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  • MSA Academy Showcase & Luncheon

    The Academy at Metropolitan School of the Arts began its annual end-of-year showcase with two performances for parents and the public on Saturday at the MSA black box theater. A luncheon and showcase for donors, industry professionals and representatives from area colleges was held Monday.

    To see more photos from the showcase, go to my Facebook album here. Below are photos I took at the luncheon.

  • The Day in Headlines

    First day of school photos. Houses flooding. Stories of everyday heroes. More rains coming. More tears flowing. The same ole' political snark. Richard Nixon 2.0. Strong will amid desperation and determination.

    "I read my news feed today, oh boy..."

  • A Hometown Tragedy

    Last week, while taking a break from photographing a conference in Las Vegas, a news story from my hometown caught my attention: A high school senior had committed suicide in front of her parents. She had been the victim of relentless cyberbullying over her weight and her appearance.

    Immediately, I flashed back to Blocker Middle School and the late 1970s. When you've been bullied, your emotions are on constant standby for time travel.


    I was bullied as a child. What people thought were innocent pranks about my appearance, lack of style, poor social graces, and general athletic ineptitude left scars that have taken decades to heal.

    Then, when you see something like this, something that happened in the hometown you left long ago, those scars are exposed again. You time travel back to the days when you were that fat child, that pimply, awkward, uncoordinated teenager who liked books, movies, drama, and writing. It comes back like it was yesterday.

    You are thankful for your loving parents, who were dealing with boatloads of crap of their own. You are thankful for your few close friends who accepted you for who you were. You are thankful for teachers like John C. Martin, for neighbors who became your extended family. You are thankful for those who, even if they didn't understand you, didn't judge. You are thankful that, no matter how bad things got at times, you had the inner strength to go on.

    You hope that your children did not have to endure the same things you did, knowing that bullies now hide behind their thumbs and their glare-free screens. You try to treat people with kindness, holding on to the manners you were taught. You try to look at issues and events from both sides — and there are two sides to every story — and respect others' right to their opinions, no matter how different they may be from yours.

    I appreciate the steps Texas City ISD took (making counselors available, sending a letter home to parents with other resources) in the wake of the girl’s suicide and pray that no copycat incidents — always a risk with this age group — occur.

    But don’t bury your head in the sand. The temptation some have to prey on others because of their own insecurity and inadequacy has never gone away. It's part of our history that, despite twists like social media, repeats itself again and again.

    When something like this happens, we feel the need to take action, but it always seems to be too little, too late. In Texas, two state legislators filed a bill last month that would require school districts to have cyberbullying policies. The law would require schools to notify parents when children are bullied. Anyone who electronically harasses or bullies another person under the age of 18 would face misdemeanor charges.

    Why these types of policies are not already in place in every school district in America boggles my mind. Why bullying is tolerated, by adults and children alike, simply makes no sense. And yet it is.

    The wounds heal. But the scars remain. #SuicideAwareness — 1-800-273-8255. 


    The essay above, posted to Facebook on Friday, generated a series of heartfelt, thoughtful, and affirming responses. A number of friends shared it, more than 70 (and counting) took the time to comment publicly, and a few sent private messages. (Read the thread here.)

    Here are some of my thoughts, based on what others had to say:

    • 2016, more than any other, has been the "Year of the Trolls." I spend a lot of time on the Internet and try my best to keep things positive, but I've noticed repeatedly that people pick up on a single word you say and use it as an excuse to rip. That is terrible for us as a society.

    • School districts and state legislators have hesitated to push policies and laws through on this topic out of fear of liability. I understand why, but a policy that requires schools to notify parents when they receive a report of bullying should be a responsibility that districts are willing to take on. In the grand scheme, doing everything you can to keep parents in the loop and invested in the well-being of their children is a baby step.

    • We’ve got to stop looking for simple, knee jerk answers (zero tolerance policies, banning all cellphones) to these types of problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this type of behavior, which has been perpetuated for generations.

    • No place is immune from bullying, whether you’re in an industrial town in Texas, a rural community in North Carolina, or the hallowed suburbs of Washington, D.C. It won’t go away without a concentrated effort on everyone’s part, and that means support from schools, parents, classmates, community leaders, and politicians who have the chutzpah to stand up for changes. The problem sits in all our laps.

