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School fear and informal relationships

The following is an excerpt, by Nancy McDermott, from Common Good's online forum on Risk and Legal Fear in Schools.

The most important point we need to understand about the fearful climate in our schools is that is does not originate with parents or the public. It is a by-product of the decline of informal relationships between people in the schools and people in communities they serve.

Informal relationships are those hundreds of sustained, casual interactions between teachers and students, parents and local schools for which there is no guidance, policy or code of conduct. They may seem trivial, but over time they create just enough mutual familiarity and confidence for people to set aside their emotional response to risk (any is too great) in favor of a more reasonable approach.  Without these relationships, cooperation and trust is impossible.

This erosion of informality is occurring in many areas of social life but has accelerated in schools partly because of the way education is now seen as a therapeutic tool for meeting social policy objectives and partly as a consequence of the new levels of bureaucracy that come with school reform.

Over the past 30 years the scope of education has expanded beyond traditional subject matters into areas like sex education, character education and self-esteem. By attempting to teach what children really only learn over time and in context, schools have made students, teachers and their parents, hyper-aware and even paranoid about how they conduct interpersonal relationships. School administrators who intervene to prevent children making “best friends” are a sad example of how this over-think makes authentic relationships more difficult and actually pathologizes them.

The process of reform has exacerbated the problem by making schools less accountable to their local communities and more beholden to state and federal authorities. Tax levies seldom raise enough to fund annual budgets. As a result, school districts are forced to cobble together the remainder of their funding from a combination of state aid, entitlement and competitive grants like Race To The Top. Each source of funding brings a new set of requirement for schools: requirements for measuring and reporting progress; codes of conduct that must be followed; targets and outcomes that must be achieved. Principals, teachers and administrators are left with little discretion and expected to follow procedure rather than use their judgment or initiative. In this context, parental concerns become largely irrelevant.

This juridification of experience at every level of our schools is profoundly demoralizing. Simple disciplinary matters tend to escalate beyond all reason. That children are now regularly suspended from school for possessing guns the size of toothpicks is testament to institutionalized mistrust that has taken on a life of its own.

Informal relationships have not gone away and they are still incredibly important. This is why the actions of a few motivated principals, teachers or groups of parents can make such a positive impact in individual cases. But they are under pressure and will need to be nurtured to survive. The challenge for policy makers is that they may of necessity have no positive role to play.

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The cult of caution

The following is an excerpt, by Frederick Hess, from Common Good's online forum on Risk and Legal Fear in Schools.

The cult of caution has gone too far.  It’s not just schools. Our litigious society is rife with examples of over-the-top efforts to defend against liability and lawsuits.  But schools are especially susceptible. First, they’re public institutions.  School board members, superintendents, and state officials know they can catch grief for a single unfortunate incident, so they have enormous incentive to do everything they can to prevent those while underestimating the costs in terms of time, money, and focus.  Second, we want to protect kids from bad things.

Consider President Obama’s response to Sandy Hook. After any tragedy, there’s a natural desire to order educators to ramp up the safety quotient - without much regard for distractions or tradeoffs.  Each mandate is reasonable enough, but the cumulative result is that each requires little slivers of training, time, money, and paperwork from teachers and school staff. Everyone then bemoans the fact that too many schools and teachers need to develop more of a laser focus on student achievement.

The President proposed to train 14,000 school officials and law enforcement officers in how to handle active shooter situations. Here's the dilemma: a dollop of training is unlikely to make any difference in the rare event of a school shooter, while more time means focusing on a scenario with lightning-strike likelihood rather than things that are more likely to save or improve lots of lives every day.

Similarly, the president wanted to require that schools receiving federal funds for safety develop and practice emergency plans. While more than 80% of schools already have response plans for a shooting, the White House lamented that only 52 percent had drilled their students in the past year. Though these drills may be a nice idea, they can also create chaos, breed mischief, disrupt carefully planned lessons, and consume a half-hour or more of instructional time. For all that, the likelihood that any given school will ever employ its plan is infinitesimal, and the odds that anything short of routine practice will actually result in saved lives is modest at best.

