fame (and perhaps a spot at the right-wing propaganda mill, the Heritage Foundation).
This is always disappointing. When Orsini's letter first came to light, I encouraged community members to offer him help - help in understanding the research around all these issues - pedagogy, bullying, social media, help in coming up with strategies, help developing solutions. But as you listen to Tony, he's now no longer an educator, but a talking point. And that is really bad for the kids who must show up Monday morning at a school adults have allowed to turn toxic.
So now this comes down to Superintendent Daniel Fishbein (201-670-2700, ext. 10530). Dr. Fishbein, please relieve Mr. Orsini of his position, allowing him to become a regular on Fox News, CNN, and ABC. And please bring in a team of adults seeking real solutions. They are right there in your community - and many of us from other places will help, if asked.
Ridgewood, you have a serious problem, and Ridgewood, you need a serious solution. And that solution needs to be based in talking to your kids, not the media.
- Ira Socol
at least one New Jersey principal understands. He's not on TV...