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.
Third student dies from Ohio school shooting
In Chardin, Ohio the morning-after talk is all too familiar…
- Out of nowhere the killer just gunned them down.
- The students were sitting ducks.
- We never saw this coming.
- He was a quiet kid. He never bothered anybody. He had friends.
- No he was an outcast, bullied, troubled, into Goth.
- The community is reeling, what can we do to help.
- We don’t have a motive yet, but we’ll keep looking.
- Hug your children, talk with them, tell them you love them.
Our hearts go out to the families, the students and teachers, and the entire Chardin community.
Columbine shook us out of our reverie and made us realize that such violence could happen anywhere, and yes, it could even happen in our town. Even so, it hasn’t gotten any easier to hear that innocent children were shot in their school. We want a motive, an explanation, something we can point to that will explain away how T. J. Lane got to the point of slaughtering his classmates as they sat talking in the cafeteria.
Killings in a school attract widespread media attention. Yet the reality is that serious, physical, violent crime in schools has decreased over the past decade. School shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. When we only consider this school murder statistic, we get the distorted view that violence is very rare, involves a weapon, and is deadly.
So what about the other 179 days of the school year? Does this mean they violence-free? It all depends on your definition of violence.
Every day in every school, students are emotionally and physically victimized by other students and adults. With a broad view of violence, the statistics for taunting, bullying, harassment, gang activity, cyber-bullying, hazing, and hate crimes (especially toward students who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender), and discussions with students about what goes on in classrooms, on the bus, in the cafeteria and bathrooms, present a clearer view of reality. This is the violence they live with daily, that interferes with their learning and keeps them home from school out of fear. So to understand and prevent tragedies like this in the future and to create a healthy school climate, we need to look at behavior along the entire violence continuum, from subtle to obvious.
Violence that begins on the subtle end of the continuum escalates if we don’t intervene early and preemptively. Something valuable can come from this tragic loss of life if it reminds us that our children deal with violence every day and that we spend our best efforts in prevention by teaching students how to be good people of high character, and in early intervention by getting help for those who are struggling.
For more information, read my blogs about the McInerney murder trial, my web page about the violence continuum, and to learn why and how we can prevent violence every day of the school year, read my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.
My new book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, is now set for a December (not November) release.
I’ve seen the cover and love the way it illustrates the concept that violence is behavior that hurts others and also an abuse of power, and that it can be subtle or obvious, physical or emotional. What our children face in school is skewed toward the subtle end to the mid-point of the continuum, and the damage is serious whatever form it takes.
Monday, August 29 – jury deliberates with no verdict yet
Given that the incident was in a neighboring Ventura County school district, the interest in my area of the country has been particularly keen.
But the murder of Larry King was also the cover story for the July 18, 2008 edition of Newsweek Magazine, “Young, Gay, and Murdered.” You can go to www.thedailybeast.com to see the cover and read the story.