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New law to ban cellphone use while driving in Tenn. school zones

Parents and students in Tennessee will soon need to think twice before picking up the phone while driving. Beginning in January, a statewide cellphone ban will be enacted inside of school zones. The ban will not only apply to taking phone calls, but also texting and holding a phone, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

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“If you are holding a phone up to your ear while driving in a school zone, it’s illegal (next year),” said Jeremy Wall, who works as a resource officer at Dickson County High School and also helps direct traffic at the high school in the mornings.

The bill was sponsored by state Sens. Jim Tracy (R) and John Holsclaw (R).

“You should be concentrating on reducing your speed limit and paying attention. You have children walking and a lot of traffic around,” said Tracy. “Eventually, as technology gets better, everything will be hands-free.”

Tracy defended the bill by saying that many of his constituents were interested in legislation to attempt to combat the use of cellphones while driving.

According to Wall, distracted drivers who are on their phones lead to traffic build-up and delays. 

“When someone has the phone to their ear talking, they are so engrossed in that conversation -- they are looking left, they are looking right. And the whole time I am standing there motioning for them to come out,” he told the News Sentinel. “[And] if there is a line of cars, and someone is sitting way back because they are looking at their phone. Guess what I am going to do? I am going to the next rotation. I am going to this group (of vehicles) and bring them on in.”

Drivers who break the law will face a Class C misdemeanor and a fine of up to $50. If a driver is over 18 years of age, they may use a hands-free setup to talk on the phone. Younger drivers can’t use their phones at all.

According to a February report by WTVF, the National Safety Council named Tennessee the state with the most cellphone-related road fatalities in America.

Read more at the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Senior student barred from Christian school's graduation because she's pregnant

Maddi Runkles is a senior at The Heritage Academy in Hagerstown, Maryland.

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With a 4.0 grade point average, athletics commitments and a leadership role in the school’s Key Club, she was all set to graduate this spring.

Then came her son, Grayson.

Runkles learned she was pregnant in January. The Heritage Academy, a conservative Christian school, considers premarital sex a violation of its code of conduct, as do many institutions with similar values.

Despite the fact that she attends a Christian school, she said she considered an abortion. A 2014 study found that nearly 60 percent of women who have abortions identify as Catholic or Protestant.

“I had worked so hard for (graduation), and I made one mistake, and all my hard work was being taken away from me,” she told WUSA-9.

WUSA-9 reported that she was first removed from her position on the student council and suspended for two days. She was also told that she’d be forced to finish the school year at home, by herself.

But that changed when a group of students and parents petitioned the school to allow her to finish the year.

“I mean, all I did that was wrong was just have sex before marriage, which they don’t agree with,” said Runkles, who said carrying the child was“the right decision.”

That’s not how her high school sees it. Principal Dave Hobbs planned to tell the entire school about her pregnancy and resulting suspension, according to Students for Life, an anti-abortion group that’s gotten involved on her behalf.

When interviewed, Hobbs said the school’s code of conduct is applied on a case-by-case basis, but that the school has already been generous in allowing Runkles to finish her school year on the premises.

Her father, Scott Runkles, said he resigned from his position as a member of the school’s board because of how his daughter was treated.

Read more at WUSA-9.

Parents call school's 'hair policy' racist

Parents are calling a "hair policy" at a Massachusetts charter school racist after they said black female students are being suspended and disciplined for wearing braided hair extensions. 

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“I was kind of shocked because for years everyone has been able to wear braids,” said Maya Cook, a sophomore at Mystic Valley Regional Charter in Malden, Massachusetts.

Parents of two students told WFXT that their daughters have been kicked off their sports teams and barred from prom at Mystic Valley Regional Charter as discipline for refusing to take out their braided extensions. Others have been suspended, but the parents said they're not backing down.

Cook said school officials first pulled her aside two weeks ago after she and her sister, Deanna Cook, both African-American, had their hair braided at a local salon.

Their adoptive mother, Colleen Cook, received a call from the school.

“The school basically said that they didn't want anything artificial or unnatural in their hair,” said Colleen Cook.

The school's policy says students cannot have a hairstyle that is distracting to other students, and hair extensions are not allowed. Colleen Cook argued that the policy targets only black students.

“We told them there's nothing wrong with their hair the way it is. Their hair is beautiful, there's no correcting that needs to be done,” said Colleen Cook.

Deanna Cook said hair extensions and braids are integral to African American culture.

