Author Archives: lizmanvell

Helping our children cope with this tragedy

Rocked to the core

Today’s mass killing of innocent young children and adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has rocked us to our core. On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, unthinkable act by a disturbed individual. It shatters our belief of school as a safe haven– a place where we can just be that we count on as being safe. I was an elementary principal and can only imagine the horror of the scene.

As we adults grieve and process what happened and seek information and motive, we need to keep in mind that our own children still count on us to protect and care for them emotionally and psychologically. This means acting as responsible adults who make their needs the priority.

Not all children will hear about the shooting, nor do they need to, especially young children, and we should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. If they are older, directly affected, or do ask questions, we can respond in a way that reduces anxiety and builds their sense of security. While devastating, we need to remember that school shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and that less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. This statistic does not make what happened easier to accept, but it does put it in perspective as we and our children cope.

What do we say?

If your children do ask questions about the tragedy or are exposed to media coverage, we can mitigate the negative effect…

  • First, sit down together.
  • Turn off the TV, computers, and cell phones.
  • Then reassure them, and yourselves, that they are safe, that school shootings are extremely rare.
  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Answer questions rationally and calmly, according to the child’s developmental level.
  • Give only the information asked for; grizzly details are harmful and produce more anxiety.
  • Keep the TV off while your children are around.
  • Create normalcy by doing your usual routines.
  • Love and be there for them.

And then we can search our souls for what we can and need to do to help our country heal and become a less violent place.

My child is being bullied

My child doesn’t want to go to school. The reason? She’s being bullied.

No child should have to suffer being bullied or need to change schools to feel safe. In the span of two weeks, in two separate medical offices, I had a conversation with a doctor and a nurse about bullying in schools. The doctor expressed concern for her own daughter and dismay at how her receptionist had to move her daughter to a new school to avoid being bullied.  The nurse’s situation was not new to me, as we had talked about her first-grade daughter being bullied by other girls while it was happening, and how she finally went to the principal for help.

It was when I recently asked her how things were going that she welled up and told me things had turned around and were going well, thanks to a principal who took her concerns seriously and acted immediately. She was so grateful for the principal’s actions and couldn’t say enough about how much she respected and appreciated her. She wished all schools were blessed with a principal of her professionalism and compassion. I had to agree.

But what struck me was her anxiety over reporting the incidents in the first place, and the fear of being labeled a problem mother who is always complaining, and the repercussions of getting a group of her daughter’s classmates in trouble. Even with her child refusing to do homework and read each night as she usually did, and not wanting to go to school, she wasn’t sure how to handle it. It was with her heart broken over the pain her daughter was enduring that she went to the principal and exposed the bullying.

She knows she did the right and necessary thing, but it was not easy. The message that bullying is not tolerated and should be reported had not reached her and likely not reached the other parents. It took courage and some outrage to walk through that school door and march into the principal’s office. It took facing up to her peers – the other children’s parents – and righting a terrible wrong. And she feared reprisal and making her daughter’s life even more difficult.

She shouldn’t have had to feel this way. Effective school climate efforts are intentional and boldly advertised: We don’t do that here. We are better people than that. We know how to treat others with empathy and respect. This message changes school culture to where the protection of our students’ physical, psychological, and emotional safety becomes the norm. It is critical, and in most states a legal requirement, to have a school policy on bullying and harassment, but effecting change in the school culture to make violence taboo takes a concerted and visible effort by the school leadership. A policy is not a piece of paper; it is a living thing. Teachers, students, staff, parents, and administrators all need education about the many forms of school violence and accept that none of it is okay. They need to know there is a difference between “telling on” someone and reporting an abuse, and that the administration will listen to their concerns and bring the problem to resolution. The bottom line is they need to believe the school will and has an obligation to make the bullying stop.

Schools need to get out this message: Please speak up. We will listen and make it right. We promise.

My nurse’s daughter is now happy at school, back to reading for enjoyment and tackling her schoolwork. Her mother is a hero; she will look back with pride and satisfaction to the time when she stepped up and used her personal power to protect her child. We now need to change the way we do things so that we welcome all parents when they come to us with a concern and that we thank them for helping us keep our promise that our school is a safe haven for their children.

