In American Psychology and Schools, Seymour Sarason writes of the shock expressed by the community after the horrible tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999. However, he asks why no outrage was expressed when police officers were stationed in a suburban school. That should have been viewed as the canary in the coalmine. Another troubling trend is now sweeping our schools and should be of great concern to all educational stakeholders.
One cannot read a newspaper or visit a school without getting the sense that our focus has shifted from learning to compliance and from mutual respect to fear. There is a sense that given the opportunity, kids will screw-up. Therefore, we must make our rules clear and punishment severe. Much has been written about the intolerance and departure from common sense displayed in the name of zero-tolerance policies, but I suspect that the problems we face may be even worse. A foul wind blows across many schools where students and adults have become antagonists, rather than co-equal partners in the learning community. Beyond the threat of self-fulfilling prophecies, our kids and school are jeopardized by the inflexible one-size-fits-all policies that cast children as our enemy while fueling needless animosity.
The Ties That (Don't) Bind
A graduating Maryland senior was recently denied the right to participate in the graduation ceremonies because he wore a bolo tie underneath his robe, instead of a "proper" tie. Despite the fact the student chose the bolo tie as a tribute to his Native American heritage, high school administrator Maurice J. McDonough said, "It is not considered a tie." Even if the kid wore a ridiculous tie, like classmates allowed to participate, who cares? Don't principals have better things to worry about?
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Where will a child learn to express himself when the tie police lurk behind the graduation dais? How will children learn to respect and honor diversity? Does your school district have a necktie policy? Will your necktie board be elected or appointed?
Say the Secret Word and Lose Your Civil Liberties
Administrators at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., have a lot on their minds these days. How could they possibly win the award for dumbest school censorship of 2005? The drama department was staging the play, "The Complete History of the United States (Abridged)," by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The play is a madcap parody that retells all of American history in under an hour. The Reduced Shakespeare Company performs all of the Bard's plays in an hour and its logo consists of William Shakespeare wearing Groucho Marx glasses, mustache and cigar. The play to be performed by the California youngsters features George Washington ala Groucho on its script cover. Get it! It's a joke! Hah!
The industrious students in the drama gang decided to publicize the play in order to sell tickets in order to raise money the school district fails to provide for such frills as cultural expression. As young thespians are wont to do, they crossed the line when they put up posters advertising the play complete with (gasp) President George Washington Bush as Groucho Marx. Instead of admiring their cultural literacy and use of witty metaphor, the crime-fighting principal swept into action and removed all of the posters and ordered the students "back to the drawing board."
Principal Kenny Lee defended his noble deeds by saying, "There's an issue in the first [poster] regarding the smoking and endorsing one ideology over another. That's our take on the student speech and conduct. We had one student who was very upset," Lee said. "So much turmoil within himself, he was distraught. The older generation understood the message. I don't think the younger one did. If something is bothering a student on campus, we're going to address it. We're not going to sweep it under the table."
Such sensitivity to the anguish of one student could be taken more seriously if the offended student's complaints did not also include that the posters "promoted smoking" and made the president "look like an Israeli."
How will children learn the wonders of our Bill of Rights from adults so contemptuous and fearful of basic liberties? Which literature will be safe when we cower at one complaint? Have you watched "Duck Soup" recently?
A Columbus, Ga., high school student was recently suspended for being disorderly. The horrible infraction occurred when he stepped outside to answer a cell-phone call during his lunch break. An indignant teacher spotted the cell-phone use and demanded that it be terminated at once. When the student failed to comply, the educator attempted to wrestle the phone away and confiscate it. This caused the student to cuss and resist as I might have done. Isn't it rude to interrupt another person's phone conversation? The student was polite enough to step outside.
If these were the only facts of the case, I would have a hard time justifying the suspension of the student. However, the phone call was from the kid's mother stationed in Iraq. Wouldn't you be agitated if you were not allowed to speak with your mother halfway around the world in a war zone? The school district reduced the suspension to three days from the remainder of the school year after being deluged with well-deserved public pressure. However, no apology was forthcoming and the administrators are completely confident in their position, "Rules is rules."
Sheesh! Where do educators learn to punish first and ask questions later? I would love to know if school personnel in Columbus ever complain about a lack of parental involvement in their children's education.
Is this how we honor the sacrifice of our armed services? Should a soldier in harm's way need to worry about how her child is treated by school personnel? Can civility be maintained without phone snatching and confrontation?
What Do You Think This Is Girl's Wrestling?
An accomplished singer in Texas is not being allowed to audition for the All-State Choir, an opportunity that could have implications for college admissions. Why? Because he sings best in the Soprano range and he's a boy? Forget the 25-page packet he submitted or the expert testimony or the fact he sings in his school's girls' choir or that the classical repertoire was largely written for male sopranos. None of that matters to the Texas Music Educators Association. Boys are not allowed to sing high!
Tell that to Aaron Neville!
Does a least restrictive learning environment include boys singing with high voices? Does the Americans with Disabilities Act cover gender-segregated choirs? Why do school organizations so readily ignore the advice of experts? How long will it take for a student to sue over this or a similar incident?
Cut it Out!
John Taylor Gatto talks of the difference between childlikeness and childishness and says that school breeds childishness, when childlikeness would be more productive. In Stupidity and Tears, Herb Kohl writes about how when trapped in an irrational, increasingly punitive system, teachers will act in ways detrimental to children and their very own self-interest. When the system treats the teachers in such a condescending fashion, students will suffer and schools will become increasingly dysfunctional, irrelevant and violent.
Surely we can reduce the temperature in our schools without turning them into prisons and educators into captors? Do we love kids or not?
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.