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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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America the Fixable: The Litigious Mess of Special Education

Education lawyer Chris Borreca argues that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has helped millions of children, but has also bogged down the courts and spawned a whole industry based on paranoia in a new essay featured on America the Fixable.

Borreca suggests that a better system would promote trust and cooperation rather than litigation. "A system of dispute resolution similar to the nonprofit Common Good's health courts proposal, which calls for a system of specialist courts to handle medical malpractice claims, would serve the needs of this population well," Borreca writes. "A threshold requirement of mandatory mediation before a lawsuit may be filed could be added...In other words, a degree of common sense added to the entire system-with an emphasis on services received rather than an unending amount of due process provided for every alleged wrongdoing-would go a long way toward serving the original intent of the law."

Read the rest of Borreca's article here.

"America the Fixable" is an online magazine collaboration between The Atlantic and Common Good. It provides a bipartisan forum for the presentation of bold, new ideas to reform America's governmental and legal system--ideas that need to be part of the 2012 debate.

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Poll: Voters Want Less Education Bureaucracy, More Freedom for Principals

New Nationwide Poll Shows American Voters Want Less Education Bureaucracy––And More Flexibility For Teachers, Principals

New York, NY––April 30, 2012––A new nationwide poll shows that an overwhelming majority of U.S. voters––81%––believes the quality of public education would greatly improve if school system bureaucracy was cut down and teachers and principals were given more flexibility to do their jobs.

Analysis of the survey’s findings shows that 84% of Republicans, 81% of independents and 78% of Democrats want less bureaucracy and more flexibility for teachers and principals. Additionally, 82% of voters polled said that “major changes” are needed in our public education system so America can “successfully compete with other countries.”

The survey was conducted by the nonpartisan Clarus Research Group last week and was sponsored by Common Good, a nonpartisan government reform coalition.

Other findings of the poll:

  • By nearly a 5-to-1 margin (47% to 10%), voters believe giving principals more authority to make decisions would improve, not lower, the quality of schools. Less than a third of respondents polled––32%––think giving principals more authority would not have any effect on school quality.
  • 65% of voters believe lack of classroom discipline is a “big” problem in public schools, while 25% said it is a “small” problem and only 3% said it’s no problem.
  • 78% of the nation’s electorate thinks “fear of being subjected to a long, complicated legal process is causing teachers and principals not to discipline disruptive students.” Of that 78%, 42% said fear of red tape is hindering classroom discipline “most of the time” and 36% said “some of the time.” Only 12% said it is “rarely” happening, and 1% said it never happens.
  • Voters think disputes involving teachers and student discipline should be resolved by committees of teachers and parents who were not involved. A 53% majority of survey respondents chose this method for this type of internal conflict resolution. Trailing that choice was having the school principal decide (23%) these matters, having the local school board decide (13%) and having a court of law decide (5%).
  • On the issue of school budget discretion and allocations to special education programs, more voters than not (48% vs. 43%) agree with the statement: “To achieve the right balance between educational services for special needs students and education services for all students, school principals should have the discretion to set their own budget priorities, even if it means adjusting the amount of money spent on special education programs.”

This data demonstrates that voters across the nation, regardless of party, believe education needs big change,” said Philip K. Howard, Founder and Chair of Common Good. “It also indicates that voters want principals and teachers to have more authority and flexibility to run their own schools and classrooms¬¬––free of unwise, often nonsensical, bureaucratic mandates.”

The nationwide survey was conducted April 25-26, 2012 by Clarus Research Group, a polling firm based in Washington, DC. The survey’s sample of 1,000 self-identified registered voters has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent. Interviewing was conducted through live telephone calls, using both landline and cell calling. For verification of the results, contact Dr. Ron Faucheux, President of Clarus Research Group, at rfaucheux@ClarusRG.com.

Education reform has been the topic for April of an online discussion series, titled America the Fixable, hosted by TheAtlantic.com in partnership with Common Good. The series brings together prominent leaders from both major political parties, as well as other leading experts, to discuss how to fix broken government. The essays contributed by those leaders and experts are also archived at America the Fixable.

For more information or to speak with Philip K. Howard, contact Emma Mittelstadt at 212-576-2700 x250 or emittelstadt@goodmanmedia.com.

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America the Fixable: Grade Retention and Other Dead-End Educational Policies

The latest entry in "America the Fixable" comes from Kevin Welner, professor of education and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

Welner argues that we should pay more attention to what we know works, and what doesn't work, to improve schools. "Education policy, like so many areas of lawmaking, is rife with reform proposals that, while attractive on paper, are supported by little or no evidence," Welner writes. "Some are even proven failures. Yet once a lawmaker becomes fixated on a proposal, it seems that no amount of evidence will dampen that pursuit."

Read the rest of Welner's piece here.

"America the Fixable" is an online magazine collaboration between The Atlantic and Common Good. It provides a bipartisan forum for the presentation of bold, new ideas to reform America's governmental and legal system--ideas that need to be part of the 2012 debate.

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Start Over: New Ideas to Overhaul Government, Regulation, and Litigation

Start Over

Read Philip K. Howard's collection of essays--proposing bold, big ideas to fundamentally reform our governmental and legal systems. Available for download.

Click here to view and download the 20-page Start Over publication.

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America the Fixable: Politics and Education Don’t Mix

P.L. Thomas, professor of education at Furman University, joins our America the Fixable series with an essay on the pitfalls of bureaucracy in American public education. "Bureaucracy bestows authority and a hierarchy on education that allows and perpetuates leadership without expertise or experience," Thomas writes.

"Universal public education needs a new wall, paralleling the wall of separation between church and state: a wall between education and government and corporate America," says Thomas. "Power over funding and broad performance benchmarks can remain vested in political leaders. But granular operational details should be left to educators and local administrators, the people best suited to achieve these goals in their schools and classrooms."

Read the rest of Thomas's essay at The Atlantic.

"America the Fixable" is an online magazine collaboration between The Atlantic and Common Good. It provides a bipartisan forum for the presentation of bold, new ideas to reform America's governmental and legal system--ideas that need to be part of the 2012 debate.

Comment ›

America the Fixable: The Three Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform

Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, joins "America the Fixable" with an article on the three factors that prevent us from making progress in education reform:

  • "Buying reform" is the time-honored practice of sugarcoating tough problems with money.
  • Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.
  • Education policy is by its nature change-averse. "[W]e've created an environment in which our schools can't really respond to the demands for improved student performance, or think creatively about productivity-enhancing reforms."

Read the rest of Rotherham's analysis here.

"America the Fixable" is an online magazine collaboration between The Atlantic and Common Good. It provides a bipartisan forum for the presentation of bold, new ideas to reform America's governmental and legal system--ideas that need to be part of the 2012 debate.

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