Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Denial of Service: Deconstructed

Denial of Service, Deconstructed

Denial-of-service attacks are an old and crass way to disrupt a network, and yet still are immensely effective. DoS attacks overload the pipes that connect computers to the Internet with massive amounts of legitimate but useless data. DoS attacks create epic traffic jams. The cars in this analogy would be requests for service that hackers send to the target website. Each time the target site gets a request, it must deny it. But because the hacker sends massive numbers of requests from thousands of computers, the target must use nearly all of its time and resources just to deny these requests for service, effectively blocking access to anyone with a legitimate request.

Before that, though, the hacker must create a network of computers big enough to overwhelm the target. They don't buy these computers, they commandeer them. They plant software scripts on systems distributed throughout the world (hence, distributed denial of service, or DDoS). These compromised computers are called zombies, or bots, because they generate attack traffic automatically, without the owners' knowledge.

Hackers create zombies by scanning for exposed systems that they can manipulate remotely. Often these are home and office broadband users. (Lately, existing bot networks have been found scanning for more computers to turn into bots when they're not launching attacks of their own—akin to an army recruiting its soldiers in peacetime. One security consultant said he connected an unsecured computer to the Internet to see what would happen, and it was recruited within three minutes.) Hackers can also insert their attack code through phishing, spyware, viruses and social engineering. Universities have long been popular spots for creating zombies because of the number of easily accessible, unsecured public computers.

With a zombie network in place, the only issue left is scale. The more zombies on a network, and the more aggregate upstream bandwidth they have, the swifter and more severe havoc they can wreak. Several hundred computers could generate 100MB of traffic, enough to knock a small network offline. A 10,000-computer bot network could deliver a 1Gb attack, enough to knock anyone offline who hasn't installed some rudimentary anti-DDoS infrastructure.

Some experts believe that right now different sets of hackers are engaged in an arms race to see who can build the biggest zombie network. Not for bragging rights, but for renting out the networks to anyone who wants to launch an attack, the raw capitalist idea being that the biggest network will generate the best rental business.

Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003: Running Out of Time

The extortionists' e-mail that arrived on this morning demonstrated that they were losing whatever patience they had: [all typos sic] "I told you that if you try and f*** with us that your site will be down forever.... The excuse that you were in the hospital does not matter to me. So here are your choices: 1) You have until 4pm est today to send us our $40K. 2) You have until 4pm est Wednesday to send us $50K if you can not send the $40K today. 3) You do not pay and your site will be down for 4 days starting Thursday and it will cost you $75K to come back up Monday. 4) You do nothing and do not respond to this email within an hour and we will make sure you are down forever...."

Richardson was panicked. He can't remember precisely when—the entire week has blurred in his memory—but by this time, he had reported the crime to the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) in Scotland Yard. According to an NHTCU spokeswoman, the unit had already opened a similar investigation with a British gaming site called CanBet.

According to Richardson and Lyon, the NHTCU encouraged Richardson to wire two extortion payments of a few thousand dollars each to separate Western Union offices in Eastern Europe. The NHTCU wanted to nab anyone who showed up to take the cash. (NHTCU won't confirm this; the spokeswoman said the unit does not discuss investigative tactics.) Richardson agreed, but for a different reason: He wanted his site back up. "I knew another person [in the industry] who was successful getting back online by sending three or four small payments like this," Richardson says, "and those guys didn't even have a solution to the problem when they paid. I knew Barrett was getting closer and closer to a solution. So I sent the payments, thinking maybe I can get a good week out of this."

But no one took the bait. After about two weeks, Richardson pulled the money back.

Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003: Barrett's Big Bet

From Sacramento, Lyon instructed the PureGig engineers who would turn on his system 630 miles southeast, in Phoenix. Another 2,400 miles southeast from Phoenix, everyone at BetCris waited impatiently.

Lyon's system intercepted traffic headed for BetCris's servers in Costa Rica, diverted it to his creation in Phoenix, scrubbed off the attack traffic and delivered legitimate traffic back to Costa Rica. It was designed to bar DDoS traffic from touching BetCris. If the system failed, it couldn't defend BetCris, and it wouldn't be able to send legitimate traffic to Costa Rica. But BetCris itself wasn't getting attacked. The system did a lot of other stuff too: monitoring, capacity planning, logging and analysis.

It wasn't perfect. After it was installed, Lyon had to tweak routers on the network, install new versions of software and add capacity to his system. The extortionists kept changing attack vectors, and Lyon and his team kept tweaking. It was a constant battle, but Lyon was confident that the system would enable BetCris.com to stay online. Wilson at PureGig called Lyon's system "ingenious" not because it was unique—it was monitoring and filtering at a proxy location—but because Lyon's monitoring and filtering seemed to stop attacks better than any other effort he'd seen.

But when it was first turned on, the extortionists stuffed too much traffic down its throat. Wilson recalls the math: "We had 100MB links to the DNS servers. We went from handling under 2MB per link to, all of a sudden, 600MB." That's six times a full load. Imagine Fenway Park, which holds about 35,000 people. Now imagine 200,000 people trying to get inside Fenway Park at one time.

The DNS servers were overloaded, and Phoenix got tense.