    • For many young people, compassion is not innate; if anything, the exact opposite is, especially when you're trying to find your way. It truly is heartbreaking to see a kid who's obviously struggling socially, because you know how others have the capacity to be so cruel in those types of situations.

    • Late elementary school and middle school is where so much of this damaging behavior begins. (Middle school was my personal “American Horror Story.”) Like many kids, I thought I could handle it myself, not knowing the damage I was doing to my psyche. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to talk to someone; I would have been much better off.

    • As an average, run-of-the-mill teenage boy who was a barking seal when it came to girls, the power they had was fierce. For the most part, I saw it for what it was and didn't let it bother me. But there were a couple of cruel heartbreaks along the way, where I thought, hoped and prayed that someone was different and was severely disappointed. That's why so much of this cuts so deep and so hard. I realize how much of my life I wasted trying to get the approval of people who didn't give a shit.

    • At times, I feel like we’ve thrown bullying into the same category as poverty — “Can’t do anything about it. Those people just need to step up.” We all need to step up.

  • 15 Years, 18 Hours

    Fifteen years ago, my youngest daughter and son were born (in that order). Until last year, they had never been apart on their special day. But that was impossible this year.

    The twins' 15th birthday presented a special challenge, with Emma in Virginia and Ben on tour in Texas. So that meant an early morning (5:30 a.m.!), before school breakfast with the girl, and a plane ride to see the boy, who performed on his birthday and ate cake from his proud grandmother after the show (11:30 p.m.).

    Eighteen hours to celebrate 15 years. Well worth it. Happy birthday, Emma and Ben!

  • New York: 9/11/09

    Five years ago, on the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, I was in New York with Ben, who was about to start rehearsals for Ragtime. Because we were trying to work out the rehearsal schedule and how he would acclimate to his new surroundings, I got to know the assistant principal/dean of students on a first-name basis. This is what I witnessed that day.


    This morning, I was sitting in the assistant principal’s office at my son’s new school when the principal walked in and asked, “Do you think we should have a moment of silence? There are four times we could do it.”

    They proceeded to go down the list: 8:45 a.m., 9:03 a.m., 10:05 a.m., 10:29 a.m. The times were etched in both men’s memory.

    “The last one is during lunch,” the assistant principal said.  “Too noisy,” the principal said. “I don’t think we should do it then.”

    At that point, they agreed to two, one-minute moments of silence — marking the times that the planes struck the south and then the north towers of the World Trade Center.

    This low-key approach, coming on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, was refreshing, especially given that my son is now in a New York City public school just 5 miles from the Twin Towers site. No extremist hyperbole, no talk of terrorists, just two short moments to pause and reflect on a day that changed our world.

    Just down the street, at the corner of 8th Avenue and West 48th, a group of firefighters from the Engine 54 station gathered on this drizzly morning. Together, they walked across the street to a short memorial service honoring the 15 firemen from Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 who were killed on 9/11.

    Another Anniversary Story

    On a related note, I was in Chester, Pa., when 9/11 occurred, reporting on a story for my former magazine about the takeover of the state’s lowest performing school district by a private education management company — Edison Schools. Five years later, I went back to see what had happened to Chester and Edison in the interim. The resulting story, “Failing District, Failed Reform,” can be accessed here.

  • Kate's Last Day

    In September 2002, we took our nervous daughter to her first day of kindergarten. Today, thanks to convergence of events that has left our on-the-road family short by a car, I dropped her off for the last school-related event before she graduates from Mount Vernon on Friday.

    There have been times when all of us — Kate included — have wondered silently and aloud whether this journey would reach this point. And, like all kids do as they manage the rocky path of adolescence, she’s had to overcome her share of bumps in the road. But Kate has made it, and her entire family will be on hand to watch her walk across the stage in a white graduation gown in just two days.

    I’m just glad I had a chance to watch her walk into school one last time.

    Love you, Kate!

  • Kate's Dedication Award

    Congratulations to our oldest daughter, Kate, who was one of two students at Mount Vernon High School to receive a Dedication certificate "for demonstrating exemplary Major Pride" during the 2014-15 school year. She received the honor from members of the Major Pride (PBIS) Committee. We're very proud of you, Kate!

  • Snowbacle 2015

    There’s a great Peanuts cartoon in which a single flake of snow falls from the sky and one of the characters exclaims, “Close all the schools!”

