Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tom Ellison has it wrong

I had a cute science teacher back when I was 15 who I would have gladly had a thing with had he shown me any interest. Fortunately, he was the kind of teacher who understood you didn’t get involved with your students, so nothing happened.
I’ve rarely appreciated that teacher more than in these sordid days of testimony from disgraced B.C. teacher Tom Ellison.
Unlike my decent teacher, Ellison drew no boundaries. He had sex with his young Vancouver alternative-education students as if he was just another boy among them, with barely a thought to the teacher he was supposed to be.
“I apologize to you guys because you’re my good friends,” the former secondary teacher said in court Wednesday to a dozen stricken female students from those years. “I just crossed the line. I know it was wrong.”
Good friends? Since when was that ever a desirable characteristic in a teacher? Ellison made the ridiculous claim in court this week that it was “extremely common” for secondary teachers to have sex with their students in the 1970s. I can only hope that every middle-aged teacher in the province jumps all over him for that, because it’s a lie. Then and now, teachers knew not to sleep with their students.
Not that anything is going to make a dint on Ellison, who’s 63 now and still as unaware of his terrible breach of trust as he was in the years when he was chasing young girls from room to room and tearing off their underwear. A guy who still refers to these now-grown women as his “good friends” after they’ve charged him with 16 counts of gross indecency and indecent assault - well, that’s a guy who’s never going to get it.
But I was in school in B.C. in the years that Ellison was teaching, and what really bugs me is watching him try to excuse his pathetic behaviour as normal for that period. Sure, there were other teachers like Ellison back then, and still are. But it was never OK.
The case at hand involves young girls attending Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary in the 1970s and ‘80s. Ellison was in his 30s for most of that period, running one of those experimental outdoor school programs that get tested every now and then as a new way of teaching. Ellison’s particular teaching style included dating the students.
He contends it was OK because the law criminalizing acts like teachers dating their students didn’t come into effect until 1988. The reality is that, law or no law, teachers have always been in a position of trust over their students, and fully aware of the need to be the adult in whatever scenes play out with their students. It has never been acceptable for teachers to date their students.
As many of us can attest, the early teen years are a sexual awakening. Today, the girls announce it with their teeny tops and skinny-low pants. In my day, it was ridiculously short skirts and matching underwear. We dressed to experiment with how it felt to be a woman, and to stop traffic with our body-baring style.
Why not? Youth is a beautiful thing. Let the young people feel their oats, because years of dignified behaviour and modest clothing await them as adults. From a girl point of view, I think the phase is all about testing your sexuality - sending out those come-hither vibes and seeing how it feels to pick up something coming back.
Sometimes those girl vibes get directed at a teacher. But what’s supposed to happen is nothing at all, because that young, vulnerable girl practically throwing herself at her teacher is simply off-limits.
From Grade 7 on, I can think of at least one teacher per year who my little-girl self dreamed of falling in love with. Did any of them recognize it? Impossible to say, but I can attest that they never took me up on my offers. They let me be a little girl growing into a young woman, and do my learning with boys my own age.
Things were different in Ellison’s class. Testimony in the case so far reads like one big frat party. Ellison and at least one other teacher from the same alternative program essentially surrounded themselves with swooning teenage girls and nights out on a school yacht. Ellison acknowledged he was “taking a risk” when things turned sexual, but the testimony of witness after tearful witness from those years certainly made it clear that he never let that get in the way.
Thank God for the teachers who know where to draw the line. Being a teenager is hard enough without having a teacher like Tom Ellison taking you up on an offer that you’re too young to make. Every girl who never met him ought to thank their lucky stars.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

