Changing Hearts and Minds: Think Globally, Suffer Locally
Publication Date: 2009-10-14
This commentary is inspired by the discipline policies in the Christina, Delaware School District.
So does a teacher really have time to check the precise color every student's corduroys? Point of information: TimberlandÃ¢Â¢ boots cost $185. Google it with "gangs" and you find that school officials have the dilemma of trying to figure out whether TimberlandsÃ¢Â¢ are gang wear or part of retro hip hop fashion. According to The Urban Dictionary, kids refer to them as Tims or Timbs:
If the average citizen reads a few more entries in the Urban Dictionary he is likely to figure that school officials are right: Today's kids need strict oversight and lots of rules, including the type of shoes they wear. But the Rev. Stephen Young, Sr. has another view. He told The Washington Times that he often wears the uniform of the streets (Timberland boots, cornrows and baggy pants) to draw in younger people to his supportive, self-help sermons. Rev. Young preaches personal respect and responsibility as a counter to gang involvement.
Admittedly, this is a tough call. Plenty of us feel that teachers should "dress up" to their professionalism rather than to try "dressing down" in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with students. BogotÃÂ¡ mayor Antanas Mockus tried spandex.
In BogotÃÂ¡, Colombia, mayor Antanas Mockus is credited with turning the city into a social experiment just as that city was choked with violence, lawless traffic, corruption, and gangs of street children who mugged and stole. Mockus described it as "being in charge of a 6.5 million person classroom." In addition to walking the streets dressed in spandex and a cape as SuperCitizen, Mockus asked people to call his office if they found a kind and honest taxi driver; 150 people called and the mayor then organized a meeting with all these good taxi drivers, who advised him about how to improve the behavior of the mean taxi drivers. Mockus hired 20 professional mimes to shadow pedestrians who didn't follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes.
As an article in the Harvard University Gazette points out, Mockus focused on changing hearts and minds--not through preaching but through artistically creative strategies that employed the power first of individual and community disapproval and then positive action.
Too often, schools seem to resort to rules rather than to the power of the community, and a rule-based school quickly looks like a precursor to prison: all rules and no nurturing of independence. A student who has no room to be independent can't learn to become responsible.
Some schools--like those in the Christina district--try to extend their reach to what seems to non-school folk an amazing length. These schools insist they have jurisdiction over a student's out-of-school conduct if said conduct "indicates that the student presents a threat to the health, safety, or welfare of other students and staff. This includes behavior exhibited in the community, non-district schools, other districts, or states." No mention is made of the possibility of escaping the school's eye while traveling in a foreign country.
The mission statement talks of a "diverse and technologically progressive community of learners" but the emphasis seems to be on the punishments in the conduct code rather than on what students might do to help their community. Included in the conduct code is this injunction: Students should help to keep the bus clean, sanitary and orderly. They must not damage or abuse the equipment. There is no mention of students helping, say, to keep the lavatories clean, sanitary, and orderly. There is no mention that students have a right to or expectation for clean, sanitary, and orderly lavatoriesÃ¢"or a responsibility for helping to maintain such a state.
A12-year-old boy was charged with "Terroristic Threatening," and according to the news release, "State Troopers will continue their increased presence in and around the school." The public was informed that "State troopers are assigned to schools as School Resource Officers (SRO's) act under the Triad Principle in which Troopers act as: 1- Law Enforcement Officers 2- Educators and 3- Counselors. Following the 12-year-old's arrest, the Kirk Middle School SRO [in Christina] participated in presentations about conduct "and the ramifications that come with poor decision making."
The case of LORRAINE G. HARRIS-THOMAS, Plaintiff, v. CHRISTINA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant reached the United States District Court because when a teacher tried to break up a schoolyard scuffle she got hit. Hit, not injured. To quote from the court record:
In the good old days, the principal would have dealt with both children, but these days more than 17,000 police officers patrol school hallways nationwide, and breaches of school conduct codes become police matters, and a 7th grader winds up in Youth Rehabilitative Services In a January 2009 letter in the New York Times, Donna Lieberman and Melissa Kissoon, respectively, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and youth representative for the Urban Youth Collaborative, wrote, "More than 5,200 inadequately trained and supervised police personnel patrol the city's schools, making the New York New York Police Department's school division larger than all but four police departments in the country." They continue, "Every day, more than 100,000 students must submit to metal detectors, bag searches and sometimes even patdowns to go to school. The media frequently report problems: the 5-year-old handcuffed for throwing a tantrum; the 16-year-old arrested and beaten in a dispute about a cellphone; the principal arrested for trying to protect a student from abuse. But how many more incidents go unreported?" The writers worry that "unchecked policing pushes vulnerable students from classrooms to jail."