Bullying happens in all schools at all grade levels. This incident was in a first grade in a very small parochial school. For more information on what bullying looks like and what you can do, check out my other posts and my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

Create a no competition zone

Competition…

  • For the teacher’s attention
  • grades
  • prizes
  • approval
  • To be first in line
  • most popular
  • richest
  • prettiest
  • coolest

…undermines the positive learning climate we need in our classrooms. We now realize the damage competition does if left unchecked and recent anti-bullying and safe school climate efforts require that we actively work to make school an emotionally, socially, and physically safe place for every child.

This is especially important when we look at the unique nature of a school. Children go to school to learn things they don’t know or cannot yet do. Progressing from not knowing to knowing is an incremental process that requires risk taking and tenacity, and makes students vulnerable. The classroom is not like an athletic field, where the players already have the requisite knowledge and skills to compete. Students are still in the process of learning and classroom competition does not build character or a strong work ethic. What does build good character is challenge and encouragement,  realistic goals, and working hard to reach them – and all the while treating others with respect and compassion.

School, then, is inherently stressful.

Everything we do in our classroom, intentionally or without knowing, affects the stress level. Healthy classrooms thrive on cooperation, collaboration, and mutual support, which reduce this stress. In this climate, under the patient guidance of the teacher and community of respectful peers, students feel safe and can keep trying until they master the material or skill.

But the stress of the organized competition we sometimes use to motivate children and of the competition that happens when children vie for social status compound each other. Being compared to others and put on the spot to perform breed insecurity and can interfere with a student’s academic learning. We have learned that competition in the classroom leads to diminished, not increased, personal and group effort. Why? Because it substitutes extrinsic motivation for development of  self-discipline and an internal desire to try hard and to do well. Students work only as hard and as long as it takes to reach the artificial goal, or, when they see they cannot win, they give up or act out.  The competition establishes a pecking order, and students do not learn how to cooperate and help each other learn.  Instead they become competitors and the climate of the classroom becomes more stressful and less conducive to learning.

This competition is harmful to school climate and our students because it…

  • Puts children in a heightened emotional state of flight, fight or freeze.
  • Causes fear and embarrassment.
  • Labels students as good or bad at something.
  • Leads to winners and losers.
  • Defines an in and an out crowd.
  • Creates a power imbalance.
  • Leads to emotional and physical bullying.
  • Fosters fear of failure and a tendency to give up.
  • Is a constant reminder of self-defeating beliefs children may already have.
  • Increases performance anxiety in highly driven students and those expected by themselves or others to be perfect.

Competition and rewards also reinforce existing social hierarchies where the more socially and academically adept get the bulk of the positive feedback, rewards, and sense of accomplishment. So, instead of a secure climate where all children feel safe and can learn, we get a climate that encourages…

  • Cheating to win or come out on top
  • Meanness to build social status
  • Callous attitudes toward the success of our peers
  • Reliance on extrinsic motivation
  • Praise junkies who expect rewards for their efforts – verbal or tangible

And it damages instead of builds the critical personal connections, sense of  community, and caring relationships students and teachers need.

What can teachers do to minimize competition?

  1. Create a classroom climate of respect and empathy where we always treat each other in a caring way.
  2. Refrain from comparing students or pitting them against one another, and from offering artificial rewards.

For example, teachers sometimes use competitive games, such as a spelling bee or Jeopardy-type activity, to teach or to review material for a test. We view competitive games as something students like, a break from the routine that adds a little excitement.  But these games often fail to teach much, and, even worse, they are emotionally and socially counterproductive. While competition does get students’ adrenaline pumping, it also heightens emotions and causes discord that make it hard to calm down after the competition is over. And it is difficult to justify a spelling bee for instructional purposes when there are more effective and considerate ways to teach spelling than to make students spell words out loud in front of their classmates.

It is true that some children might enjoy spelling bees (usually the best spellers), but more find them just one more opportunity to fail…with an audience. And if not necessary, why use a teaching strategy that causes anxiety and taints the atmosphere?

