June 26th, 2013
11:48 AM ET

Teens trained to spot drama before it turns dangerous

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

(CNN) - Lauren Astley knew her ex-boyfriend was having a hard time getting over their breakup.

Nathaniel Fujita hadn't wanted to end their three-year relationship. He made it clear in a long e-mail, asking her to give him a chance to find "a part of you that still loves me." But after several "negotiated truces," as her mother calls them, it was over in May 2011, a few weeks before their graduation from Wayland High School in Massachusetts.

But Lauren, 18, didn't stop worrying about Nate, especially as he withdrew from his friends. She was known for being kind, caring and deeply involved in the lives of friends - attributes her classmates lauded in her senior yearbook, along with her singing voice and warm smile. She discussed her ex-boyfriend's antisocial behavior with friends, and they decided together that she should be the one to reach out to him. After weeks of ignoring her texts, Nate, 19, finally agreed to meet her on July 3, 2011.

The next day, her body was found in a marsh about five miles from his home. He had strangled her with a bungee cord, stabbed her multiple times and slashed her throat. Her body was dumped in a nature preserve he knew from science class.

Nate had shown signs of jealousy in the past, but nobody suspected he would hurt Lauren. During his murder trial, his lawyer said he snapped mentally when he killed her. Prosecutors said it was a case of extreme dating violence, that he wasn't psychotic - just angry, hurt and humiliated by the breakup.

Nate was convicted of first-degree murder in March and sentenced to life in prison. But the quest for closure doesn't always end with a jury's verdict, especially in places like the couple's hometown of Wayland, which calls itself a "stable and progressive community, characterized by a legacy of civic engagement."

It's the kind of idyllic American suburb where "things like this aren't supposed to happen." In the wake of her death, community members pondered the warning signs. What did we miss? Could anybody have stopped this before it spiraled out of control?

Lauren's family saw new meaning in their "typical teen" drama: the fights, the constant cycle of breakups and reunions, the young man's retreat from social life after the breakup.

But as the couple's case shows, the line between adolescent drama and dating violence is a hard one to draw, especially in the moment.

Finding a new normal

Questions about what could've been done differently arose recently in Steubenville, Ohio, in Torrington, Connecticut, and in other communities where teen dating violence and sexual assault drew national attention. Blame bounces around the victim's clothes, the amount she drank, whether she "put herself in that situation," and to the perpetrators, parents and society for fostering a culture in which violence among teens - sexual and otherwise - makes regular headlines.

The Steubenville case, in which a teen was sexually assaulted as others watched, revived discussion around the importance of bystander education - teaching people to intervene safely in behavior that promotes sexual violence, said Tracy Cox with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

School violence prevention programs typically focus on risk-reduction by teaching girls not to be victims and boys not to be rapists, with no other roles to play. Even though bystander intervention not a new concept, some schools, advocacy groups and corporations are pushing it with renewed vigor in an effort to deter violence.

The goal is to challenge perceptions of "normal behavior" and make teens aware of the nuanced interactions that create a hostile climate

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Filed under: Counselors • High school • Massachusetts • Mental health • Parents • School safety • Students
Transgender first-grader wins the right to use girls' restroom
The Colorado Rights Division ruled in favor of Coy Mathis in her fight against the Fountain-Fort Carson School District.
June 24th, 2013
09:47 AM ET

Transgender first-grader wins the right to use girls' restroom

By Ed Payne, CNN

(CNN) - A transgender first-grader who was born a boy but identifies as a girl has won the right to use the girls' restroom at her Colorado school.

The Colorado Rights Division ruled in favor of Coy Mathis in her fight against the Fountain-Fort Carson School District.

Coy's parents had taken her case to the commission after the district said she could no longer use the girls' bathroom at Eagleside Elementary.

In issuing its decision, the state's rights division said keeping the ban in place "creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive."

Coy's mother, Kathryn Mathis, said she's thrilled that Coy can return to school and put this behind her.

The first-grader has been home-schooled during the proceedings

"Schools should not discriminate against their students," Mathis said. "All we ever wanted was for Coy's school to treat her the same as other little girls. We are extremely happy that she now will be treated equally."

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June 6th, 2013
02:30 PM ET

Student shot in head stuns classmates by speaking at graduation

(CNN) - Balaal Hollings, a senior at Northwestern High School in Detroit, was shot in the head in April after trying to break up a fight at the party. For weeks, the honor student, homecoming king and class president was in the hospital, fighting for his life.