Costa Rica had been tense for nearly a week (as much as half a million dollars in lost revenue), but now BetCris was bordering on despair. Mickey Richardson lacked sleep, and he struggled to make decisions and lead. His IT staff was fracturing, feeling impotent as they watched the attacks and waited for Lyon. BetCris's small call center staff was getting abused around the clock by customers calling in to vent frustration and demand to know what the heck was going on. The simple task of creating a smart message about what was happening eluded Richardson. "You can't just have your call center staff tell people you were hacked," Richardson says, because it creates more questions than answers.

At the same time, his decision not to pay the extortionists was affecting other wagering sites that shared the same ISP and were experiencing network problems. "I'm getting calls from friendly competitors saying, 'Look, Mickey, we paid. Just pay. We're going down because of you.'"

He was running out of time and energy. Richardson remembers around this time having to update his staff—275 or so people who weren't entirely sure they'd have a job soon—and he couldn't even find words. He thought, "I wish they could read my mind because I'm too exhausted to explain it anymore. I don't have any answers."

In hindsight, Richardson says, he would have spent more time preparing for these human issues attached to the crisis—decision making under pressure, keeping the staff together—and less time worrying about technical defenses. Yes, create those technical defenses and make sure you have a crisis response plan. But also focus more on issues like exhaustion and emotional distress, and how they can be handled.

It was in this context that Richardson received an e-mail, at 11:12 a.m. It caused him to feel, for the first time, "blind fear."

"I would like to thank you for not keeping your end of the deal and making this upcoming weekend an enjoyable one for me." The extortionists demanded $75,000, but then seemed to disregard the money. "I do not care how long I have to destroy your business and I will. You will learn the hard way that you do not make a deal and then f*** around with us.... Let the games begin."

Richardson would soon learn they were not bluffing. They could destroy his business, and they were going to try. For BetCris to survive, Lyon's slapdash system in Phoenix, which was just starting to find its purchase, would have to stand up to the biggest DDoS attack any of them had ever seen.

The DNS servers that had overloaded in Phoenix were brought back online in a couple of hours, after Lyon and Wilson adapted some filtering scripts and increased the size of their network pipes.

Lyon then spent Thanksgiving and Friday eating leftover turkey his girlfriend delivered and tweaking his system to absorb bigger DDoS attacks. On Friday, he believed it could handle a 1Gb attack, and he felt good about that. He assured a frayed Richardson that he'd never see an attack that big. It would take tens of thousands of zombie computers.

Which is exactly what happened. It turns out the extortionists had more than 20,000 zombies. PureGig's data center suffered badly, which affected several of its ISP customers. PureGig decided to take Lyon's system offline to fix it.

"The attack went to 1.5Gb, with bursts up to 3Gb. It wasn't targeted at one thing. It was going to routers, DNS servers, mail servers, websites. It was like a battlefield, where there's an explosion over here, then over there, then it's quiet, then another explosion somewhere else," says Lyon. "They threw everything they had at us. I was just in shock."

Richardson recalls the attack: "So I have Barrett on the line, who I think is the second coming, and he says, 'Let me think about this. Give me some time.' And I say, 'OK, I don't want to pressure you. I have faith. But if you don't fix it, I'm out of business.'"

Why Online Extortion Works

It was never supposed to have gotten to this point; Richardson was supposed to have paid long ago. The extortionists expertly optimized the chances of it.

To ensure a quick, quiet transaction, the extortionists did what all extortionists (in the physical or online world) do: They exploited the problem of the commons. An ecological principle, the problem of the commons states that people will act in self-interest if it profits them in the short term, even if that act will hurt everyone, including themselves, in the long term. Every act, every threat, every negotiation tactic, every single move extortionists make is designed to make paying the protection fee not only appealing, but in fact, the smartest business decision you can make in the short term, even if you know in the long run that you haven't stopped the problem at all.

Thus, extortionists attack when it hurts the target the most; they ask for $10,000 to $100,000 (generally considered the sweet spot of extortionist profitability versus victim willingness to pay, depending on the size of the victim company).

In BetCris's case, the extortionists revealed they were Eastern European, which would make them hard to find, never mind prosecute. Online crime laws are weaker in Eastern Europe than in the United States and the desire to enforce them weaker still (and the FBI wouldn't get involved with offshore gaming sites being extorted from overseas).

The online version of extortion provides unique advantages (relative anonymity, low probability of prosecution, lots of easy targets, diminished chance of physical violence) that have made it a highly lucrative business alternative for bad guys.

BetCris was just another easy target. What the extortionists didn't count on was the unlikely confluence of Richardson's resolve, Lyon's ingenuity and an ISP that would provide them a place to fight back.

Friday, Dec. 12, 2003: BetCris Wins the War of Attrition

The extortionists must have screamed "Hooy na ny!" or some other Russian expletive after their blitzkrieg, when Lyon "got the chemistry down" and managed to absorb the massive amounts of attack traffic and get PureGig and BetCris back up and running. Lyon assumed the bad guys would come back with something bigger, as hard as that was to imagine, so he set out to scale up his system "for whatever was next, a 6Gb attack or something."

But for the next week, the attack stayed steady at around 1Gb. BetCris, Lyon and PureGig had entered a war of attrition. The extortionists would find a way to kick Lyon's system, Lyon and Lebumfacil would tweak it and get back up. Cat and mouse. "Attack, counterattack, back and forth," Lebumfacil says. "It was 24-by-7 monitoring for two weeks." Wilson and PureGig stopped noticing any of this because the attacks had been segregated from PureGig's other traffic.

And then, suddenly, the attacks stopped.

