Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Juvenile justice

I recently sent this letter to the principal of my kids’ elementary school (I’ve added hyperlinks):

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.


FedUpMom said...

This story bothers me at the very beginning. What's so terrible about a kid playing with an eraser? I fidget with little items all the time, especially in a class situation.

It reminds me of the complaints from Younger Daughter's first-grade teacher that YD is "upside down" during Circle Time. So flippin' what?

KD said...

Wow. I can't think of any situation where one would think it would be a good idea for kids to be searching other kids' backpacks. I'd be troubled if this happened at our school. Kids should never be in that sort of position.

Even if one thought it was a good idea, how do we know that during the searching, the eraser thief wouldn't slip the eraser into someone else's backpack or desk.

Where is the common sense? Doesn't the district have some sort of policy explaining the dos and don'ts in such a situation. If not, maybe they should.

Yes, I can see how kids would feel violated in such a situation. In the kids' minds they probably think if it has happened once, it could happen again...definitely makes the school experience less pleasant to think that another kid could search your backpack or desk.

Josh M said...

Why didn't the principal just respond to your letter with a typed note that reads "Nope. Didn't read your letter. Not going to"?

Chris said...

Josh -- I suspect that, if I had gone to the principal to discuss the issue, we could have had a nice long talk about it, and she would have had more to say. One of the reasons I don't do that, and use email instead, is that I'm really only interested in the things she's willing to commit to saying. I think her response here shows the limits of what she's willing to commit to saying about this issue.

I see principals as policymakers, at least to the extent that the district gives them discretion to make their own judgments about how to run their schools. My feeling is that the public is entitled to have its policymaking officials tell us what their policies are and why they've chosen to do things one way rather than another. But I can't make them do that.

StepfordTO said...

Chris -- Such a great, necessary letter! Parents at Hoover are very lucky to have you advocating on their (and their children's) behalf.

And I agree, the principal's non-response speaks volumes. I love how she says she's open to "feedback, both positive and constructive." How about "negative and constructive" or "outraged and constructive"? Shouldn't she be open to all feedback?

Please let us know if her "reflections" result in any actions (or further correspondence).

very-recent-former-hoover-parent said...

Brief responses are a specialty of this principal, who is a very busy person.

Chris said...

Very-recent -- That may be true. All I know is that she didn't contradict anything I wrote in this post, and that no one ever apologized to these students for making them perform searches on each other, and that no one ever corrected the misimpression they were left with about what they do and don't have to do just because they're told to.