The president proposed a tiny smattering of dollars, $15 million, to fund "mental health first aid" training for teachers and others who work with youths to detect signs of mental illness (the money was almost entirely symbolic--perhaps $150 for each of the nation's schools.)  Educators would likely get a few hours of desultory training, just enough to waste their time without making a difference. Or, if they actually got the requisite training and support (with the $150 per school!), the time spent would likely come at the expense of the time they have to prepare instruction, craft assessments, monitor student learning, and so forth.

Protecting kids from bad stuff is important. But it’s also important to recognize that these protections steal time and energy from teaching and learning.  And, for the vast majority of children, the biggest danger is not some dramatic incident but the silent, invisible threat of a mediocre education.

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Let children play

The following is an excerpt, by Megan Rosker, from Common Good's online forum on Risk and Legal Fear in Schools.

Our country was founded on the common credence of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". These words were to be our guiding principle as our country evolved.  Now, in its adolescent years, our country has fallen victim to over-regulation.  I am a mother, a teacher, a play advocate and a writer.  I get concerned when I see our children’s freedom continuously imposed upon by the regulations of heavy handed government and school officials.

Children should be freely engaging in dodgeball and kickball.  They should be recklessly playing cowboys and hanging upside down from the monkey bars.  These activities guide children to explore the world, learn personal and social boundaries and teach important physical developmental skills.  However, such activities are deemed too dangerous. To help our children "survive" we have imposed thousands of regulations on teachers and students.

Just because our children are too young to fight for their right of expression, doesn’t mean they don’t have as much of a right to express themselves as adults.  The number one way children express themselves is through play.  Unlike adults who can hold discussions and work out ideas and problems through a variety of different thought processes and procedures, children really only have one means of expression, play. When we take this away from them, we impede the most natural way in which they interact with the world. Play is truly unique to children and must be understood as something sacred to a child, not an extracurricular act that can be discarded when deemed too dangerous.  Play engages every part of a child creative, psychological and emotional being.  It is imperative to healthy childhood development.

Play naturally encourages risk.  When we take it away we aren’t allowing for a healthy amount of risk.  On my own Freedom to Play Scale of one to ten, where one is the Play Gestapo and ten is complete anarchy, schools should be functioning at a seven.  This means there are rules to keep children safe, but there is still plenty of exploration too.

Adults have laws to keep ourselves safe as well. We don’t allow theft, rape or murder.  These crimes encroach upon the freedom of the victim and therefore we don’t allow them.  These laws, however, do not impose on the expression of the victim, only the perpetrator and only on the negative action he has taken against another human being.

School regulations must take the same approach.  Children should not be hurting one another, but they should be playing imaginatively. Sometimes imaginative play is rough, like playing with sticks as guns and swords.  Roughness does not mean danger, however, and we must carefully walk a line between allowing expression and allowing children to be hurt.

Tragic things happen in our world.  We cannot pen laws, however, that impose our adult fears on kids.  The tragedies that transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary or Columbine High School are not child problems.  They are problems transpired by the lack of care by adults for children.  It is never the responsibility of the child to fix our social problems and likewise our children should not be shouldering the fear that accompanies our social problems.  Adult problems that must be dealt with and understood away from the presence of our children. When we allow the fear of a few adults to influence our whole society, then we have just stolen the freedom of our society at large and thus we will all be enslaved by the emotional problems of a few select individuals. When this happens, we lose our most important rights, in this case, play.

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Schools follow social trends

The following is an excerpt, by Walter Olson, from Common Good's online forum on Risk and Legal Fear in Schools.