At 8:46 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 12, two weeks after the assault that nearly put him out of business and three weeks after he first read the words "Your site is under attack," Richardson received an e-mail: "Dear Mickey, I tried getting to your site today and I could not. I thought with all the money you spent you would not have these problems anymore. I guess you wasted your money instead of keeping your word. Good luck. P.S. I bet you feel real stupid that you did not keep your word. I figure by now you have lost 5 times what we asked and by the end of the year your decision will cost you more than 20 times what we asked."

Richardson knew this was an admission of defeat, even if it was disguised as braggadocio. His site was up. The extortionists couldn't get to it because they were blocked. He hadn't paid them a dime. They made no more threats. They couldn't because they couldn't back them up with action. The extortionists had lost.

And yet, the e-mail was not far off. Richardson figures it cost him a million dollars in lost revenue and IT investments to win this war. "It was worth it," he says. "I just didn't know it would take a couple years off my life."

"It was amazing we made that system work against that attack," Lyon says. "It was a wake-up call on how good the bad guys had gotten."

And Lyon knows the bad guys have gotten even better since. They've built zombie networks of 35,000 machines, capable of delivering a steady stream of 3Gb traffic. Peter Rendell, CEO of Top Layer Networks, which makes intrusion prevention and anti-DDoS hardware, says he expects botnets to pass 50,000 machines (and 4Gb to 5Gb) by the end of this year. It's an arms race, as defenses scale, then offenses scale, though Lyon is convinced the defenses have far outpaced what extortionists can throw at them.

But the bad guys have a response. Extortionists have encrypted DoS attack scripts and have put them on peer-to-peer networks, making criminals who use them nearly impossible to track or contain. They're registering domains and then attacking those domains, only those domains are redirected to other targets. "The only way to stop that is to delete the domain," Lyon says, "and that's not something you can just do." Lyon stopped an attack but certainly didn't stop the problem.

Still, he wouldn't learn of all this until later, after he decided to start a business and, as he did with Don Best, track down the BetCris extortionists. At that moment, though, after the extortionists admitted defeat, he was ready to relax. He booked a vacation in San Jose, Costa Rica, for New Year's. Finally, he'd meet the people he saved and celebrate with them.

New Year's, 2004: Visit to an Online Gaming Hotbed

Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia, bookended by Nicaragua to the northwest and Panama to the southeast on the Central American isthmus. With coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and mountainous terrain inland, Costa Rica sits along the Ring of Fire, so volcanoes and earthquakes are native. Political strife is not. The CIA calls Costa Rica a "Central American success story."

Lured by its stability, BetCris located there in 1993. Richardson joined as a "utility man" in 1996. Back then, the business wasn't online, it was a call center. BetCris's call center once employed more than 500 operators at peak hours, but the number dwindled as the business moved online. Today, maybe 30 operators will man a call center at peak hours, or during an extortion crisis.

As the Internet took off, so did San Jose as an offshore gaming mecca, for several reasons. The government encouraged the industry to expand its economy. (BetCris supports an industry group to lobby local politicians.) Also, the people are educated, with an excellent work ethic, Richardson says. Costa Rica has a 96 percent literacy rate. More high-level employees at gaming companies are Costa Ricans, including all of BetCris's accounting staff and 90 percent of its managers.

The other reason gaming companies swarmed here is, of course, because it's not the United States, where gambling laws are difficult to negotiate. Today, hundreds of offshore gaming companies, most of them online ventures, operate from San Jose. In BetCris's seven-story headquarters alone, Richardson says, there are 10 such enterprises, two software companies and a telecom company—pretty much offering everything you need to get started in the online gambling business in one building. The competition is mostly friendly. Richardson says it's not unusual to bump into competitors at a restaurant and join them for dinner.

The valley that makes up the San Jose metropolitan area holds almost half the country's 4 million people. Richardson says the valley gets blistering hot, and downtown San Jose is "undesirable." But BetCris, and most of the gaming and tourism industries, are above all that, nestled in the higher elevations of the valley's surrounding mountains, where Richardson compares the weather—and the lifestyle—favorably to San Diego.

When Lyon arrived here, he felt a sense of pride for helping. He saw "this beautiful building with this top-notch data center," he recalls. "And I met all the people who work there, and I kept thinking, I protected all of this. Me and my keyboard helped all these people keep their jobs. It was so neat to see how good a thing it was that we did."

Richardson and Lyon bonded immediately. There was a party with professional-grade fireworks launched from Richardson's front lawn. They went to dinner, talked about life and the attacks. Lyon had developed antipathy to the extortionists; he wanted to nail them. He told Richardson and Lebumfacil he was going to start a business, a service whereby people could subscribe to his anti-DDoS attack infrastructure. Lyon recruited Lebumfacil to help him start DigiDefense. BetCris was his first customer. Richardson gave them office space to start.

That business talk, though, was in the background. Lyon relaxed, went deep-sea fishing and zip-lining through the rain forest.

Friday, October 3, 2014

An Open Letter 💻

October 2, 2014

Dear Mr. Leiderman:

I am humbly requesting assistance to find a IP attorney who can help me with severe hacking, d0xing, 

Additional security breaches included HIPPA violations, posting medical, financial, and ERISA benefits online. 

The harassment continues FOUR years after I resigned from CyberSecurity firm and I have lost friends, jobs, integrity; my professional identity was compromised after fake credentials were posted on an open forum designed to discredit and destroy my professional credibility and reputation. 

