New Orleans I am a veteran (victim?) of four years of high school Latin during my time in the New Orleans public school system. One of Dr. Romeo’s classic often repeated quotations that is imprinted forever in my mind was his argument that he was not in loco parentis, meaning in his argument that he was not there to take the place of our parents. Some days he would argue that he was standing in loco parentis, while on other day she would deny any such responsibility.
I think about this often while reading the poignant stories of the struggles of the children attending McDonogh High School along with their teachers, relatives and guardians to survive the controversial decision by Steve Barr, the nationally known charter school operator from Los Angeles, first with Green Dot and now with The Future is Now group of schools, to allow a reality qua documentary film series called “Blackboard Wars” to depict the school for Oprah’s Own Network. The hyperbole the filmmakers use to promote the series is standard, so not surprising, though Barr and his principal try to defend it, though the notion that McDonogh is the most dangerous high school in the country chafes everyone involved.
In his most recent attempt to defend his questionable judgment of allowing McDonogh to be filmed, he retreated to an argument that the gross depiction of the school and its students was good, because there was the school’s visibility was attracting outside resources and help. Barr’s circular argument is of course ludicrously ridiculous and on the order of saying that, “yes, I shot you, but luckily we have a good ambulance and hospital system.” He made this case in yet another heated public meeting where he admitted that New Orleans was different than Los Angeles, because there was less “optimism,” but that “this is what seven generations of crap looks like.” What was Barr talking about? The residual impact of slavery in New Orleans? The weight of race and poverty over generations? Frankly, I’m convinced he has no idea what he is saying anymore, and without thinking is simply talking to keep talking.
Jarvis DeBerry, a columnist for The Times-Picayune raised the point that half of Barr’s teachers at McDonogh refused to sign the permission to be filmed, while Barr argues that more than 90% of the students had agreed to be filmed. Barr argues that McDonough gets the “kids who come from everybody else” and that 40% have special needs and should receive additional services.
Isn’t it just this type of situation with just this student body where the answer to Dr. Romeo’s question of whether the school and teachers were to serve as in loco parentis is most clear? With beleaguered and challenged family situations, which are documented to a troubling extent by the filmmakers, a school and its management who are really committed to putting the interests of the children first, would have to admit that they are acting in loco parentis, and as such there is no responsible argument for their having agreed to putting the children and their lives at risk by agreeing to the film.
Barr’s point about resources seems the clue here, and he has admitted as much publicly at forums with the filmmakers in Los Angeles. He’s all about the money and whatever ill-gotten fame might come to him and his charter company through the publicity.
The indictment from the McDonough Advisory Committee in an open letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and a host of others, including Oprah Winfrey, is devastating.
The judgment is inescapable. The children have to be put first, and Barr did not do that. The film has already been made, so there’s no erasing the damage, but Barr needs to stop rationalizing and prevaricating, and start showing some leadership by apologizing to the students, the parents, the teachers, the community, and the City of New Orleans and finally show some good sense and direction in leading in loco parentis the recovery for McDonogh in every sense of the words. If he doesn’t do that quickly and effectively, then the contract with Barr and the Future is Now has to be terminated and the school immediately turned back to the Orleans Parish School Board and people who will care for the education and lives of these children.