But he stunned his classmates this week by walking on stage during their graduation ceremony, wearing a helmet, tassel and graduating robe. His classmates rose to their feet, and many cried.

"First of all, I want to thank God," he told his classmates. "It is so good to be alive."

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June 6th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

Oregon high school has 29 valedictorians

(CNN) - There's not one, not two, but 29 valedictorians graduating from Redmond High School in Oregon this year. The school implemented a new system that adds weight to some classes, and enables students to receive up to a 5.0 GPA. But these students had three years under the old system, and all qualified to be valedictorian, CNN affiliate KTVZ reported.

It's expected to be a one-time phenom in Redmond, school officials said, but it's not the only place to have far more than one valedictorian. Just last year, a high school in Ocala, Florida, graduated 25 valedictorians - there, the top students all earned a 5.0 because of the college-level classes they'd taken.

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Filed under: Graduation • High school • Report cards • Students
May 31st, 2013
11:27 AM ET

New York eighth-grader wins national spelling bee

By CNN Staff

(CNN) - Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Bayside Hills, New York, won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, correctly spelling the word "knaidel.""It means that I am retiring on a good note," said Mahankali, who attends Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School 74 and was in his last year of eligibility. "I shall spend the summer, maybe the entire day, studying physics."

Mahankali, who wants to become a physicist, had finished third in the two previous national bees, being eliminated after misspelling words with German roots.

"I thought that the German curse had turned into a German blessing," he said, when asked what he thought when he heard the final word, a German-derived Yiddish word for a type of dumpling.

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‘Skinny guy with a funny name’: Morehouse valedictorian’s long journey to graduation
"There is no impossible. There is no unbelievable," 2013 Morehouse valedictorian Betsegaw Tadele said during his speech.
May 28th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

‘Skinny guy with a funny name’: Morehouse valedictorian’s long journey to graduation

By Meron Moges-Gerbi, CNN

(CNN) - On a rainy afternoon this spring when President Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he called valedictorian Betsegaw Tadele the “skinny guy with a funny name” – a nickname Obama has often called himself.

So, who is that other “skinny guy?”

Tadele’s journey to sharing a stage with the president began in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the youngest of Tadele Alemu and Almaz Ayalew’s two children. Tadele’s first name, Betsegaw, means "by God's grace" in Amharic, his native language.

In the summer of 2009, Tadele came to the United States in pursuit of a higher education.

Morehouse College, a historically black college, was not Tadele’s first choice; he was initially interested in more technical schools. Morehouse only awarded him enough scholarship funds to pay for tuition, not room and board. But Tadele’s brother happened to be living and working in Atlanta. Tadele saw this as an opportunity to spend time with his brother while taking advantage of what the university had to offer. Morehouse became his new destination.

After four years at Morehouse, Tadele had a 3.99 GPA. He graduated with a degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics. He won departmental awards in math and the school’s computer science leadership and scholarship award, led Morehouse’s Computer Science Club and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

"There is no impossible. There is no unbelievable. There is no unachievable, if you have the audacity to hope," Tadele said during his speech, paraphrasing the name of the president's 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope."

President Obama and Betsegaw Tadele speak at the Morehouse graduation.

The next stop in Tadele’s journey is Seattle, where he'll work for Microsoft.

Here’s what Tadele had to say about meeting the president and finishing college:

CNN: First thing first, what was it like to meet President Obama?

Betsegaw Tadele: I didn’t really get to meet him except on stage. There were a lot of Secret Service (agents) around him. Many were suggesting I go and hug him, but I couldn’t do that. But it was great; after my speech, he got up gave me a hug and told me he was proud of me. That was a great honor.

CNN: What was the greatest part of being a Morehouse valedictorian?

Tadele: It was great to be able to mark that moment and summarize our journey at Morehouse. I wasn't nervous at all. I could feel the energy of the crowd, everyone was happy to be there. It was an honor to be able to acknowledge all these parents who sacrificed so much for their kids to be there. Acknowledging them and our hard work and the energy of that moment was unforgettable.

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N.Y. student suspended after controversial Twitter hashtag
A New York high school student was suspended after creating a school budget-related hashtag.
May 26th, 2013
09:50 PM ET

N.Y. student suspended after controversial Twitter hashtag

By Chris Boyette, CNN

(CNN) - An upstate New York student said he got a three-day suspension for creating a controversial Twitter hashtag encouraging discussion of the school district's failed budget.