Furthermore,  my family has suffered terribly by having their names, addresses, Social Security numbers online in an effort to destroy the family business. 

My father's business accounts were posted on by BlackHat hackers who ADMITTED to hacking Columbia University as well as SOCA FBI CIA Stratfor, Joseph K. Black, HB Gary and many others. 

I recently relocated to South Florida due to constant harassment and stalking when my phone and address were posted online. 

I am concerned about the Stature of limitations and I want to be sure that I file the necessary reports before time runs out. 

I would appreciate any advice or referral you can provide for CyberCrimes experts including forensic specialists who can confirm what I have known for several years. 

I'm hacked. 


Thank you for the wonderful work you have done in this area and any assistance you may be able to provide. 

Sincerely yours,

Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.
Research & Policy Analyst


Cc: Marc Durant, Esq.
       Joel Rosenblatt
       George Schuessler

Friday, July 4, 2014

Work to Welfare

Yup! That's right, I'm on welfare... 
I'm milking the system for all its worth! I had better go get in line before those immigrants suck up all our resources (which have never once been available when I have needed them) 
That's right, just another Ivy League grad too smart to go to work! I am just waiting on my next free meal ticket, subsidy, or voucher. The opportunities to exploit the government are endless! Where do I begin???

I remember how difficult it was for me to obtain benefits when I first applied several years ago. I am deeply concerned about how the most recent decision to eradicate yet another class of TennCare / Medicaid recipients (the Daniels class made up of SSI recipients by way of a pending federal waiver) will affect the poor and disabled residents in Tennessee. 

Without my current level of benefits, I simply do not function.

Before my benefits were stabilized, learning to navigate the system consumed every waking moment of my life. 

I was unable to work or attend school on any substantial level and I am frightened to see at might happen if I were to stray from my established, stabilized, treatment plan. If I lose my benefits, will I still be able to work? To function? To be productive?

Any new public program requires careful planning if it is to be effective. Recent discussions have not focused on the true impact these changes will have on the "street-level."

Has anyone asked recipients how they feel the new program (safety- net) should be designed, implemented, or evaluated? How will this impact the community and other social service or welfare agencies??? I want access, quality, and outcomes. 

I want... I want... I want!!!

The massive number of people being dis-enrolled or limited in their access to medical care and other social services will no doubt create significant anxiety, confusion, and chaos for everyone involved in the social service and health care industries.

I remember when Mr. Brian Lapps was somewhere very high up on the corporate TennCare ladder in 1999 when  they adjusted the prescription formulary over Memorial Day in 1999. I see Mr. Lapps quite frequently since he now works at the local gas station down the street from where I live.

To this day, he insists that cell phones and TennCare are somehow contraindicated. Perhaps he knows nothing of the population he claims to know just all-too-well... housing conditions that may or may not have electricity, broken families-some riddled with community violence and domestic disturbances. In the hood, your cell phone is your very best friend. 9-1-1.

These people plagued by domestic violence and community instability makes a cell phone the only logical option. How  can you find a job with out a phone? How can you find a home with out a job? Yet even 6 years later, Mr. Lapps uses cellular phones as an example how the TennCare program is being abused by lazy, cheap, and unscrupulous second hand citizens who are just shiftless lazy bums waiting around for their next free hand-out.

Anyone who has EVER applied for or relied upon any kind of government subsidy to have their basic needs met, e.g., food, shelter, medical care, dental treatment, etc... let me personally assure you that there has never been a single time where I felt I was "pulling one over" on the government. I am not just one of the poor saps who believed what they told me they in school, I bought it hook, line, and sinker for the mere price of $279,982.00 and not a shred of financial security to show for it.

Even after consolidating my student loans, the interest alone is $10 less than my monthly income from social security.

So what happens now that the state of Tennessee will begin to cut off social security recipients from TennCare? I honestly do not think I can survive yet another re-certification process-- God knows the first one almost killed me. 

After three years of appeals, my condition had deteriorated so severely that I was forced to drop out of school, lost my home, lost my sanity, and lost hope. In short-- I lost my dignity and my belief in the social welfare system.

By the time my benefits were approved, I had already checked myself in to NYU Psych Ward because simply could not cope with the reality of what my life I had  become. I weighed 94 pounds and suffered in excruciating pain that has only gotten worse with time. My extremities were ice cold, and my hands were numb since I went without medical treatment for the spinal injury that was first discovered when I was 22.

I am now 35 years old. My spinal cord is now damaged from years of delayed, sub-standard medical treatment. I owe the federal government $279,982.00 in student loans and when I am able to work, I make $10.46 / hour as a substitute teacher in an urban school district. That job comes with no security and no benefits. It does however offer the flexibility I need to receive the bi-monthly epidural injections and other procedures necessary to manage my pain and alleviate the numbness I feel because of the damage to my nerves. And even though I cannot afford the gas money to get my appointments, pay for all of my medication, or even to get back and forth to work, it does allow me a few weeks of mobility so I can drive, use my mouse or hold a pen.

I have an advanced master's degree from an Ivy League Institution. I am 12 credits shy of a PhD in public policy. And despite maintaining a 3.83 grade point average while completing an advanced masters in social and educational policy at an, "Ivy League" institution; a 3.2 GPA during the 3 years I spent working on my doctorate at a not-quite-so-prestigious Graduate School; The Powers That Beat in that damn Ivory Tower don't will not grant me any leniency by extending the amount or time permitted to complete my degree-- a rule that was changed while I was on a formal leave of absence tending to my health (and my Medicaid appeals!). 

