Blog Archives

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.

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Hazing-an excuse to abuse

Do no harm and allow no harm be done.

Before the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University, I had started to write a post about the widespread hazing that is occurring in middle and high schools, especially in athletics. An article about a 14 year-old high school freshman beaten with a belt by six teammates while one coach observed and the other videotaped the assault, reminded me to finish my blog about the protected and privileged world of the athlete, and the tolerance for abuse shown by students and coaches.

What is hazing and how is it different from bullying?

Hazing is violence inflicted on students because they want to belong to particular group they consider of higher status. Tradition, peer pressure, and the desire for acceptance into the elite group, motivate students to put aside their self-respect and quietly suffer humiliation and physical danger. In contrast, bullying is random violence directed at someone who belongs to a group perceived as lower status or power, or at someone who appears defenseless.

How common is hazing?

Using a random sample of high school students throughout the country, a comprehensive 2000 study by Alfred University asked students to complete a confidential questionnaire on their experiences with hazing. 48 percent of high school students admitted being hazed by school groups. The highest percentage of hazing was in sports teams, gangs, and other social groups, but, surprisingly, it existed in almost all school groups.  They defined three types of hazing behavior: humiliation, substance abuse, and dangerous hazing. In this climate of condoned aggression and physical violence sanctioned as a tradition, it is no wonder that children are abused.

What does hazing look like?

Here is a small sampling of the kind of hazing violence reported in the U.S. Students were:

  • Spat on, hogtied, held in a locker and slammed into a wall.
  • Dragged across a muddy field then made to stand against a wall while soccer teammates kicked balls at them.
  • Beaten by ten athletes until bruised.
  • Roughed up, paddled, and then forced to box each other until they bled.
  • Restrained with duct tape.
  • Beaten and covered with mud, paint, feces and garbage; five girls ended up in the hospital.
  • Sexually assaulted with foreign objects.

Students are also subjected to: forced consumption of alcohol, tattooing, piercing, head-shaving, branding, sleep deprivation, physical punishment (paddling and “red-bellying”), and kidnapping.

In the real world these behaviors would be crimes and, with a new understanding of violence, they are starting to be treated as such.

Why do we allow it to happen?

We have developed a culture of status for certain groups and of looking the other way when they misbehave. Athletes have this special status, especially in the high-profile male sports like football, soccer, wrestling, and basketball. Sports teams provide entertainment, build school pride, and bring prestige to the school. It is not uncommon for schools and society to give them special dispensation for their violent behavior and when they break rules.

The attitudes of teachers, administrators, and parents who believe participation in sports is always a character-building experience perpetuate the treatment of the athlete as a privileged class. But being idolized, feared, admired, and envied for athletic skills and brute force do not build character. They breed idolatry and a sense of entitlement that lead to abuses of power and status.

How do coaches contribute to this culture?

Complicating the issue are coaches who condone hazing, and think breaking down an athlete’s self-esteem by verbally belittling him or handing out physical punishment is an effective way to motivate him to try harder. In this way, coaches openly model aggressive, bullying behavior.  Now as states and districts enact measures to reduce bullying by athletes, coaches who bully are under more scrutiny for their own violent behavior. They are being told to tone down their drastic discipline techniques and to no longer look the other way when one of their athletes bullies another student.

The Ohio State Education Department recognized the role schools play in the continuation of the tradition of hazing. Their efforts to stop hazing at the elementary school through the college level include an inclusive definition and strong condemnation of hazing and the adults who allow it. The code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. Adult culpability for what happens to their students is wake up call to all school and college staff.

Can we change tradition?

The students in the Alfred study were perceptive when they said it would be hard to stop hazing because it would take a breakdown of tradition, and that changing a culture is difficult. But we have repeatedly proven we can change the climate and culture of a school. We know that one of the most effective ways to do this is to take the stand that no violence, including teacher bullying of students or student bullying of each other,  is ignored or tolerated.

When it comes to hazing, schools have a direct supervisory role over the groups they sponsor and the obligation to keep participants free from emotional trauma and physical harm. We can reduce hazing abuses by educating students, families, and school staff, especially school coaches and extracurricular activity supervisors, and by enacting anti-hazing policies. Safe school climate efforts should send a strong anti-hazing message and make sure there is consistent follow through when it is reported, including appropriate school and criminal consequences. Coaches should also model non-violent character-building behavior to motivate their athletes, instead of perpetuating disrespect and aggression. And we should listen to our students when they say they want us to intervene to protect them, and that they would prefer positive initiation activities to build comradery and a feeling of belonging.

We can change the tradition of hazing.

We can do it by being clear about what is and is not tolerated, and then by holding everyone accountable.