"It makes me feel like my culture and my hair was not important enough to be represented around the school," Deanna Cook told WFXT.

The Cook girls refused to take out their braided extensions and were punished with daily detention. Colleen Cook said it became worse last week.

“All the little black children were marched down for a hair inspection, whether they had braids or not, and asked, ‘Are those extensions? Are your braids real or not?’” said Colleen Cook.

In a statement, school officials told WFXT: “Our policies ... foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion or materialism. Our policy on hair extensions, which tend to be very expensive, is consistent with ... the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success.”

Colleen Cook said the school’s policy doesn’t send a message of success to her daughters.

“It really affects them to their core and tells them, ‘You're not good enough, you need to change,’” she said.

She has filed a complaint with the NAACP and the anti-defamation league and said that so far, there has been no response from school officials.

Mystic Valley Regional Charter released the following statement from Alexander J. Dan, the school’s interim director:  

“The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School serves a diverse student population from surrounding communities that include Everett, Medford and Malden, among other cities. The school consistently ranks among the top schools in Massachusetts in MCAS testing, SAT testing and college admissions. We send students from all walks of life, including those of color and those from limited means, to the best colleges and universities in the nation. 

“One important reason for our students’ success is that we purposefully promote equity by focusing on what unites our students and reducing visible gaps between those of different means. Our policies, including those governing student appearance and attire, foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion or materialism. Our policy on hair extensions, which tend to be very expensive, is consistent with, and a part of, the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success.” 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story used the colloquial term “braids” to refer to braided hair extensions. This story has been updated to clarify the wearing of braided extensions. 

Girl almost turned away from prom because of dress length

A Florida woman is calling on school leaders to clarify guidelines for what students can wear to prom after confusion and controversy arose over the dress that her daughter wore to the dance.

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Leaders at Sandalwood High School in Jacksonville, Florida, told  Action News Jax that the teenager's dress was too short in the front.

“She’s crying, she’s like, ‘Mom, just come and get me.’ I said, ‘No, you’re going to the prom.’ We spent all of this money, and it doesn’t make any sense for them to say it’s inappropriate,” Nydia Allen said.

>> Related: Florida student wears Black Lives Matter-inspired prom dress

Allen said her daughter called her an hour after she took a picture of her in her dress before prom. Most of the dress touches the ground. The skirt touches her knees in the front.

“She was saying that they said her skirt was too short,” Allen said.

Allen said she bought the dress based on the guidelines outlined in a letter that she said the school sent home.

>> Related: Teen takes 93-year-old grandmother to prom

The letter said dresses must be an appropriate length, but Allen said that when her daughter got to the prom, school leaders told her a different story.

“I asked them to show me what’s inappropriate, and they continued to say, ‘It says it here, it has to be to the ankle,’ and I said, ‘That’s not the paperwork you guys sent home.’ They need to change the way they’re writing these contracts for the students let it be known and make it clear, on what you expect at the prom. She can wear the skirt to school, but she can’t wear it to prom? What’s the difference?” Allen said.

A spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools sent Action News Jax this statement: “For Sandalwood High School, students were made aware in advance that prom dresses must be floor length. To resolve the issue, additional fabric was added to the front of the dress.”

Allen said they tried to add more material to the dress to make it longer, but eventually allowed her daughter in after she put on black tights. 

>> Related: Jacksonville high school apologizes for 'good girl' prom dress flyers posted in hallways

Middle school dean plans revenge attack on student

A school dean at Nolan Middle School in Bradenton, Florida, has been demoted after text messages revealed that she plotted a revenge attack on a student she believed injured her son. 

Wende Pendleton-Wicks, the dean, texted a 15-year-old boy, asking him to hurt a student she believed had broken her 8-year-old son’s arm, the Bradenton Herald reported.

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Pendleton-Wicks’s son broke his arm in December while playing with some other boys in the bus lane at the school.

The dean admitted that while she was at the hospital with her son, she sent text messages to a former Nolan student who offered to retaliate against the boy believed to be responsible for the injury, according to the Herald.

“Don’t you worry I’ll pick (the student) up and drop him,” the student wrote to Pendleton-Wicks.

The dean replied, “Please do.”

The student later reached out to the boy who allegedly hurt Pendleton-Wicks’s son, asking him to meet up at the playground to fight. Both the dean and the student told investigators that she eventually texted the student and instructed him to not harm the other student. However, she claims she had deleted all of the messages and was unable to provide proof of her change of heart.