Not only did they decide 8 years was the rule instead of the 10 it had been previously, I was also told that I could not even transfer the credits I had earned toward a different degree towards another program at the same institution. It has been just over ten years since I first  enrolled. 

What a mistake that was!
The "Harvard of the South" no longer offers the degree to which I was admitted and enrolled so they actually suggested that I pay for a 3rd application to the school (I was admitted into two degrees-- the MPP as well as the PhD program in  a separate college) requiring two independent applications, fees, transcripts, test scores, even way back when I was still considered a promising candidate. 

Now "they" think it is reasonable to ask that I do it all over again??? It goes without saying that I do not have the financial resources available to finish my last semester, take the GREs  or GMATs one more time, or even the money to release my transcripts from the Graduate School into any other program at the same University, I guess I am just shit out of luck.

To be clear, WE ARE ALL PAYING for that student debt because I can assure you that their endowment is far greater than any income or earning potential I have given my current financial status and student loan debt! To be clear, YOU ARE ALL PAYING to keep me on Welfare. Yes, all of us are paying some price..... We I want to work. I want to be productive. I want to be a part of something greater than myself. I want to share what I've learned.

So throughout the years I struggled to stay in school, believing somehow that social justice would prevail, and my heart and dedication towards the greater good would show through to whomever, wherever, or whatever that could make my degree worth while-- the Medicaid and disability applications managed to take front seat. 

So as I filed appeal after appeal after appeal, I managed to acquire well over 1/4 million (yes-- MILLION) dollars in debt due to uninsured medical expenses and student  loans.

My life will never be the same. My heart will never be the same. I want to pay my bills on time. I want to get off welfare, but  no one ever taught me how to be poor.

So after all this-- now I face losing my healthcare once again? Where is the safety net? Where is the American Dream that I so diligently chased after for so many years? 

What was the point spending so much on an education that will never be utilized? I understand the how; I just don't understand why.

Maybe one of these days Vanderbilt University or and the Department of Education will realize it might just be cheaper to hire me that harass me, because unless I find a real paying job soon, their collections department will no longer be able to reach me on that extravagant lifeline my friend, Brian Lapps, refers to as a luxury.

If anyone on your staff would like to "trade places" with me for one month-I will gladly assume his/her responsibilities for that position if you can find a writer who is willing to endure and write aboutthe reality of social services in our fine state. I do not want a paycheck from your organization; I just want the opportunity to put the myth of freeloading welfare mothers to rest.

 Live in my shoes for 30 days. Can you find the out? Can you balance my budget and make it work? Can you get the bill collectors of my back? 

Can you afford Internet service to file state job applications and apply for services online? Can you maintain pride and dignity without feeling the least bit sorry for yourself and the choices you have made?

When I go to the pharmacy, I am humiliated that I do not have the $3.00 necessary for the co-pay on my covered TennCare prescriptions. At least when it was $40 dollars, I was not so damn embarrassed by my lack of funds.

Remind me again why I went to school. Remind me once more why I bother to speak out. Then remind me right now that that there is somebody listening. I cannot be the only one who actually gives a crap. My contact information is listed below.

Live & not so well in the US of A

Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.
(Former doctoral student in public policy)

Originally Published by Elyssa Durant, Ed.M. © 2008-2013 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Unwritten: A Day in the Life (mine)

Let's face it... my job pretty much sucks: 

The very nature of being a crisis counselor, therapist, casemanager or any other kind of mental health professional requires that I respond with professionalism to kids who have been abused and basically fucked over for years; first by their families, and then by a system that fails to protect them. 

I get calls in the middle of the night from children, adolescents, and even my friends who are in vaiying stages of crises— some are suicidal psychotic, angry, and pretty much just all kinds of fucked up. 

But today, TODAY!!!! 

Today, a child rolled up her sleeves to show me that her set finflicted wounds (cutting) were beginning to heal. She threw out her last razor blade from her hidden collection the night 

Today, I won a small battle. 

Today, I saw a life change and the healing begin, Not just for her, but for aii of us. 

Today, I won a small battle. 

As one of my former clients told me, what I do is important— because even though I may not change hundreds or thousands of lives every day of my life, I make a difference one life at a time. 

At the time, I couldn't: stop the tears from my eyes now I can't stop the warm feeling that has taken hold of my body and me same instead of the tears.
I am so very proud of you. 

Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Letter From a Friend on PTSD

From: Elyssa Durant 
Date: September 5, 2008, 2:20:16 PM EDT
To: ed70
Subject: letter to catherine from AC

my god -- this could not have come at a better time!

i just spent the last 4 hours composing a letter only to realize i have no one to send it to.

i have so many things i need to say-- and it huts so much to realize that my carefully chosen words have been ignored, ridiculed or twisted by some egomaniac who seems to get off on making me feel
like a piece of shit.

i spent hours writing a press release for a committee i joined believing it would lead to other opportunities (which it did) but apparently it is good to use so long as I don't put my name on it.

So after putting my entire soul into a volunteer project for the last two weeks, i am at a loss for words.  i only have tears.  

this world is breaking me, and i just don't get it...  

i don't understand why i do so much for others only to find myself completely abandoned by the very same people and organizations i helped build.  