Pat Brown, a senior at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, says he created #s**tCNSshouldcut to brainstorm ways his school could save money in response to voters on Tuesday rejecting a $144.7 million budget plan. The budget did not receive the 60% voter approval it needed.

Many students were concerned, Brown said, because the school board had warned that if a new budget was not eventually passed, they might have to eliminate athletic programs, other extra-curricular activities and introduce additional administrative cuts, including the elimination of some teacher positions.

The budget is up for a revote on June 18.

"Everyone on Twitter was talking about 'I can't believe the budget didn't pass' and so I created (the hashtag) as a joke, really," Brown told CNN on Friday.

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Filed under: High school • School budgets • Students • Technology
May 24th, 2013
10:11 AM ET

Homeless teen graduates as valedictorian

(CNN) - Chelesa Fearce is the valedictorian at Charles Drew High School near Atlanta, Georgia, but it didn't come without a fight. The 17-year-old and her family have been homeless for years, living out of shelters, cars and occasionally short-lived apartments while her mom struggled to keep a job.

But Chelesa would crack open books at the homeless shelter and read against a cell phone light, she told CNN affiliate WSB. She's graduating with a 4.46 GPA, and is heading to Spelman College in the fall with enough credits to be a junior.

Her advice to students? "Do what you have to do right now so that you can have the future you want," she said.

From scrubbing floors to Ivy League: Homeless students heads to Harvard

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May 24th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

Going to school, instead of work

CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch June 16 on CNN

By Betsy Anderson, CNN

(CNN) - Purnima lives in Nepal. She wants to be a nurse. But because she is a girl instead of a boy, she is more likely to go to work than go to school.

In Nepal, government schools start charging tuition in the sixth grade. But Purnima was selected to be part of the Girls Education program with the nonprofit Room to Read and was able to continue her education.

"I am the first person getting an education in my family and my brother and sisters did not get the chance due to our family background ... we are from a poor family so we cannot afford to go to school," says Purnima.

Purnima lives with her family in a room above the carpet factory where her older sister works. Her father is paralyzed. Her mother became blind when Purnima was 2 years old. All her siblings stopped going to school after the fifth grade.

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Purnima is 17 and has just finished secondary school at the top of her class. In fact, she was at the top of her class every year.

Purnima is about to start two years of Nepal's post-secondary school and she plans to go on to college. For a long time, she wanted to be an eye doctor. Now she says she is going to be a nurse and she may have a good chance to do just that. According to Room to Read, about 76% of its graduates go on to some kind of university, college or vocational training after secondary school.

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May 23rd, 2013
10:19 PM ET

Students, teachers from tornado-leveled school say goodbye

By Josh Levs and Steve Almasy, CNN

(CNN) - The sign that covered a set of doors read, "We Love You Plaza Towers."

Children, toting big book bags and balloons, hugged their teachers and said goodbye before departing for the summer.

Many managed a smile despite the sad fact these end-of-the-year moments took place at Eastlake Elementary School because Plaza Towers is just a huge pile of rubble.

Kaylee Sanchez, a kindergartner who was shielded by one of her teachers as the storm plowed over Plaza Towers, said she was "freaking out" before going to Thursday's reunion.

But once she and the other children got there, laughter and playfulness returned to a group that suffered the worst when an EF5 tornado struck Monday.

Seven of their schoolmates were killed by the storm, which lead to 17 other deaths.

Kaylee's mother, Maria, applauded administrators for putting together the sendoff where students also received a backpack full of activities, snacks, stuffed animals and some basic necessities for the coming days.

"It's a really good thing because they get to see all their friends to make sure they are OK," Maria Sanchez said. "It's a good atmosphere to see the all these kids laughing and playing. ... My own daughter has been scared until today. When it started storming this morning she didn't want to come."

Pounding rain soaked Moore on Thursday morning, and winds sent pieces of debris flying, hindering recovery efforts three days after the devastating tornado.

Once she got there, Maria and the other children spilled around, and raced up to each other when they saw someone they had been worrying about.

Emily Stephens, a student at Plaza Towers, said she was in an underground shelter when the tornado hit.

"I just hope everyone's OK," she said. "I hope they get a new house - and a better one."

Stephens said "some of my house got ripped down."

She was happy to get the crayons, books and candy and, most importantly, see her classmates.

"It makes me glad to see my friends and that they're alive," she said.

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