Although no one will deny that violent acts do happen in school, statistics from the U. S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Dept. of Education, the U.S. Dept. of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control Injury Mortality Reports indicate that school is certainly not the place where kids are at greatest risk. The Reason Foundation offers a chart on the probability that any school age child will die this year:
The probability that any school age child* will die this year
1 in 3,000
A traffic accident
1 in 8,000
Homicide, away from school
1 in 21,000
Suicide, away from school
1 in 28,000
1 in 33,000
1 in 73,000
1 in 79,000
A firearm accident
1 in 200,000
Pneumonia or influenza
1 in 250,000
Bronchitis, emphysema, or asthma
1 in 260,000
1 in 390,000
1 in 390,000
1 in 420,000
An act of nature, including lightning
1 in 780,000
1 in 850,000
1 in 1,300,000
Any adverse effect of medical care
1 in 1,300,000
Homicide at school
1 in 1,700,000
*School age is here defined as 5 to 19 years of age.
In the opening of his New York Times Sunday Book Review cover review, Walter Kirn writes, "Think globally, suffer locally." This could be the moral of Methland, Nick Reding's unnerving investigative account of two gruesome years in the life of Oelwein, Iowa, a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself, in forces almost too great to comprehend and too pitiless to bear.
The mayor and the county prosecutor and a few others fought back and reclaimed the town. At the core of their reclamation efforts they put new sidewalks, street lights, a sewage system, and a new library.
Yes, a library.
They didn't hire more police; they built a library. Our schools might take note.
After Uproar on Suspension, District Will Rewrite Rules
By Ian Urbina, The New York Times, October 14, 2009
School officials in Newark, Del., said Tuesday that they would revise the districtÃ¢s code of conduct to exempt kindergarteners and first graders from some of its automatic and harsher punishments.
ItÃ¢s a Fork, ItÃ¢s a Spoon, ItÃ¢s a ... Weapon? (October 12, 2009)
The decision came after a first grader, Zachary Christie, 6, was suspended and ordered to the districtÃ¢s alternative school for troubled youth because he took to school a camping utensil that included a small fold-out knife.
School district officials also said they would reinstate Zachary to his school and remove the suspension from his record. And they asked his mother to review and possibly help rewrite the conduct code.
The utensil that Zachary took to school was considered a "dangerous instrument" under the zero-tolerance policy of the district, the Christina School District, and officials had said they were forced to act, regardless of Zachary's age or intent.
The case prompted an angry reaction from parents because several other students had been expelled or suspended in the past several years for similar offenses, including an elementary school student who was expelled for a year after she took a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it.
The school board passed an amendment creating a separate category of rules for students in kindergarten and first grade.
If these students engage in what is known as a Level III offense for the first time, they will now face three to five days out-of-school suspension and referral to school-based counseling, rather than being sent to the local reform school, as is now the case.
Level III offenses include possession of a "dangerous instrument," including knives under three inches in length, and more serious offenses like assault, arson or drug possession.
Some school board members said the amendment did not go far enough in revising the code.
"We are doing this because we got egg on our face, but it doesn't address the underlying issues with zero-tolerance rules,Ã¢ said John M. Young, who opposed the original decision to send Zachary to the districtÃ¢s reform program. "What if next time the case involves a second grader? That student will run into the same exact problems that Zachary did."
Mr. Young said he believed the school board should immediately reverse the decision concerning Zachary's punishment and apologize to his family. It should then begin redrafting the entire code of conduct so it gives school officials more discretion, he said.
ZacharyÃ¢s mother, Debbie Christie, agreed.
"I think it's a start, but I don't know if it goes far enough," Ms. Christie said.
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