All i can think right now is just sending a very simple one word reply: "FURB!"

hope is a terrible thing.  so is post traumatic stress. just as i begin to think i'm on the verge of breaking the cycle; the slightest trigger can set me back to the exact same place i was 13 years ago.

i'm sorry for babbling at your expense, but i actually may send it (to you exclusively) on the off chance that you may be able to see through my fragmented, disconnected words that keep me from participating in this so-called life.

thank you so very much-- if you don't mind, i may just send the letter to myself. 

i worked on for so long, [FIVE YEARS] because even if you don't read it, at least i'll know that i had enough courage to say what some people really need to hear!  

unfortunately, the people who need to hear what i'm saying are so far removed from the incredible pain they
have caused me, they would not even realize i am directing my anger, fear, sadness and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness that are a direct result of their depraved indifference.

this is a very sad day for me.  

i hope you don't mind me sharing too much-- it kind of comes with the territory!

Sincerely yours,

Elyssa Durant

Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.
Nashville, Tennessee



"The paradox of education is precisely this-- that as one begins to
become educated, one begins to examine the society in which he [or
she] is being educated."   - Baldwin

POST SCRIPT: This is a happy day for me because not only am I finally posting this "UNWRITTEN" letter, I no longer suffer with PTSD and after living in silence for more than a decade, I am finally finding my voice and my self. 

No longer "UNWRITTEN"

Elyssa D. Durant © August 29, 2013

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Casualties of War: Violence in American Schools by Elyssa D. Durant

Casualties of War: Hired Guns in American Schools
by Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.

Over the last decade, there has been mounting concern for the safety of teachers and students in the American public school system. This is particularly true of urban high schools, where students must walk through a metal detector before entering the building. School violence has become epidemic, and educational researchers have looked long and hard for a solution to the problem.

School administrators and elected officials bear the responsibility of keeping students safe during school hours, and a number of districts have implemented violence prevention programs. School security has become a top priority, and while improved security measures may have contributed to a decline in school related deaths, it has not been without significant changes in the school environment.

The added security has effected the traditional school environment by disrupting the chain of command within public institutions. The presence of school security guards appears to have a negative impact on the overall school climate. The presence of security guards disrupts traditional roles within the schools, and teachers report feeling at odds with security personnel. Increased security tends to fragment the school environment, and teachers report feeling a false sense of security. The secured environment is an indication of how students are expected to behave.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising to learn that students also report pervasive feelings of fear and do not feel secure despite the added presence of security personnel on school grounds. For these students, school is a mere extension of the violent communities in which they live.

Studies consistently report lower academic achievement in these neighborhoods. Children growing up in urban neighborhoods have a much higher incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most researchers believe this to be the direct result of living in stressed communities plagued with street crime and violence.

Despite the severe implications of this realization, there is virtually no research on how pervasive fear affects the academic performance of urban adolescents. Previous research has found that people who suffer from acute stress process information differently (Sapolsky, 1996; McNally, 1995; Metcalfe & Jacobs, 1996). Individuals who feel threatened by their environment are acutely aware of their surroundings and have a heightened sensitivity to visual cues. As a result, they tend to hyper-focus on potential sources of threat, and shift into a different cognitive gear.

Individuals under stress not only store information differently, but their ability to retrieve information is also largely dependent upon emotional states (Metcalfe & Jacobs, 1996; Sapolsky, 1996; Perry, et al, 1996). Interestingly enough, information learned in song, rhyme, or rap is more easily retrieved in a state of high arousal. If this is in fact true, then popular culture may affect adolescents considerably more than previously believed. In addition to helping us understand the cognitive framework of individuals under stress, this can help us to find alternatives teaching methods to help urban schoolchildren who have not responded to traditional teaching methods.

Research has found the school climate to be a critical factor in reduction of school violence (Walker, 1995; Sabo, 1993). Disruptions in the traditional organization structure places additional stress on the school climate. The effect of school violence on teacher relationships is not known. In response to the public outcry for action, school boards implemented violence prevention programs and zero tolerance policies long before there was a chance to evaluate the severity and prevalence of the problem. The literature tends to focus on classroom management and violence prevention programs (Ascher, 1994; Walker, 1995).

Literature on school violence tends to focus on statistics and incident reports that do not provide an adequate understanding of school related violence. The research on school violence fails to address the importance of the organizational culture and the various components that are critical to effective schools. It is not surprising that students are unable to learn in this environment.

Teachers have become fearful of their students, and students fear each other. The presence of school security will certainly affect the organizational balance of American public schools, and sensitizes all members of the school environment to the roles they are expected to play. Many teachers feel a social responsibility and commitment to their schools, and feel they have a direct impact on the livelihood of their student body.

Together, the urban public school and the community it serves are a constant reminder of the poor living conditions and social reality of urban America. Students understand what is expected of them, and teachers are sensitized to conduct which reinforces their experience. Since urban communities have many different sources of stress, it is important to examine how school policies contribute to the learning environment in public schools.

Elyssa D. Durant © 1996-2014

edd, edm

In God We Trust: Public Funds for Parochial Schools by Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.

In God We Trust: Applying the Lemon Test for Public Funds for Parochial Schools
by Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.

1. How can school vouchers reach a balance between serving the public interest and preserving individual freedoms and rights?
2. What additional arguments can be presented for against the use of school vouchers for parochial schools?
3. How is the issue of school vouchers for sectarian institutions different or similar from issues surrounding prayer in school?
4. What are the common issues relevant to both charter schools and voucher programs?