When good food goes wrong: e.coli, botulism, c.difficile
Oct. 20, 2006

In the big picture, death by vegetable is an uncommon way to go. Six carrot-juice poisonings are small potatoes, so to speak, compared to the havoc caused by more common killers like cancer and car crashes.
But this month’s toxic carrot story comes on the heels of last month’s tainted spinach alert, which in turn has been followed by an alert about our beef. What are we to make of the troubling fact that almost a fifth of the meat sampled at a Canadian grocery store in a recent study contained the toxin-producing bacteria c. difficile?
It’s hard not to feel just a little alarmed about our food supply in light of recent headlines, and curious whether everything was OK. Having gone looking for some answers to that question, I can tell you that it’s not.
First, let’s consider the spinach. More than 200 people in the U.S. got sick from eating bagged spinach that had been contaminated with the e.coli bacteria. It’s a bug that lives in the intestines of cows and humans, which means that manure from one or the other of those species was likely the cause of the contamination.
The tainted spinach mystery has yet to be solved, but the sequence of events is a little scary all by itself.
It starts with a concentration of the spinach industry. More than half of the North American bagged-spinach market is grown on nine California mega-farms, at least one of which turns out to be surrounded by commercial cattle operations. E.coli is a fact of life in the overcrowded, over-medicated world of factory farming.
In the last decade, nine outbreaks of vegetables contaminated with e.coli have been recorded in California’s Salinas Valley. Sometimes it was spinach, sometimes lettuce or sprouts. Even while last month’s spinach scare was unfolding, 8,000 cartons of lettuce were also recalled after their irrigation water turned out to be contaminated with e.coli. And unlike other toxins on our vegetables that can be dealt with by a good rinse under the tap, e.coli contamination can’t be washed off.
Now, the carrots. They were juiced and packaged by Bolthouse Farms, an American company. Three people in Georgia and one in Florida developed botulism poisoning after drinking the juice. Two Canadians were then poisoned by the same brand of juice.
Read the coverage of the botulism incident and it sounds like six North Americans coincidentally didn’t refrigerate their carrot juice quickly enough and got botulism poisoning as a result. I’ve got my doubts about that, and not only because I can’t recall a single public-health warning in my lifetime of the potentially lethal effects of room-temperature commercial carrot juice.
Bolthouse says it will “modify its juice processing to prevent risk from consumer mishandling.” Whatever that means, it sounds bigger than individual consumers forgetting to refrigerate their carrot juice.
As while it’s bad news to hear of toxic carrot juice, it’s worse to learn that Canadian health inspectors were still finding the juice on grocery shelves more than two weeks after it was recalled. That says something profound about the way we’re handling consumer alerts, and our stores’ responsibility for staying on top of the latest lethal vegetable.
Finally, c. difficile. Good news for vegetarians - this one’s about meat. But do remember that e.coli used to be about the meat as well, which could mean that c.difficile can cross the divide too.
C. difficile is a toxin-producing bacteria that takes hold when the body is being hammered by antibiotics, which kill off the “good” bacteria that normally keep the bug in check. It’s a rapidly growing problem for hospitals and long-term care facilities, where it takes hold among sick people and causes painful intestinal illness, even death. Eighty per cent of the cases in North America involve people on antibiotics.
The most lethal varieties of the toxin can wreak havoc. A four-year c. difficile outbreak that Quebec hospitals are just now gaining control of has killed an estimated 2,000 people. It took an aggressive public campaign warning against the unnecessary use of antibiotics to slow the outbreak.
Not incidentally, four million kilos of antibiotic feed additives are used every year by the U.S. cattle industry. A recent U.S.-Canada joint study found the presence of c.difficile in a fifth of the meat sampled at a Canadian grocery store, and almost a third of the samples in the U.S. Who can be surprised? It makes sense that animals fed antibiotics as part of their daily regimen would have high rates of c. difficile.
Are we putting ourselves at risk if we eat c.difficile-contaminated meat? Too soon to say. But we’re eating it, despite being largely clueless as to whether that’s a danger.
True, food-borne illnesses are still blessedly rare as killers. But the patterns in this fall’s food scares are frightening. When the spinach salads turn lethal, something’s very wrong.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