When they "err on the side of safety" in absurd ways, schools reflect trends in the wider society. Parents, lawmakers and influential opinion leaders have been sending off fearful and risk-averse signals for a long while now. Consider:

  • Already, by ten years ago, British commentator Jenny Cunningham could write that "A significant body of research evidence now indicates that there has been a drastic decline in children's outdoor activity and unsupervised play. For example, it has been calculated that the free play range of children -- the radius around the home to which children can roam alone -- has, for nine-year-olds in the UK, shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970. Perhaps most damaging is that a climate has been created in which all unsupervised play is regarded as high risk, and parents or teachers who allow it are seen as irresponsible." Cunningham notes that families now tend to see the risks of being hit by traffic or (far less likely) abducted by strangers as ruling out outdoor play. "Yet, despite the increasing levels of worry, in reality children have never been safer." Sound familiar? (Play On)
  • Consider the wild legislative overreaction of the U.S. Congress -- ratified by then-President George W. Bush -- in passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008 in response to scattered reports of toys that failed to meet existing safety standards. In attempting to bar any levels whatsoever of lead or bendy-plastic "phthalates" from getting into anything designated as a kids' product, lawmakers wound up banning a ridiculously broad array of new and used goods, including classic children's books in libraries (can you be sure all the inks in the illustrations are lead-free?), bicycles and recreation vehicles (the valves might include brass with some lead alloy) and vintage kids'  jeans and winter coats in thrift stores (the zippers likewise). In a perfectly typical, if mind-boggling, application of the law, education-supply companies were told they could not furnish rocks for study in geology classes unless they tested them first to make sure they did not contain lead, the way a great many ordinary rocks laying around outside do. The good news for science teachers was that it was still okay to hang up posters with pictures of rocks on them. While Congress eventually did pass a followup bill aimed at fixing some of CPSIA's more amazing excesses, that came too late to save many small makers of children's' products that had been driven out of business in the mean time. (CPSIA on the rocks)
  • Or consider schools as places of employment. Lenore Skenazy passes along the story (noted at my Overlawyered site) of the teacher who discovered that innocuous household supplies -- baby wipes, dish-cleaning liquid -- when kept in a classroom had to be accompanied in each case by a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) spelling out the risks of each. (MSDS sheets have been giving way more recently to a replacement known as SDS.) Readers wrote in to say this was nothing specific to schools -- workplaces of any sort that wanted to be sure of compliance with the law have to manage large assemblages of MSDS sheets (covering, for example, each variety of wood in a carpentry shop) even when the risk of toxic overdose or explosion seems fanciful at best. Even bottles of distilled water can't stay on hand if lacking their MSDS. (Cleaning supplies in the classroom? Your papers, please)

If these are the trends in the outside society, how likely is it that schools will be able to resist?

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Dodgeball danger revisited

By Lenore Skenazy

Score one for dodgeball!

A New Hampshire school had outlawed the game last March while a committee was convened to study the controversial issue (clearly right up there with Guantanamo). The problem arose when -- surprise --  a parent complained of a child being bullied during the game.

Of course, the rules of dodgeball dictate that pretty much ALL children are bullied by the game. That's the whole POINT. And considering the school only allows foam balls -- goodbye big red balls and big red welts -- getting "out" didn't even physically hurt anymore. The sting was strictly psychic.

Still, the school board voted 4 to 1 to suspend the game while it investigated. The outlook seemed dire.  But darned if, three months later, the board didn't decide it had overreacted. That is, it DID decide it HAD overreacted.

Knock me over with a feather! (A foam feather, please, with a bed of wood chips below me.) Sometimes I fear so much for common sense, I can't even believe when it wins. But it did, fair and square. The classic game will be reinstated next fall...with some new caveats.

The first one is that any kid who doesn't want to participate can choose an alternative activity. Believe it or not, I always hated dodgeball -- though clearly I will defend to the death kids' right to play it. So the first opt-outer would be me.

I'd hope they'd let all non-participants head off to a cafe to talk about the pitfalls of public policy during gym period.

The other caveat is that the school is giving all its "human target" games new, P.C. names. So, according to WHDH Channel 7 NBC News, the game "Slaughter" becomes "Numero Uno," while "Prison Ball" becomes "Repair Shop."