“I guess he was just being protective of me is all I can think of,” she said when asked why a middle school boy would offer such a service to her, adding that he had gotten her phone number from his grandmother.

Pendleton-Wicks has since been demoted to a floating substitute teacher and will become a regular classroom teacher next school year, according to The Associated Press

Read more at the Bradenton Herald.

Texas high school spends $60 million on new football stadium, feeds rivalry

Two rival schools in Texas have taken their rivalry to a new level.

Allen High School in Allen, Texas, built a $60 million stadium, complete with a high-definition video screen, a three-tier press box and a capacity of 18,000 seats that nearly matches the Staples Center.

Could a high school football stadium really be any bigger?

Yes. The answer in Texas is always yes. 

>> Read more trending stories  

The Los Angeles Times reported that Allen's neighboring school district in McKinney, Texas, plans to outdo the Eagles' stadium with a nearly $63 million facility -- what could be the nation's most expensive high school stadium. It will be outfitted with a 55-foot-wide, high-definition video screen, an artificial grass field, seating for 12,000 and an adjacent 500-seat event center.

"Oh, it's a rivalry," said Adam Blanchet, a junior at one of the three high schools in the McKinney Independent School District that will use the new stadium. "I have pride knowing my district is going to have the most expensive stadium in the country."

The median household income in McKinney is $83,000. School taxes for property owners amount to $1.63 per $100 of assessed valuation, the Times reported.

To read more on how McKinney is funding the stadium and what students have to say about it, click here.

'Sit With Us' app finds lunch buddies for lonely children

A new app created by a 16-year-old California girl aims to make sure no child eats his or her school lunch alone.

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Natalie Hampton developed the idea for the Sit With Us app, which launched Sept. 9, to help students find kindness and welcoming groups with whom to eat in school lunchrooms across the country.

"Lunch might seem really small, but I think these are the small steps that make a school more inclusive," Hampton told the Washington Post. "It doesn't seem like you're asking that much, but once you get people in the mindset, it starts to change the way students think about each other. It makes a huge difference in how they treat each other."

The now-high school junior told the Los Angeles Daily News that she was inspired to create the app after she ate lunch alone for her entire seventh-grade school year. She said the experience made her feel lonely and vulnerable and made her a target for bullying, which lasted into her eight-grade year.

Hampton told the Daily News that she suffered from nightmares, stress and depression as a result of the bullying, and at one point, she was hospitalized for health issues.

>>Need something to lift your spirits? Read more uplifting news  

"I was a shell of the person I was. When I walked into a classroom, I was planning an escape route," Hampton said.

The app allows students to connect with other students at their schools, chat with other users to coordinate a lunch, post featured lunches for others to join and search for lunches nearby.

Users create a profile, add friends and describe their interests. Users have the option to designate themselves as "ambassadors" who create "open lunch" events and invite others to join them. The open lunch events serve as go-aheads for all interested students to join the ambassadors' table.

"Sit With Us was born because I am committed to making sure that other kids don't suffer as I did. I believe that seemingly small, incremental changes in the overall dynamic of a school community can bring about change, so that everyone feels welcome and included, " Hampton wrote on the app's official website. "I believe that every school has upstanders like me, who are happy and willing to invite anyone to join the lunch table. It is my hope, with people pledging to be ambassadors at their schools, that no one will feel left out."

Hampton said the new app is especially helpful because the electronic process prevents children from being publicly rejected and being considered social outcasts by their peers. 

"This way it's very private. It's through the phone. No one else has to know," Hampton told Audie Cornish on NPR's "All Things Considered." "And you know that you're not going to be rejected once you get to the table."

The Sit With Us app is free and recommended for children of middle school age and older.

'Free the thigh' protest planned at Washington high school to resist dress code

A student has organized a protest at Aberdeen High School in Aberdeen, Washington, to challenge the school's dress code.

A Facebook page titled "Free the Thigh" created an online event scheduling the protest for Wednesday.

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The Facebook page was allegedly started by a student who got into trouble for wearing jeans that were "too ripped."

"I got dress coded today for wearing these jeans because of the rip on the very top of my leg," Stephanie Ann Stopsen wrote in the caption of a photo of ripped jeans. "This is the first time I have ever had this happen to me, and I was told never to wear these jeans to school again because they're 'inappropriate.'"