Consider how you felt as a child and how you feel as an adult.
  • Did you enjoy spelling bees?
  • Would you like to participate in a spelling bee at a faculty meeting?
  • How about math flash cards or a game of American history “Around the World” at a staff-development workshop?

What an eye-opener. If we think of it from this perspective, we might feel differently about competitive games that pit one child or a group of students against one another. The brain can’t learn if it is in an anxious, fearful state. And we don’t want to make our students feel uncomfortable.

Keeping these understandings of human nature in mind may motivate us to stop using spelling bees, races to read the most books, and rewards for test scores or good behavior that result in pride for some and feelings of failure and embarrassment for others. Unless, that is, the competitive activity…

  • Is optional for self-selected students (no peer or teacher pressure),
  • Is a fun activity for the participants,
  • Does not waste instructional time,
  • Teaches students to play fair and be gracious winners and losers.

Otherwise, let’s make schools a healthy, competition-free zone.

Back to School Tip: We get what we give and expect

Take a minute to think…

How do you feel when your students walk into your classroom? What do you see when you look at them? What is going through your mind?  What do you expect to happen?

The answers reveal your core beliefs and attitudes about children and being a teacher, and you might not even be aware you feel this way.

How we consciously and unconsciously treat our students is not lost on them, and we wind up getting what we expect. The lens we look through determines how they respond to us and how we experience our time with them. Nowhere is an optimistic, generous attitude more important than in what goes on between a parent and a child, and a teacher and a student. And we are responsible for what happens under our watch.

If we approach teaching with the attitude that students are a problem because they:

  • don’t listen
  • are disrespectful
  • refuse to take responsibility
  • have no manners
  • don’t want to learn
  • can’t be trusted
  • need to be managed

…we interpret all that happens in this light. We expect them to not listen, to take advantage if given some freedom, to show no interest in what we are teaching, and to need strict discipline. They can tell how we feel, and their attitude toward us and school reflects the messages we send:

We are adversaries struggling for control.

But if we believe students are precious human beings that are:

  • inherently good
  • impressionable
  • sensitive and vulnerable
  • interested in learning new things
  • responsive to encouragement
  • capable of learning better behavior
  • at our mercy

…we treat them with compassion and concern. We expect good things from them, believe in our power to influence, see all the positives, the growth, the breakthroughs, and, the sometimes ever so slight, continuous progress. They can tell we like and enjoy them and their attitude reflects this:

We are collaborators sharing power.

These essential understandings are simple but not simplistic. We know that how we treat others and how they treat us determine our relationships with them. We also know that sometimes when we are in the midst of all the demands and stresses of teaching and life, we forget that the basics of a positive working relationship are mutual care and concern, and that we get what we model and expect.

We want good things to happen in our classroom and, if we show and expect, we will get back:

  • Cooperation
  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Enthusiasm
  • Trust
  • And teamwork

Back to School Tip: I hated that! (So don’t do it!)

When I Was a Kid

Think back to your own childhood experiences as a student, preferably the age level you teach. Picture yourself as that child and what you liked and what bothered you, and why you felt this way. If I were doing this exercise I might think of my 6th grade classroom where I liked being allowed to work on projects with a small group out in the hall because it gave me freedom and a chance to talk and be creative. I also might recall how I did not like it when this same teacher punished the entire class with a surprise test when only a few kids were fooling around.

What kind of things did you recall? Did the associated feelings come back? Did certain teachers stand out as memorable while you wish you had never had some of them? Take this insight and apply it to the way you interact with your students. If you shared these findings with others and listened to their perspectives, you would likely discover universal experiences most did like (free-time, coloring, being read to, encouragement from the teacher) and most didn’t like (copying notes from the board, yelling, being put on the spot, sarcasm). You can use this insight as you make decisions about your own classroom.

First Rule of Thumb: “I didn’t like it when I was in school, so I won’t do it to my students.” Make it your mantra, the foundation for creating a classroom climate that is purposefully inviting for students.

Yet there is a twist.