School system fails B.C.'s aboriginal students
Oct. 13, 2006

Perhaps it’s not particularly noteworthy in itself that 83 per cent of Canadians think our country’s schools are doing a poor job at teaching the basics. That may be their opinion, but it isn’t necessarily true.
Still, it’s unsettling to hear that so many people give schools a failing grade on that basic test. What’s more disturbing is that at least on one front, they’re right. Whatever you may take away from the very subjective findings of the Canadian Council on Learning survey released this week, other more objective measures of how our students are doing tell us we’ve got plenty to worry about.
Few things would be more challenging than teaching school, and I have respect and admiration for B.C.’s hard-working teachers. But the number of students failing to complete high school in our region is closing in on 28 per cent. Losing that many kids in a community as privileged and involved as ours is cause for considerable alarm.
B.C. school stats are particularly grim for aboriginals. The good news is that more than twice as many aboriginal students graduate from Grade 12 these days as they did a decade ago. The bad news is that the non-completion rate is a staggering 56 per cent.
The story that leads to that sad ending obviously begins long before an aboriginal teen heads into high school. The most recent edition of the province’s annual report on aboriginal students reveals that trouble starts early for such children and continues in a relentless downward spiral for most of their school years.
On every assessment test from Grade 4 on, aboriginal students perform well below other students, with gaps of 20 percentage points or more in virtually all subjects. While 80 per cent of other Grade 4 kids are meeting or exceeding acceptable reading-comprehension levels, just 62 per cent of aboriginal kids are. By Grade 7, barely half of the aboriginal kids are meeting reading standards, compared to more than three-quarters of other students.
The problems go deeper than poor performance on tests. With the notable exception of “gifted,” B.C.’s aboriginal students are also overrepresented in every special-needs category. They’re at least two times more likely than non-aboriginals to be categorized as having a special need due to a sensory, learning, behavioural or intellectual disability.
The gap is most significant in the behavioural category. Eight per cent of B.C. aboriginal students in 2004-05 were categorized as having behavioural disabilities, compared to just two per cent of non-aboriginals.
By Grade 10, more than 10 per cent of aboriginal students are in a “behavioural” class, versus three per cent of non-aboriginals. (On every measure, the difference is dramatic enough across the board that you have to wonder whether it’s solely about performance, or if racism plays a role.)
From Grade 9 on, aboriginal participation in school drops dramatically and grades tumble. Almost 40 per cent of the aboriginal kids who wrote their Grade 10 science exam in the 2004-05 school year got an F.
On a positive note, the learning gap starts to shrink for aboriginal students who do make it to Grade 12, where final grades and provincial exam results are much more comparable to the overall student population. “Aboriginal students, when participating, perform very well on the provincial exam,” the annual report from the Education MInistry points out in a footnote about the English 12 exam.
But there’s the rub. Barely half of the aboriginal students who start Grade 12 in a B.C. school will graduate, and many more will never even make it that far. They will pay dearly for the absence of a high-school education in this fast-paced information age and will work that much harder to support their own children as they in turn head into school. One more generation falling behind before they’ve even had a chance to begin.
As with all problems, somebody has to blink. If a majority of us really do believe that our children aren’t getting the basics in our school system - as seems to be indicated by the national learning council’s survey this week of 5,300 Canadians - then we’re presumably open to ideas for intervention. Crisis-level problems for aboriginal students are hardly news, but surely we’re well past the time of pretending it isn’t having an impact.
Like children in government care, it’s hard to separate the chicken from the egg when looking at health outcomes for B.C.’s aboriginal kids.
Yes, a significant number of those kids will struggle no matter what, because they didn’t get the head start that a happy, healthy family with a decent income can provide. That’s just the bleak reality of growing up aboriginal in Canada.
But with rising dropout rates for all students in two of our region’s three school districts in the past five years, we clearly have to try harder on all fronts. Aboriginal or otherwise, B.C.’s kids deserve better.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

B.C.'s Rental Assistance program
Oct. 6, 2006

Like most of the agencies working with lost souls, I meet a lot of people who are really struggling. They’re still standing, but God knows how sometimes.
They need a lot of things when we first meet them at PEERS. Simple things at first: A decent roof over their heads. A place to fit in. Somewhere to start to recover. Eventually, they’ll need to get at the deeper issues that lie buried beneath the drugs, but they can’t even begin that journey without a solid place to live.
Our agency has the great fortune to have 14 portable housing subsidies that we administer on behalf of BC Housing. The subsidies give us the ability to provide real help to people - up to $116.50 per month - in being able to afford even the smallest of rooms away from the users, dealers, mice and infestations. Better still, the subsidies aren’t considered earnings under B.C. law for those on income assistance, which means people get a genuine boost in monthly income.
So it was with great disappointment that I read this week of how the B.C. government had structured its brand-new Rental Assistance Program. It will provide help of up to $238 a month to a Vancouver family of three to find a better place to live, and $170 elsewhere in the province. But only the “working poor” are eligible. People on income assistance are out of luck.
First and foremost, allow me to be most appreciative for a rental-assistance program for the working poor. Anything that puts more money into the hands of B.C. families to find decent places to live is OK by me. The plan to open another 450 units of supportive housing is inadequate, but a good start.
But whose truly bizarre idea was it to declare that the new subsidy program would be off-limits to B.C.’s absolute poor? Who can possibly think it’s a good idea to deny housing support to the people living in the worst class of housing in our communities?
Let me tell you about a girl I know. She’s in her early 30s, and pregnant. She lived on the streets for a while, but lately has been bouncing from here to there: A transition house; a recovery house; whatever bed comes available. Recently, she came very close to ending up on the streets again, at seven months pregnant, where she most definitely would have ended up using drugs again. Instead, getting a housing subsidy let her find a good apartment to rent. She’s doing OK.
A young woman like her - soon to give birth to the child that will bounce just as aimlessly and tragically through its life if nothing changes - doesn’t qualify for B.C.’s new subsidy program. All of the 103,000 families scratching by on income assistance will be denied.
How can that possibly seem like a good idea? With news of the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs report this week still fresh in our minds, and the Kendall-Morley report still reverberating, how can we even consider excluding a desperate class of people from a helping hand that they really need?
I admit to still being a little steamed giving up a recent afternoon to attend a forum on the province’s housing strategy, only to hear that the housing strategy would be released weeks before comments from six such forums around the province had even been tabulated.
One thing I would have told them then, had they asked, and certainly now: Think again. If the goal is to get at the issues interfering with our communities’ health and well-being, then it’s just plain misguided to be denying the most desperate ones every chance to do better. And if this is about money, just think for a moment about all the messed-up people that a generation of messed-up people can create, and surely it doesn’t take a CGA to figure out where that story goes.
But here we are, in an age when the problems have never been more evident, announcing programs that shut the door on the desperately poor. It’s so very sad to see that we’re still at a point where we can’t even grasp the fundamental need to do something about the terrible problems afoot in B.C.’s burgeoning underclass.
Pregnant women are no exception, as my young friend proves. If it weren’t for a housing subsidy, she’d have $325 a month for rent right now. Check the classifieds some time for what that would buy you.
If we meant it about doing better by kids, we’d be working at getting rid of every barrier to a family’s success. A healthy, happy baby brought up by decent parents is worth its weight in gold on every possible future front. Whether working poor or welfare poor, what matters is helping those who need it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Children in government care
Sept. 29, 2006

