I just want to express my concern about something that I heard recently happened at Hoover.
Another Hoover parent told me that her fourth-grade daughter came home from school visibly upset. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she described a series of events that had happened in class that day. It started when one boy was playing with an eraser (she called it a “Japanese eraser”) when he wasn’t supposed to be. The teacher took away the eraser and put it on her desk, apparently intending to give it back to the boy at the end of the day. At some point, though, the eraser disappeared from her desk. The teacher told the kids that she would leave the room for three minutes, and that she expected the eraser to be on her desk when she came back. But it wasn’t. So then she told the kids to search the desks and backpacks of their “elbow partners” -- the kids they sit next to -- for the eraser, which they did. She also asked them to empty their own pockets. The eraser was never found. The girl was very shaken up by the whole event.
Not wanting to leap to conclusions, the girl’s mother asked another parent whether her child had said anything about the incident. When that parent asked her child what had happened, she heard substantially the same report.
Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I don’t want this to be taken as a complaint about that particular teacher. Even if the report is accurate, I know that she is a really hardworking working teacher who’s done a lot of great things for kids at Hoover, and nobody’s perfect. (I haven’t cc-ed her on this, but you’re welcome to share this email with her.) My goal is not to get anyone in trouble, but just to make the point that there are good reasons not to engage in searches like the one the girl described, and to make a plea that Hoover, as an institution, give some thought to what it’s teaching the kids by the way it handles disciplinary issues.
I think some people roll their eyes when I talk about kids having rights that schools shouldn’t infringe. (It’s my strong sense that the search, if it happened as reported, would violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.) But I don’t mean it in some abstract or technical sense; there are good reasons why third- and fourth-graders should be afforded some privacy, even when they’re in school. It’s very possible that some kids that age would have things in their backpacks or pockets that they would not want their classmates, or even their teacher, to see. Kids with medical issues might have medications; girls approaching puberty might have feminine products; anyone might have a diary; etc. There is no reason the kids should give up that kind of privacy as soon as they walk into the school, especially in a situation where there was no reason to believe that any particular child had taken the eraser, and where so little (an eraser!) was at stake.
As you already know, I’ve been concerned for some time that Hoover, in the name of keeping order in the classrooms and hallways (and, ultimately, of raising standardized test scores), is overemphasizing the values of passivity, obedience to authority, and unthinking compliance with rules. That’s one of the main reasons I objected to the implementation of PBIS, and to the use of the Social Thinking curriculum, and why I’ve expressed concerns about the way Hoover uses its character education program. At one level, my concern is that the kids are simply being misinformed: The fact is, we don’t live in a country where you have to blindly obey authority figures, and we don’t live in a country where there are no limits on what the government can ask of you, even if you’re accused of stealing, and we don’t live in a world where docility and unquestioning compliance with rules are the most highly valued qualities. But I worry that Hoover kids are being given quite the opposite impression, on a regular basis.
So you can see why it pains me to think of eight- and nine-year-old kids willingly complying with their teacher’s instruction to search each other’s private possessions to ferret out a thief. I would feel much better about what kids are learning at Hoover if at least one child, if told to search her classmates’ backpacks, were to say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” Given how much Hoover emphasizes obedience and authority, though, I’m afraid that’s too much to expect of them.
It seems to me that Hoover is unduly afraid of acknowledging limits on its authority over the kids, as if it would somehow lose face, or descend into chaos, if a kid were to get away with stealing an eraser. Civil liberties, individual autonomy, and constraints on authority are an important part of what makes us lucky to live in America. Why not make Hoover a place where the kids are not just told about those values, but actually experience them? Wouldn’t that be much more educationally valuable than keeping the lunchroom and hallways quiet, or catching eraser thieves?
Thank you for listening.
The principal’s response:
Thank you for taking such time to explain your concerns. I hope you know I am open to feedback, both positive and constructive. I AM listening and will continue to reflect upon this situation with your concerns in mind..