You would also likely find differences in what others liked and didn’t like. While you might have loved recess because you were a good athlete and popular, another might have hated it because the some kids teased and excluded her at recess. Look at the implications of these differences. While you couldn’t wait to get outside, she got a pit in her stomach just thinking about it.

The primitive fight or flight part of the brain was at work and feelings like this likely interfered with her ability to participate fully and learn. Fear overrides the part of the brain where reasoning and processing happen. If I am afraid of spiders and you are afraid of snakes, we each click into panic mode when confronted with the source of our fear. In the presence of something scary, that is all we can think of. Our fears should be acknowledged and each of us treated accordingly.

Since we do not have the same history and might not share the same perceptions and feelings, we should, in kind, avoid assuming things about children. We have to observe,  ask questions, and listen to truly know someone.

Second Rule of Thumb: “Children do not all have the same likes and dislikes and personalities.” Make it your practice to know your students and what they are about, have empathy, and treat them accordingly.

Find more on this topic and other useful ideas in my book, Teaching is a Privilege: 12 Essential Understandings for Beginning Teachers. (And you don’t have to be a new teacher to enjoy it!)

We have to fight to protect children’s rights

The unfortunate reality is we need legal protections to stop discrimination of targeted groups.

Bullies target those they see as different, feel superior to, and feel power over, and every child has a right to be safe and to learn and prosper emotionally, psychologically, and socially. But history shows that we need to fight hard for human rights. Recent legislation by almost all states that compels schools to protect students from bullying acknowledges the power of legal remedies to bring about change. This is especially true in the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students who are bullied more than any other group and are not yet protected by civil rights legislation.

In my book, Story Power: Breathing Life Into History,  I included a timeline of women’s rights to illustrate their journey. Progress was painfully slow until laws were finally enacted that gave women equal rights in all areas of their lives. If you ever doubted the value of legislation that protects targeted groups from discrimination, read through this timeline.

My Timeline of the History of Women’s Rights in America

Put yourself on the timeline and see where you fit in the legal evolution of women’s rights.

(This timeline is not all inclusive. There are many other milestones in women’s history.)

1776            Declaration of  Independence claims all men are created equal.

1789            US Constitution ratified and goes into effect.

1848            1st Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.

1861            The American Civil War begins – fight for women’s rights put on hold.

1865            Civil War ends; Reconstruction begins.

1866            Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage.

1868             14th Amendment to the US Constitution gives all male citizens the right to vote.

1870             15th Amendment to the US Constitution says the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Sex not included)

1878             The Woman Suffrage Amendment is first introduced in the US Congress: “Equality of  rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

1893             New Zealand first country to give women right to vote.

1903             National Women’s Trade Union established for better working conditions.

1917             Russia gives women right to vote.

1919             My father is born.

1920            19th Amendment gives US women right to vote; National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) becomes the League of Women Voters.

1921            My mother is born.

1923            The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first proposed to Congress.

1940-45      WWII Propaganda campaign to get women to work in typically male jobs.

1951             I’m born.

1956            Number of women in the work force up from 8.5 million in 1947 to almost 13 million.

1959             American Medical Association sanctions birth control for the first time.

1960            FDA approves “the pill.”

1963            President’s “Commission on Status of Women” finds women discriminated against in almost all aspects of US life.

1964            Title VII Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment by race or gender.

1970             Congress approves the Equal Rights Amendment, first step toward adoption.

1972             ERA sent to states for ratification.

Title IX becomes law: no one can be discriminated against based on their sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

1973             Rowe v. Wade – women’s right to choose abortion – upheld by US Supreme Court.

1977             My first child is born.

1976             Nebraska adopts the first law making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

1979             My second child is born.

1986            Supreme Court rules sexual harassment on the job is sex discrimination.

1992             American Association of University Women release their report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.”

1993             Violence Against Women Act passes: acknowledges domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.

2001            American Association of University Women releases “Beyond the ‘Gender Wars’: A conversation about girls, boys, and education.”

2009            Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act passed.

2012             Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to include coverage for birth control without a co-pay.

GOP and Democratic platforms differ on contraception and abortion.

ERA not yet ratified by a three-fourths majority of US states.

Back to School Tip: Create and apply the rules together

Obedience or Rights and Responsibilities?