This article will address concerns regarding the long-term outcomes of school choice and voucher programs. Specifically: do school vouchers exacerbate the inequality between the rich and the poor?

Since I believe that health care and education are both social goods, I have some reservations about letting the free-market run amok during such a critical point in history. Is it wise to allow for-profit market forces to dictate public goods when natural rights are at stake?

The shortcomings of the Medicaid managed care programs, Medicare supplemental insurance policies, and demonstration projects such as the privatization of prisons provide sufficient evidence of the dangers of profit driven corporations in American culture. Corporate scandals with food and other suppliers contracted by the Board of Education in New York City in the late 1990's provide excellent examples of how easy it is for private companies to manipulate funds away from the target recipients.

It was not too long ago that private managed care companies offered gifts to boost enrollment by enticing desperate Medicaid recipients to join their plans. This marketing strategy is simply offensive when we are dealing with a social good albeit health care or education. Vulnerable populations are frequently exploited through corporate contracts and there is little reason to believe that for-profit conglomerates would treat public schools or economically disadvantaged students and families otherwise.

Arguments on both sides of the school voucher issue are very similar to those presented for and against charter schools and free-market school choice. Smrekar (1998) presents four key issues that have been at the center of the school choice debate: (1) economic, (2) political; (3) social justice; and (4) pedagogical.

The economic argument in favor of school choice points out that our current public education system resembles a monopoly. Proponents argue that the introduction of choice into the educational marketplace will promote competition and force schools with poor performance records to improve or close (Friedman, 1968).

The political argument is centered on the democratic ideal that the freedom to choose where your child attends school is a fundamental right. The political argument also triggers strong feelings about the role of education in a democratic society. There are those who feel that the public school is intended, at least in part, to create a common set of core values that is best served by the public sector.

At the core of the political school choice argument is a debate regarding the benefits of providing a common set of experiences in a democracy versus promoting individual choice and liberty (Smrekar, 1998). This issue, while not dead, was challenged in 1925 when the Supreme Court ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510 (1925)) in favor of parents who sent their children to private school. This argument continues today and is at the center of both school choice and curriculum debates.

The social justice argument is a bit more complicated and there is little agreement on any front. Proponents argue that school choice empowers the poor to participate in the education of their children by giving them the same options available to wealthier families in the United States. According to a 1997 poll in USA Today, 47% of parents would send their children to private schools if they had the financial resources (Doyle, 1997).

Information is an essential component to any school choice program. In order to ensure social equity in school choice programs we need to be sure that the "poor" are fully informed of their choices and are not taken advantage of in the open market. Research has shown that the act of "choosing" has positive effects on the school environment and promotes parental involvement in their children's education (Doyle, 1997). Additional components of the social justice argument have focused on the nuts and bolts of choice programs, and point out how there are several different ways that choice programs may (wittingly or unwittingly) promote social inequity (Cookson, 1995). Such arguments focus on transportation problems, admissions policies, the availability of information, and how we define "choice" and implement policies regulating recruitment, enrollment and performance of participating schools, (Cookson, 1995; 1997).

The pedagogical argument points out that school choice programs are better suited for the individual needs inherent to a pluralistic society. Although some feel there is value in providing core curriculum and a common set of basic skills, there is a current trend towards specialty schools that focus on the arts and sciences, technology, vocational training, etc. Educators look towards successful magnet schools as examples of the pedagogical success that demonstrated the importance of school choice and parental involvement as indicators of educational outcomes. Some educators fear that the introduction of school choice and voucher plans would prompt the best students to leave public schools and that this would have a negative effect on the overall climate of public classrooms.

Among the various school voucher programs, there is considerable controversy surrounding the program design that gives qualified individuals the choice to attend parochial schools using public funds. Traditional arguments against this type of school voucher program have focused on the constitutionality of using state funds for sectarian institutions. In theory, public schools are believed to be completely independent of religious institutions and provide a place where young adults can join together and develop a core set of "American" values and "democratic" principles. Just this year, states such as Tennessee have modified the curriculum to include Bible class in publicly funded classrooms. It is not yet known how this will be implemented given the number of students who did not meet the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) benchmarks. They are just now trying designing the course content and have not yet selecting the text to be used next fall (2008).

Historically, the church had a key role in the education of children in America. During the National Period (1780-1830), churches were used to educate children, and the King James Bible was used as a reader in these classrooms (Smrekar, 1998). Derek Neal (1997) points out that much of the current sentiment against Catholic schools is not a reflection of their excellent performance record, but rather an indication of the anti-Catholic sentiment which swept the country during the late part of the 19th Century (Neal, 1997). Neal argues that until that point, there was no contest to religious education as long as it was Protestant.

Catholic schools have traditionally served the children of the working class. They were a major socializing force earlier in the century and continue to succeed with children who might otherwise fall through the cracks in public schools. Despite tapering enrollment, Catholic schools remain a viable force in the private sector providing a reasonably priced private education to American children. Neal conducted a study that looked at the graduation rates of minority children attending Catholic schools compared with children attending public schools in the inner cities. Controlling for demographic variables, (parent's education, parent's occupation, family structure, and reading materials at home) closer analysis revealed graduation rates for urban minorities are 26% higher in Catholic schools compared with public schools in the same communities. Although Neal found similar benefits for whites and in suburban communities, this effect was most profound for urban minorities.