And I guess "War" becomes "Peace"? Didn't I read that somewhere long ago?

Sigh.  Just when you think common sense is about to win...a foam ball knocks it out.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Ten unsupervised minutes

By Lenore Skenazy

Folks -- Take a look at this article, about the danger/injustice/affront of not allowing kids into school 10 minutes early. That means for 10 minutes or so, middle schoolers arriving before the school officially opens must wait OUTSIDE! Unsupervised! Imagine that!

This mom can't...without hyperventillating:

Students Arriving at School Early Forced to Wait Outside

Despite an e-blast sent out about exactly what time students should be dropped off at Eisenhower Intermediate for extra help before school, one parent is still finding students standing outside because they arrive too early.

Parent Lisa Weinstock said at Tuesday’s board of education meeting that she drops her child off for early-morning help at the school, and has found students standing outside alone because they are not allowed in the building before a certain time.

"I saw students standing outside unsupervised," she said. "When I called parents to ask if they knew they were not supposed to do this, they were appalled their children were left standing outside."

Appalled? really? Can we save being appalled for something a little more worthy, like kids not having enough to eat?

But, Weinstock said, there was an email from Eisenhower principal Joseph Diskin saying that students will not be allowed into the building earlier than the time individual teachers have designated for before-school help to begin.

"He said do not drop off students earlier than the specified times," she said.

This makes me almost physically ill. I want to ask the mom, "How about having your kids spend a week in Sudan? Or Syria? Or Somalia? Have them come back and  THEN we'll see what 10 minutes outside Eisenhower Middle School feels like. Probably pretty non-threatening."

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Join Common Good’s online forum: Risk and Legal Fear in Schools

We entrust our children to teachers and principals with the expectation that they will be both educated and protected from harm. When, inevitably, incidents happen—especially when those incidents are tragic and well-publicized—communities often press for stricter rules and procedures. But are all of the rules and procedures wise? Do they truly make schools and children safer and better? One school, for example, suspended a six-year-old for "pointing his finger like a gun and saying 'pow,'" while another suspended two boys for playing cops and robbers.

To shield themselves from legal exposure, schools have attempted to eliminate every conceivable risk—no tire swings, no dodgeball, no monkey bars. Field trips require complex liability waivers. Every activity requires paperwork—documentation, permissions, waivers. Our schools must be safe, but are some of the steps taken to protect against every possible lawsuit and risk doing more harm than good?

Common Good is hosting an online forum to address this question, with experts on education, parenting, and the law, including:

  • Lenore Skenazy, author and founder of Free Range Kids
  • Frederick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute
  • Nancy McDermott, writer and former chair of the advisory board for Park Slope Parents
  • Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute
  • Megan Rosker, teacher and founder of Let Children Play

These experts have already started talking about how to address risk and legal fear in schools.

Add your ideas to the conversation here.

Find out what our panelists think and contribute your comments and questions below.

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Kindergartener may get detention for lego gun the size of a match

By Lenore Skenazy

It's like there's a News Goose out there laying golden eggs of wacky web fodder.  And the Goose's name? ZERO TOLERANCE.

All it needs is a steady diet of school administrators with Lego-size minds. And apparently there are plenty!

So here's the story. This time the kid is 6. The place is Massachusetts. He plays with this toy's toy on the bus ride to school and another kid yells about the "gun." Next thing you know, the school sends home a letter to reassure parents that THERE WAS NO GUN ON THE BUS. (Even though they reacted as if THERE WAS A GUN ON THE BUS.)

And here's a picture I cribbed from WCVB Boston of the terrifying instrument of death:

notagun


The boy who yelled about the gun on the bus was also made to apologize.