    Fairfax and other counties in Northern Virginia should have taken a look at that cartoon this morning. Instead, a wintery mix of bad timing, rush hour commute, poor planning and communication turned into an epic storm of a different, rancid kind.

    What was expected to be 1-3 inches of wet, powdery snow was just that, but it didn’t start falling until around 4:30 a.m., 2 ½ hours before sunrise and with temperatures in the low 20s. While many schools in the area decided on two-hour delays — a choice usually made by 5 a.m. before the first buses roll — Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun County opted to start at the regularly scheduled time.

    It was a big mistake, and one that likely will be a migraine for FCPS for some time to come.


    For some reason, I woke up at 3:30 this morning and could not go back to sleep. I knew the weather was expected to be iffy at best, and figured the kids would go to school on a two-hour delay, if at all.

    As the snow started to fall, I turned on the TV to look for the announcement and didn’t see one. Surprised, I woke Jill shortly after 5 a.m. and told her that it was a decision that Fairfax would regret.

    Our daughters, Kate and Emma, go to high schools on opposite ends of our house, which is on the county’s southern border. Kate is a senior at Mount Vernon, while Emma is a junior at Lake Braddock.

    Both girls, who are responsible drivers with a number of activities and/or work after school, said they wanted to drive alone to school. Kate’s commute involves Route 1, which is a state highway that usually is salted. Emma’s, on the other hand, involves a number of back roads that can be a challenge in tough weather.

    Somewhat worried, I decided to follow Emma, who was picking up a friend, and meet her at Starbucks for some morning coffee. Even I was not prepared for the streets near our home to be a hockey rink.

    We went just over a mile in an hour and saw two wrecks and multiple cars spinning out. On a hill, Emma and I were separated when a car in front of me stopped midway, and soon thereafter, I found myself playing chicken with a truck and a school bus that was fighting to gain limited traction. Fortunately, I was able to back up safely, get Emma parked, and take her home.

    By this time, parents and students were already venting on social media. And it wasn’t even 7:30 a.m. 


    Within two hours, the hashtag #closeFCPS was trending worldwide on Twitter, reminding me once again that the hardest decisions school leaders make come down to three things: personnel, student expulsions, and weather-related closings. All three, in one key aspect or another, are no-win situations.

    I learned this lesson while serving as a communications director for North Carolina's Rockingham County Schools. Geographically speaking, Rockingham County does not compare in size to Fairfax County, home to one of the nation's largest school districts. But it shared some similarities, with the potential for storms in the western end not affecting the southern or eastern portions of the county at all. So while roads were too dangerous to bypass in some areas, others would have nothing on them.

    Closing schools is an all-around inconvenience. Instructional days are lost and have to be shifted around. Parents have to scramble to find child care arrangements, or be faced with the prospect of missing work or leaving their kids at home for the day. It is not a decision that is made lightly.

    2013-14 was not a good weather year, as students and staff missed numerous days due to a seemingly never-ending winter. Fortunately, the weather gods have been kind in 2014-15, with only one day missed so far this school year.

    In large county districts, it’s worth noting that closing schools usually is an all-or-nothing proposition. And in developing school calendars (a subject worthy of its own debate, but not now), districts build in a certain number of inclement weather days for instances such as this. When a district operates on a two-hour delay, they get credit for the instructional day, even though classes are compressed and cut short.

    I’m not conservative on most things, but I am where the safety of my children is concerned. As inconvenient as closing or delaying the start of school may have been, it’s just not worth it to put your staff or students at risk. Putting teenage drivers on the road before sunrise during the early morning rush hour is scary enough.

    Several Maryland school districts made what I consider to be the right call from the beginning. They started with a two-hour delay, then some closed for the day when weather conditions did not improve. A similar approach, while not ideal, would have been welcome here.

    We were fortunate. Kate made it to school safely. I managed to get Emma home and then walked the mile to pick up her car. By this time, streets were finally salted and I made it home safely about 9:15.

    About an hour later, Fairfax County Public Schools issued an apology, noting the decision was made with “the best information we had very early this morning.” School board member Ryan McElveen, in a Twitter post favorited more than 5,000 times in less than three hours, said the decision not to close “was terrible.”

    “Clearly,” he wrote, “we screwed up. I am so sorry for all the hardship brought upon so many.”

    Let’s hope everyone has learned a valuable lesson, and next time something like this comes up, perhaps everyone truly will err on the side of caution and safety.