02 May 2010

"I run one of the worst Middle Schools in America..."

"...and I'm famous."

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.

Third, Tony Orsini really likes attention. At first I thought he needed 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...


Wm Chamberlain said...

Maybe this is less about bullying and more about Mr. Orsini trying to limit the students free speech on open sites. Could it be he is afraid of the spotlight being placed on his school and its inability to educate? Not only can students use Facebook to bully, they can also use it to complain about the lack of a safe environment.

Unknown said...

My guess is that this principal is a great manager of kids. He can make a school quiet and running things, but his comments and ideas have no vision, no sense of what's next for kids?

Debbie said...


In the space of three days, I've read three stories about three different principals who are clueless about social media. Nothing is private. Even when you think no one is listening, they are. There are many lurkers in cyberspace. Almost disconcerting. Unless someone speaks up, you really don't know they are there.

I watched this interview and winced. Even the interviewers on GMA were questioning why Mr. Orsini was doing what he is.

As for him being a great manager of kids, Dr. Dillon, I really doubt that. A good manager does not micromanage. They allow for people to do a job in their own way. They do not hover about. This man is demanding that parents follow his instructions. Exactly. And if they don't? What are the consequences? Do parents receive a visit from their friendly child welfare investigator for a trumped up charge of neglect? Do they get harassed by other parents? Sounds like there could be all kinds of potential repercussions for not following his rules.

Mr. Orsini seems to have a very rigid approach. My way or the high way very rarely works. In fact it makes people quite resentful. Problem is, he is fostering an atmosphere of fear, not preventing it. Unless calls are made to the superintendent, people are going to be afraid to speak out. This won't keep them from going underground. Certainly will not foster an atmosphere of openness that is exactly what is needed to combat bullying, cyber and otherwise.

Keeping Mr. Orsini in place is a recipe for disaster for that entire community. Time for Mr. Orsini to go elsewhere and for students and parents alike to get some breathing room.

A. Mercer said...

As the mother of a child with a keyboarding accommodation that allows him to use his netbook in class I worry when I see college professors and others talking about not allowing laptops, and that kids don't need computers, etc. because it is a really important tool for him, not just a toy.

Part of why I like my son's school is he is allowed to have and appropriately use his cell phone (he can call me between classes, etc.)

We've spent time teaching him to use his computer appropriately. When he started with his Alpha Smart keyboard, he did play around and make lists of bakugan characters in the middle of class, but we worked on this, and he was on track pretty quickly.

When he is out, he uses his cell phone to take notes at events like Boy Scout meetings. We've taught him to let his troop leader know what he is doing, so they don't think he is goofing off.

Some educators want kids to come to them "knowing" these things, and it's not just limited to tech etiquette. I hear teachers complain about students lacking manner, lacking this behavior, lacking that behavior. I wish some of them would realize, that's everyone's job, not just their parents.

Unknown said...

I disagree with this man's decisions. However, I'd like to toss out a few ideas:

1. I don't know his motives. I can't know his motives, either. I won't say that he's a media hound any more than the rest of us who want to be known or be respected.

2. Technology is dangerous. It's valuable. I would never block it. I teach with a 1:1 ratio and fight the daily battle against blocking sites. However, people are scared. Often scared of the wrong things, but scared nonetheless.

3. Adults are out of touch, but so are technocrats who speak of a flat world. Technology exists within a social and cultural realm. My hope is that schools can recognize this reality and become leaders of change rather than managers of liability.

4. It's impossible for me to know the community, the principal, the students or anything else based upon media stories. People play things up and pretend a bit when the camera is rolling. Reporters embellish, even if by accident, in order to meet deadlines. Unless I live there, I cannot presume to know the whole story.

5. I want to see more freedom with technology. However, I've learned that this comes with proving that technology can be used to improve learning. It takes time to win people over. I'm guessing that if I sat with the guy and had a pint, he might just be a little more patient and open-minded.

Rob Lyons said...

Ira - Thank you for bringing this issue to the attention of your readers. The situation in the Ridgewood Schools has troubled me for quite a while. I have a special needs kindergartner for whom I have been battling for basic services. We've finally gotten the coveted IEP but the school is only providing the bare minimum in services for him. We're at the point where we'd rather move across the border into New York State where at least the Special Ed model is more progressive and accepting of children with needs rather than have to fight for my son's basic rights. That being said, our plan all along was to leave town before my oldest was to attend the Middle School.

Benjamin Franklin Middle School is toxic. I've known that since my son's first day pre-school. An "older-wiser" mom confided to my wife "It's a great community, but you can't send him to the middle school". If children are the heart of a community and schools exist to serve the needs of our children, than how does a toxic school exist in a "great community"?

The communities in Ridgewood are focused around schools and these elementary communities are tight knit. Parents are involved in every aspect of their children's educations. I have had the opportunity to come into my son's class and read, chaperone trips, and even help out with computer lab activities. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. I am finding that by 3rd grade parent involvement is less encouraged and the doors are not always open for a surprise pop-in. I wonder if that gradual shift away from family valued education is at play here...

William: I'd say it's about the bullying. I don't think they know enough to know what a mediocre experience their kids are getting

Dr. Dillon: You are correct in your assessment that there is no vision district wide for what's in store for our kids' futures. While the MS bans social media, my son spends 45 minutes a week in "Discovery Lab" drilling through Rosetta Stone or playing Club Penguin (Hey isn't that ... oh never mind) And that's the extent of exposure to technology he gets.

Alan November visited our community in the fall and spoke passionately about opening up the world to our classrooms and the value of a global education. I attended with my 8 year old, who happened to be the only kid in the audience, and was disappointed that I didn't see one teacher from my son's school. As a matter of fact there were only maybe 50 or 60 people total in attendance. I guess that was optional for staff. If he spoke in my district, it wouldn't have to be mandatory.

I think the real wake up call is still to come. I'm not sure Mr. Orisini is aware that New Jersey had recently adopted the National Core Standards for the 2011-2012 school year. Further New Jersey has also adopted the Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework. I wonder how 90% of non-computer school work will fit in that framework.

I'm not calling for Mr. Orisini's job. I think he doesn't know enough to know what he's talking about. I agree that he's seeking the media spotlight but I would like to see him learn something from this situation that he has created. Hopefully the Village of Ridgewood will be far in my rear view mirror by the time my kids are middle school age

David Bill said...

After reading about this school and looking over your post, I think you have brought up some important points.

The school seems to have a cultural problem. Regardless of the technology, it sounds as if there is a lack of empathy. The fact that bullying is so pervasive clearly proves that online or not, the school has a problem.

Banning technology will not decrease the bullying, it will only transfer it back to the "real world".

For Orsini to take such an approach is not only shortsighted it is dangerous.

The only approach is to work to recreate a more empathic and safe environment. Unless that happens not matter what you ban or (do not ban) that school will be dealing with the same issues.

Rob Lyons said...

Some have likened the culture to "Old Money vs New Money" or more specifically "Class vs Crass" Ben Franklin MS is on the new money side of town George Washington MS is on the old.

I'm neither so I can't relate.

Rob Lyons said...

Here is an example of the lack of empathy that exists in "The Wood"