As we set up our classrooms and start the new school year, we need rules that motivate students from within. Encouraging high personal standards in our students takes more than positing a chart of the classroom rules. It requires a positive approach to discipline that:

  • teaches responsibility (intrinsic motivation) over time
  • rather than merely expects obedience (extrinsic motivation).

Children are more likely to follow guidelines for behavior (rules) that they had a role in developing, understand, and view as fair. The school, classroom, and home are the most natural and logical places to give children an active role in defining what it means to be a contributing member of a well-functioning community. This includes defining and living according to the rights and responsibilities shared by all members of the group. They learn rules are not arbitrary and mean, but helpful guidelines for getting along with each other.

Classroom management based on personal responsibility is more effective than traditional authoritarian control. The obedience model sends the message that students must follow the rules that adults impose without question regardless of the students’ ideas of right and wrong, special needs or circumstances, instincts and experiences. The message from adults is, You must behave in a certain way because I have the power and I tell you to do it. The obedience model says, Here is the list of what you can and cannot do. The responsibility model tells children, I believe you know what is right and wrong and can do better. I will help you respect others and take responsibility for your choices.

The Obedience Model

Obedience develops behavior motivated by an external locus of control instead of an internal conscience. If a student’s primary goal is to avoid being caught and getting in trouble, this can motivate him to hide or lie about his behavior.  If caught, he may blame it on someone else or try to get even with the enforcer. This creates an adversarial and disrespectful environment that damages the single most important factor for a safe and effective school climate: positive relationships among members.

Obedience may tempt teachers and parents with:

  • The power of an absolute authority.
  • A sense that they have the power and control over their children.
  • A predetermined comprehensive list of rules and matching punishments.
  • Some hope of keeping children “in line.”
  • And the most alluring of all–compliance.

But a focus on obedience also leads to children who:

  • Lack emotional maturity and self-discipline.
  • Cannot own up to their choices and fix the messes they make.
  • Are not able to think critically or problem solve and make decisions.
  • Feel powerless and frustrated.
  • Withdraw or “act out.”
  • Blame others for their behavior.
  • Engage in power struggles.
  • And the last thing we want to promote: act in aggressive ways – covertly and overtly.

The Rights and Responsibility Model

Compare this to another message that is communicated to students: We respect you as an individual with basic needs and hopes, and we believe you have or can develop the skills to make constructive choices. We understand the context of your life and will hold you to a high standard while we guide you to being successful.

Such a climate, based on rights and responsibilities, offers teachers:

  • Healthy relationships with students.
  • Satisfying interactions and more time to teach.
  • Less frustration and more success with handling misbehavior.
  • A redefinition of their role from warden to mentor.
  • A sharing of power.
  • Steady progress toward accomplishing meaningful goals.
  • The chance to take discipline off the top of their list of concerns.

And it leads to students and eventually to citizens who:

  • Are motivated from within.
  • Have a sense of right and wrong.
  • Are critical and creative problem-solvers who make healthy choices.
  • Work toward the good of the community.
  • Are not afraid to take the emotional and intellectual risks needed to learn.
  • Recognize and respect the rights of others.
  • Act ethically.
  • Stand up for what they believe is right.
  • Take responsibility and fix any messes they make.

The rights and responsibilities approach asks students to develop the rules together. They discuss how they should behave in the classroom and school in order for everyone to get along, feel safe, and have an opportunity to learn. They can describe what the perfect classroom would be like and use that as the basis of a code of conduct. Students then come together to see the rationale behind behavior guidelines and understand the cause and effect of their actions.

When a child breaks a rule or code of conduct, we keep the focus on building the child’s self-control and remember that we are there to teach. We want them to develop an internal guidance system, and not to behave well just because we are watching. We can ask them to apply the New Golden Rule of Empathy – Do unto others as they would like you to do unto  them – when they find themselves in a challenging situation. And rather than imposing punishment, we use a verbal or written behavior plan that teaches problem solving and builds character by asking these questions:

  1. What behavior got you here?
  2. Why was that behavior a problem?
  3. What could you choose to do instead next time?
  4. How will you make amends for your behavior now?