Other studies have focused on identifying the qualities that make Catholic schools successful. A number of factors have been identified by Bryk and Lee, including active parental participation and the benefits of school choice in creating an inclusive community that fosters a common set of values and ideals (Bryk & Lee, 1995). Interestingly, the very same variables found to enhance the performance of Catholic school students are remarkably similar to the reported benefits of magnet schools and choice programs. Despite the excellent performance records of Catholic schools, there are currently no voucher programs that allow parochial schools to participate in state funded voucher programs.

The reason for this is quite simple, but not necessarily correct or in the best interest of our children. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the use of public funds in religious institutions. However, it can also be argued that it is unconstitutional to exclude parochial schools from voucher systems because it violates the student's free expression of religion. In addition, voucher programs require a conscious decision on the part of the student and the parent. The state does not enforce a blanket endorsement of any one religion. I use Catholic schools as an example because they represent the majority of parochial schools in urban America.

Voucher programs typically undergo strict scrutiny for all four reasons mentioned above, but this issue is especially true of any choice or voucher program that channels funds into Parochial schools. For this reason, Catholic schools and other schools with religious affiliations have been excluded from voucher plans up until this point. It is not politically viable to institute a choice or voucher program at any level (at the district, state or national level) since similar plans have historically presented long-standing, hard-fought, legal challenges to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Since the Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue, most challenges up until this point have taken place in state courts[1]. These state decisions have been split, and while there are a few voucher programs operating in Wisconsin and Ohio, neither permits sectarian schools to participate in their programs. Milwaukee designed a voucher system that included parochial schools in 1995 but later revised their proposal after the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction against expansion into religious schools (Kremerer & King, 1995).

School choice programs that involve vouchers have not been tested in the Supreme Court, but there is a long history of court cases that challenge the flow of money from the public sector into private, sectarian institutions. The recent pattern of Supreme Court rulings has lead some legal scholars (Kremerer & King, 1995) to conclude that school vouchers would pass constitutional muster under the following circumstances:

1. Provides payments in the form of scholarships to parents of school age children
2. Allows parents to choose among a variety of public and private sectarian and nonsectarian schools for their children
3. Gives no preference to sectarian private institutions

Voucher programs up until this point have encountered substantial resistance from the legal community and a number of civil rights and political organizations. This becomes more pronounced when the voucher model includes sectarian institutions in the model plan and state court rulings have been inconsistent in decisions surrounding the constitutionality of voucher programs.

The definitive case regarding school voucher programs is Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602 (1971)). The Court's ruling in Lemon was based on three components that came to be known as the "Lemon Test." The Lemon Test applies the following to any Constitutional challenge of the Establishment Clause:

1. The government action must have a secular purpose
2. The primary effect must neither advance, nor inhibit religion
3. It must not result in excessive governmental entanglement with religion

Since voucher programs do not generally provide support directly to the institution, individual freedom and choice remain intact. Individual families are empowered by educational vouchers since they choose the school and religion appropriate for them. Qualified schools are not determined by religious affiliation and all schools are required to adhere to state and federal regulations that increase accountability. Similar issues came before the courts in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510 (1925)) as well, however Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602 (1971)) is considered to be both the landmark and test case currently before the courts.

The reason for this is quite simple, but not necessarily correct or in the best interest of our children. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the use of public funds in religious institutions. However, it could also be argued that it is unconstitutional to exclude parochial schools from voucher systems because it violates the free expression of religion. In addition, voucher programs require a conscious decision on the part of the student and the parent. The state does not enforce a blanket endorsement of any one religion. I use Catholic schools as an example because they represent the majority of parochial schools in urban America.

Teacher's unions are resistant to bring in a new system that has the potential to upset their job status and security. It will likely be a number of years before we truly understand the effects of magnet schools and can evaluate the implementation of school choice programs that are already in place. Because we are dealing with such an essential human, social good, it is my recommendation that we do not implement a largest-scale voucher program until issues of access and equity are resolved on other public fronts. We must ensure real choices for the students and families who are not information savvy and may be limited in their ability to recognize the real value of their options. We must find a way to ensure the equitable distribution of resources so that education truly does will empower the poor.

Is it time to apply the Lemon Test to school vouchers?

You decide.


Cookson, P.W., Jr. (1994). School choice: The struggle for the soul of American education. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cookson, P.W., Jr. (1995). ERIC Digests: School Choice.

Doyle, D.P. (1997). Vouchers for religious schools. Public Interest, 127, 88-95.

Haynes, C.C. (1993). Beyond the culture wars. Educational Leadership, 51(4), 30-34.

Houston, P.D. (1993). School vouchers: The latest California joke. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(4), 61-64.

Kremerer, F.R. & King, K.L. (1995). Are school vouchers Constitutional? Phi Delta Kappan, 77(1), 307-311.

Kremerer, F.R. (1995). The Constitutionality of school vouchers. West's Education Law Reporter,101 Ed. Law Rep. 17.

Kremerer, F.R. (1997). State Constitutions and school vouchers. West's Education Law Reporter, 120 Ed. Law Rep. 1.

Neal, D. (1997). Measuring Catholic school performance. Public Interest, 127, 81-87.

[1] Including a decision that was handed down regarding a choice plan in Ohio. (12/18/2000)

Elyssa D. Durant © 1996-2014