Stopsen said she wasn't the only student who was addressed for the same reason by school officials. One post on the page said "at least 40 people along with me (got reprimanded) too for ripped jeans."

"Something needs to change," Stopsen wrote.

If you haven't already seen this, this is why this has all started. It hasn't just been me that has gotten dress coded...Posted by Free The Thigh on Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Aberdeen High School dress code currently states that "Pants shall be worn at the waist and must not have excessive holes or holes located above mid-thigh." Read the code here.

One local mother, Angela Asbury, shared an image of her daughter's ripped jeans on the protest's Facebook page.

"My daughter got dress coded today at the Jr high. I refuse to make her change," Asbury wrote. "We (are) behind this protest 100%."

My daughter got dress coded today at the Jr high..I refuse to make her change...we r behind this protest 100%Posted by Angela Asbury on Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alabama law mandates cursive writing in schools, parents express mixed views

These days, many school assignments are completed online and essays are typed before being turned in. But a new state law in Alabama requires that schools teach children how to write in cursive.

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Lexi's Law, which went into effect Aug. 1, requires cursive handwriting to be taught by the end of third grade in all of the state’s public schools.

Cursive writing lessons will begin in second grade with instruction for how to write lower-case and upper-case letters. By third grade, students should be proficient in writing words and sentences in cursive. The writing practice is to be continued in fourth and fifth grades, the Montgomery Adviser reported.

"It's an ongoing process, just like reading. You start reading, and you read smaller words than you graduate to bigger words, and I think cursive is the same way," Stephanie Odle, an Alabama mother of five in favor of the law, told WBMA. "You can write your name, but there's more to cursive than writing your name."

Lexi's Law gets its name from State Rep. Dickie Drake, who sponsored the bill after his granddaughter, Lexi, said she wanted to learn "real writing."

"She was in the first grade and wanted to learn 'real writing,'" Drake told TODAY Parents. "After much research of schools in the state of Alabama, I found that it was not being taught all over the state -- hit and miss … This bill is for all my grandchildren and others just like them."

Cursive writing has always been a requirement in the state, but the new law requires schools to impose more standardized teaching methods, with benchmarks each school year to certify they are meeting proficiency standards. Teachers will be given more specific instructional plans, and superintendents will have to sign off that students are meeting the requirements.

State legislatures in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee have passed bills and enacted similar mandates in schools to require teaching cursive.

Reactions from parents have been mixed.

Jared and Chelsea Jones are foster parents that say cursive requires less muscle control for their children, who have fine motor issues.

Andrea Overman, a teacher at Alabama Christian Academy, said cursive writing is easier to read than print.

"With cursive all letters start on the baseline, which is the same place and therefore less confusing," Overman told the Adviser. "Individual words are connected with spaces between words, which helps with word recognition."

One New York mother said she would "definitely feel sad" if cursive writing was taken away from her 6-year-old daughter's curriculum.

"Even if these kids are mostly typing when they grow up, I would still like her to learn script," Lyla Gleason said. 

But others disagree.

"When you shake through the arguments, it becomes clear that the driving force keeping cursive alive is really just nostalgia and romanticism," a June Vice.com column states. "For the average person, it’s a skill that will likely not be retained and will definitely not be needed."

"Is this handwriting requirement based on anything other than the argument that we learned it and turned out fine?" wrote Jarvis DeBerry, a dad and the deputy opinions editor at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, in another column. "It would be nice if my daughter learned cursive, but not at the expense of her falling behind her counterparts around the world, whose fingers will be flying over keys."

A 2013 national survey of 612 elementary school teachers found 41 percent no longer incorporated cursive writing into their lesson plans.

Read more at TODAY Parents.

University of Chicago won't support 'trigger warnings,' 'intellectual safe spaces'

A letter sent out by University of Chicago officials warned incoming students that they won't find any "intellectual safe spaces" on the school's campus.

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The letter goes on to acknowledge that the university is committed to "freedom of inquiry and expression" and encourages each student to challenge and broaden their perspectives on issues.

"You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement," the letter read. "At times, this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

The letter pointed students to more information on freedom of expression and quotes a former president of the university, Hanna Holborn Gray, as saying that "education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think."

The University of Chicago is ranked as one of the top and most selective universities in the country. Less than 8 percent of the more than 31,000 people who applied to enter the class of 2020 were accepted by the school, according to The Chicago Maroon.

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