With this type of positive discipline, children learn that:

  • Adults do care about them and want them to do well.
  • Everyone shares the same basic human rights.
  • Rules define how they should behave in a learning community.
  • What they say and do is who they are.
  • They have the personal power and responsibility to make good choices.
  • If they cause of problem, they have to fix it.

Ban assault rifles in our society; teach non-violence in our homes and schools.

It has been a while since I’ve posted a new blog. Everyday life happens, and sometimes what you think will be a simple, straightforward topic turns into a research project. (Look for a future post on the unhealthy art of sarcasm.)

But nothing gets everyone’s attention like a mass shooting of innocent people going about their everyday lives. The people of Colorado and the rest of the world are trying to wrap their heads around the mental and physical effort that went into a systematically, finely-calculated plan to kill people as they watched a movie.

On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, disturbing act by one individual. It shatters our sense of the safe haven– places where we can just be that we count on as being secure. Incidents of mass gun violence re-energize heated arguments about access to guns, a critical constitutional issue over which Americans constantly wrestle, often to little avail. But below is link that gives everyone a chance to come together and take positive action. No matter where we stand on Second Amendment rights, we should all be able to agree there is no place in our society for machines designed for no other purpose than to massacre. And while we work jointly to ban these assault weapons, we can work on fixing our culture of violence.

Fixing our culture of violence-one that is pervasive, not extraordinary – especially as we try to teach our children to choose peaceful ways of living, is lost in the blurring immediacy of a deadly tragedy. We call the incident senseless, but is it any more senseless than a child being taunted for the way she looks, or being excluded from the group because she is poor or has special learning needs, or being harassed and assaulted for being gay? From one end of the violence continuum to the other, it is all senseless, and physically and emotionally scarring. This everyday violence is where we need to focus. We have remarkable control over our homes and schools. We create the climate and culture that define what is right and wrong. We can make sure these are safe havens where adults model and children practice peaceful, respectful, and compassionate ways to treat each other.

Sure, make a commitment to ban assault rifles in our society, but also make a commitment to consistently model, teach, and expect non-violence in our schools and homes.

“President Obama and Governor Romney: Issue a joint call asking Congress to reinstate the expired federal assault weapons ban now.”

and also

“Stop Bullying!”

Hitting students? Legally? Really?

Many schools across America control their students through fear and physical violence. And they do it legally. Whether your child can be paddled in public school as a form of punishment depends on where you live.

Most states ban the use of corporal punishment in U.S. juvenile correction facilities and in the prison system.  Yet nineteen states still allow the use of corporal punishment by school adults against students who misbehave, break a rule, have a bad attitude, perform poorly in schoolwork, or do something that annoys them. It is even harder to understand the thinking behind this when we discover that ten of these nineteen states that allow students to be disciplined physically, paradoxically prohibit corporal punishment in their penal systems! How can this be so? They do this with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1977,  ruled that the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights only protects convicted criminals from cruel and unusual punishment, not students confined to a classroom. (State-by-state analysis of the legality of corporal punishment in the US)

Not unlike prisoners, students are a confined audience at the mercy of those in power. They are vulnerable to whatever their classmates and adults dish at them. Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the frequency and harm of bullying and harassment, especially of certain groups of students. In recent years, many states and school districts have enacted laws and implemented policies that prohibit such abuse. We acknowledge that we owe our students a school climate that is safe and nurturing.

Much of a teacher’s influence on her students comes from modeling, often unintentionally, and we ask teachers and principals to intentionally model what they expect from their students. In addition to the moral and ethical questions of adults hurting children, paddling is not compatible with the understanding of how children learn. Corporal punishment does not model positive social skills, is not a deterrent, does not teach better behavior, and it does not improve academic performance. Paddling teaches our children that adults have the authority, power, and right to abuse them, emotionally and physically, when they are frustrated, angry, or believe we ought not spare the rod. It erodes students’ respect for adults and their belief in non-violent ways to solve problems, and fans disenfranchisement and rebellion. And disturbing is the knowledge that it is administered disproportionately toward the most vulnerable of our children. The US Office of Civil Rights reports that students with disabilities and African American children are paddled at twice the rate of the general school population. The poor, disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities are the overwhelming targets of this sanctioned school violence.