There is one silver (goose?) lining: The school committee is going to discuss its Zero Tolerance laws when it meets next month. But God only knows how many children will not be scarred by toys that are not guns by then.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Second-grader suspended for pretending pencil is a gun

By Lenore Skenazy

To understand our undoing as a nation all you need to do is examine a single form filled out by a second grade teacher on May 3, 2013: The Suffolk Public Schools Discliplinary Referral Notice to Parents/Guardians:

On that date, under the section "DESCRIPTION OF INCIDENT," the teacher wrote, "Christopher pointed his pencil at another student as if it was a gun and made shooting sounds. I told him to stop and he did."

Now, you might THINK that that final sentence meant she told him to stop and he did. As in, "Okay kids, now let's get back to our math lesson." But in fact, the next part of the form is labeled, "THIS SECTION MUST BE FILLED OUT" and so it was, detailing all the post-pencil-pointing "ACTION TAKEN." Apparently the admins:

  1. Held a conference with the student.
  2. Met with his mother.

    And

  3. Suspended the boy for two days.

That'll teach him to point a pencil!

Of course, this was all the result of Zero Tolerance, the school rules that are often interpreted with such bizarre literalness it's as if the principals have willed themselves into a kind of administrative autism. In this case, the school's policy is against "weapons or anything that resembles a weapon." If there's any difference between a pencil and a gun, well, the principal couldn't see it.

But what's even more disturbing -- and that's saying a lot -- is that the administration actually assumed its students were just as delusional.
Bethanne Bradshaw, a spokesperson for Suffolk Public Schools, told a Fox reporter that, when accompanied by verbal "gun noises" (or at least the universal stand-in for real gun noise -- the word, "Bang!"), "Some children would consider it threatening,  who are scared about shootings in schools or shootings in the community....They think about drive-by shootings and murders."

They do? Then here's a tip: Instead of reinforcing their hysteria by reacting as if they're in real danger, try saying something soothing instead, like, "Look, hon, it's just a pencil." (Or something satisfying like, "FOR GOD'S SAKE, IT'S JUST A PENCIL!")

But since it seems more likely that the kids were not ACTUALLY scared of being shot by a #2 Ticonderoga, then let's retire the, "Oh, the poor, rattled children!" rationale. If no one feels threatened, why overreact? And why teach kids to overreact, too?

Because that's what we've been trained to do. Safetyland -- excuse me, America -- is so obsessed with safety that we demand it even when we're already extremely safe. We want super-safety -- the kind you get when you make middle-aged moms take off their shoes before getting to the gate. Yes, we are 99.99999% sure you're not a shoe bomber, but just in case.

At school: Yes, we are 99.999999999999999999999% sure your pencil is not a gun, but just in case.

And in the courts: Yes, we are 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999% convinced that a simple, "Put down that pencil" would have been the appropriate response. Case adjourned.

Until that sane day, we must remain very afraid.

Of hysteria in the schools.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Ban dodgeball—it’s too violent

By Lenore Skenazy

In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards. - Mark Twain

 

Heroin. Grenades. Wild jackals. Dodgeball.

None of these are allowed in the Windham, N.H. public schools.

Well, at least I assume the first three aren’t allowed. But dodgeball is definitely out, ever since last week, when the local school board voted 4 to 1 to ban dodgeball and nine other “human target” games (does that include tag?) from the curriculum.

The vote came after a parent complained of his child being bullied during the game. Predictably, that led to the formation of a committee to study the issue. And also perhaps predictably, given our outlandish level of anxiety when it comes to kids, the conclusion was that the games are too potentially traumatizing. Out they went.

But as a clearheaded student explained to the local paper, in dodgeball, the object is to win, and that involves hitting kids will balls. That’s not bullying, that’s playing.

And as the sole board member who voted against the ban also noted:

"We have rules that are set in place to deal with bullying," he said. "We don't need to ban an entire round of games just to enforce those rules."

And also let us note that the Windham students were not even playing with the rather intimidating red bouncy balls of days past. Now the balls are foam.

Foam!

Evidently even that's too much of a menace for our fragile kids to handle.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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