Everything you need to know about what’s going wrong in B.C. communities these days is summed up in the depressing little report released last week on the health status of children in permanent government care. If you’ve ever wondered where lost souls come from, look no farther.
Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley and provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall studied health outcomes for children in permanent care between April 1997 and November 2005. Some 37,000 kids were taken into care in that period, with 24,800 eventually making their way out of the system. The report focuses on the 12,200 who didn’t.
Not unexpectedly, the study found that kids raised solely by the government fare far worse than other kids, sometimes in ways that underlined for me the essence of family. Having a series of people being paid to care for you just isn’t the same as being raised by your family, a truth the study reveals in telling ways.
For instance, kids in the permanent custody of government are prescribed drugs like Ritalin up to 12 times more often than other children, and psychiatric drugs up to eight times more often. It could mean that they’ve got a lot more problems than the average kid, but could just as easily be about what happens to a child when there’s nobody in his life who really knows him.
If it were your six-year-old acting up, you’d have six years of history with him to reflect back on in trying to determine whether little Nathan had an attention-deficit problem or was just a wired, on-the-go kind of kid. You’d be in a far better position to make an informed decision as to what to do about the boy.
But a child in permanent care can end up passed from foster home to foster home, each only seeing whatever version of the child is presenting at that time. With no family history to look back on to determine that indeed, all of Nathan’s family members tended to be a little crazy at age six - but just fine by 10 - you’d be more likely to conclude that a troubling behaviour was an indicator that something was wrong.
Of course, the chances that something really is wrong with Nathan are significantly higher if he’s a child in permanent care. Such kids in the study were four times more likely than other children to be struggling right from birth. And it was an uphill slog for them after that, through a childhood rife with accident and injury, an adolescence more likely to go off the rails, and an unsettled and difficult early adulthood.
But that’s no excuse for why kids in care are doing so poorly. The whole point of government care ought to be to help our province’s most disadvantaged young citizens grow up into responsible, healthy adults. If that’s not happening, then the onus is on us to figure that out.
Alarming health outcomes for children in care is not news in B.C. The Kendall-Morley report merely brings home how little progress we’ve made after well over a decade of hand-wringing and political promises. Is it really 11 years since the stark findings of Judge Tom Gove ever so briefly galvanized us to do better?
Care for kids who are falling behind from the start has to be better than growing up in an average family, not significantly worse. Instead, almost every bad thing that can happen to a child happened at a far higher rate to children in care.
More drugs. More sickness. Longer stays in hospital. Fewer happy endings.
Children in continuing care were four times more likely to get pregnant as teenagers. Four times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental-health condition: attention deficit; “conduct disorder”; depression; anxiety. Twelve times more at risk of being in a car accident. Eight times more likely to be on psychiatric drugs, and up to 12 times more likely to end up on a whole host of other prescription drugs, from asthma sprays to antacids.
Did all that medical attention make them healthier? You be the judge. Kids in care died of infections during the study period at seven times the rate of other children. They were almost seven times more likely to die of “unknown causes,” and more than 11 times more at risk of dying of diseases of the nervous system. Those who made it into adulthood continued to struggle with higher accident and injury rates, more mental-health problems, and more suicide attempts.
The only conclusion to draw from the study is that we failed more than 12,000 kids during that nine-year period - kids whose lives we had the chance to turn around. Sadder still is that we’re still doing it.