School violence of any kind sickens the climate and has a negative effect on students’ attitudes toward themselves and others, and their academic success. When adults inflict the violence it is an even more egregious abuse of physical and positional power.  So how can we justify sitting by while adults discipline students by hitting them?

We can’t.

As we outlaw bullying in schools, we have a chance to extend these protections even further, to all children on a national level.  The hope lies in our vigilance and support of the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act,” HR 3027 introduced in Congress on Sept 22, 2011 by NY Rep Carolyn McCarthy.

Learn more about the topic and how you can help eliminate corporal punishment in America’s schools.

Huffington Post blog post “Corporal Punishment in American Schools — Teaching Through Terror?”

Public schools are for every child.

I cherish the concept of a free and public education for all children.

It intends, at least on paper, to provide each child with an opportunity to become a successful, self-sufficient adult and citizen. Theoretically, an educational system open to all is a way to ensure that life circumstances – who you are, where you were born, the educational level of your parents, and your social and economic standing – do not determine your future chances for a fulfilling life. This is the heart of a meritocracy, a system in which advancement in society is based on individual ability or achievement, not on wealth or birthright. The premise is a simple one: the choices you make, especially how hard you work in school, decide your future.

So on paper a meritocracy in the form of a public school sounds ideal. Most Americans believe we have such a system, and that it serves everyone equally and well. But considering the realities of American society, this was and still is naïve. The premise is fundamentally flawed because the playing field was not and is not level, and the opportunities were not and are not equal or equitable.

Throughout our history, different levels of government and powerful people were able to control who went to a certain school, who went to school at all, and even to make it illegal to teach slave children how to read and write. Classmates were selected and rejected by gender, race, ethnicity, mental ability, and behavior. With groups separated into somewhat homogenous groups, the need to learn tolerance and acceptance of those we saw as different or of a lesser status or ability was minimized. This segregation maintained a status quo of separate classes – the privileged and under-privileged, the powerful and powerless – and undermined the concept that schools and society were meritocracies.

Public education policies and laws did evolve over time as people spoke out forcefully about human rights issues and wrongs were corrected. Yet the system is still not perfect: education funded according to the tax base of each district results in widely disparate per pupil expenditures that favor the well-to-do and economically healthy areas, and bias and discrimination against certain groups influence the assessment of individual potential, academic expectations, opportunities available, discipline used, and hopes for the future.

But people and governments may no longer intentionally segregate schools or classrooms by race or social status and children with special learning and behavioral needs now have the right to a placement in the least restrictive learning environment. Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And they all have our promise that they will be treated respectfully by the adults and students in their school.

There are competing cultural forces at work that again challenge the basic premise of schools as a meritocracy, where all are welcome and offered the same opportunities. The influence of religion in politics and on social issues and public policy has grown at the same time the federal government, individual states, and local school boards and communities have made a moral and legal commitment to build public schools that are safe havens. In these schools, discrimination and violence of any kind, including exclusion, bullying, and harassment, are not tolerated by anyone, against anyone, or for any reason.

This raises the question of the role of religious beliefs in an institution that by law and mandate must welcome, teach, and protect every child who comes to the schoolhouse door. May students deny basic human rights to those who do not share or reflect their religious beliefs, especially in the case of sexual identity? Are students whose religion teaches that homosexuality is immoral excused from showing respect and tolerance toward their gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual peers? Can they discriminate against, refuse to work with, or bully students they do not approve of?

I believe the answer is no, they may not, the same way a student may not let his personal or his parents’ beliefs about race, ethnicity, political leanings, etc. affect how he treats his classmates. The code of conduct for proper behavior applies to everyone.

The strength of the public school system of the 21st century is that it more clearly guarantees that every child can expect the school to protect his rights regardless of perceived or real differences, or religious or social beliefs held by others. This is how we keep the public separate from the private, the secular separate from the sectarian, and public schools open and welcoming to the everyone.