NewTalk tag:newtalk.org,2008-02-07://2 2013-06-05T16:30:37Z Where experts discuss America's toughest issues Movable Type Publishing Platform 4.02a Risk and Legal Fear in Schools tag:newtalk.org,2013://2.110 2013-06-05T14:00:00Z 2013-06-05T16:30:37Z A New Hampshire school district bans dodgeball. A Georgia school sends a kindergartener off in handcuffs. A Florida high school is shut down when a student brings in a mercury thermometer. Across the country, schools and school districts are overreacting... Admin A New Hampshire school district bans dodgeball. A Georgia school sends a kindergartener off in handcuffs. A Florida high school is shut down when a student brings in a mercury thermometer. Across the country, schools and school districts are overreacting to risk—often to the detriment of children’s education.

We entrust our children to teachers and principals with the expectation that they will be both educated and protected from harm. When, inevitably, incidents happen—especially when those incidents are tragic and well-publicized—communities often press for stricter rules and procedures. School administrations have reacted to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School with extreme protectiveness; one school suspended a six-year-old for “pointing his finger like a gun and saying ‘pow,’” while another suspended two boys for playing cops and robbers.

In addition to protecting children from harm, schools also look to protect themselves from lawsuits, which a study by Public Agenda labeled a “perpetual fear” that influence teacher and principal decision-making. To shield themselves from legal exposure, schools have attempted to eliminate every conceivable risk—no tire swings, no dodgeball, no monkey bars. Field trips require complex liability waivers. Teachers can’t be left alone with students. Every activity requires paperwork—documentation, permissions, waivers.

Administrators’ authority has been diminished by an increased reliance on police to handle disciplinary matters as well as by restrictive policies, often imposed by state legislatures, that create an illusion of safety but prevent schools from making sensible disciplinary decisions.

Schools’ reaction to parents’ and the public’s decreasing tolerance for risk (and the possibility of litigation) has cultural, legislative, and regulatory dimensions. Red tape and legal fear have soured the student-teacher relationship and, with the increasing number of safety protocols and removal of outside-the-classroom activities, have made our schools less welcoming and engaging. The loss of teacher and principal authority in disciplinary matters has made it more difficult to maintain supportive and orderly learning environments, and unnecessary suspensions and expulsions cost students irreplaceable learning time and may create snowballing disciplinary problems.

Our schools should be safe, but are the steps we take in response to threats at the extremes—everyday playground accidents on one end, school shootings at the other—doing more harm than good? Is it possible to address risk and legal fear in a more balanced, less red-tape-intense way? In this forum, we’re inviting experts to consider these questions. Specific discussion topics may include:

  •  What level of risk is reasonable in a school environment?
  •  Are lawsuits really prevalent enough to justify defensive measures taken by schools and teachers? Or is their perception of legal risk exaggerated?
  • Do zero-tolerance policies lead to counterproductive disciplinary action?
  • Should judges take a more active role in setting the boundaries of reasonable risk in schools?
  • When should waivers be required?
  • Do we need to encourage a cultural change against risk obsession?  If so, what role should principals, teachers, and parents play in this process?

]]> A New Hampshire school district bans dodgeball. A Georgia school sends a kindergartener off in handcuffs. A Florida high school is shut down when a student brings in a mercury thermometer. Across the country, schools and school districts are overreacting to risk—often to the detriment of children’s education.

We entrust our children to teachers and principals with the expectation that they will be both educated and protected from harm. When, inevitably, incidents happen—especially when those incidents are tragic and well-publicized—communities often press for stricter rules and procedures. School administrations have reacted to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School with extreme protectiveness; one school suspended a six-year-old for “pointing his finger like a gun and saying ‘pow,’” while another suspended two boys for playing cops and robbers.

In addition to protecting children from harm, schools also look to protect themselves from lawsuits, which a study by Public Agenda labeled a “perpetual fear” that influence teacher and principal decision-making. To shield themselves from legal exposure, schools have attempted to eliminate every conceivable risk—no tire swings, no dodgeball, no monkey bars. Field trips require complex liability waivers. Teachers can’t be left alone with students. Every activity requires paperwork—documentation, permissions, waivers.

Administrators’ authority has been diminished by an increased reliance on police to handle disciplinary matters as well as by restrictive policies, often imposed by state legislatures, that create an illusion of safety but prevent schools from making sensible disciplinary decisions.

Schools’ reaction to parents’ and the public’s decreasing tolerance for risk (and the possibility of litigation) has cultural, legislative, and regulatory dimensions. Red tape and legal fear have soured the student-teacher relationship and, with the increasing number of safety protocols and removal of outside-the-classroom activities, have made our schools less welcoming and engaging. The loss of teacher and principal authority in disciplinary matters has made it more difficult to maintain supportive and orderly learning environments, and unnecessary suspensions and expulsions cost students irreplaceable learning time and may create snowballing disciplinary problems.

Our schools should be safe, but are the steps we take in response to threats at the extremes—everyday playground accidents on one end, school shootings at the other—doing more harm than good? Is it possible to address risk and legal fear in a more balanced, less red-tape-intense way? In this forum, we’re inviting experts to consider these questions. Specific discussion topics may include:

  •  What level of risk is reasonable in a school environment?
  •  Are lawsuits really prevalent enough to justify defensive measures taken by schools and teachers? Or is their perception of legal risk exaggerated?
  • Do zero-tolerance policies lead to counterproductive disciplinary action?
  • Should judges take a more active role in setting the boundaries of reasonable risk in schools?
  • When should waivers be required?
  • Do we need to encourage a cultural change against risk obsession?  If so, what role should principals, teachers, and parents play in this process?
]]> Lenore Skenazy Lessons from Sandy Hook

The worst massacre at a school did not happen last year at Sandy Hook Elementary. It happened in 1927, in Bath Township, Michigan. A disgruntled (to say the least) school board member didn't want to pay any more school construction taxes. In protest, he blew up the school, his car, himself, four other adults--and 38 school kids.

Almost double the number at Sandy Hook.

Afterward, do you know what precautions schools all around the country immediately took?

None. Because administrators, politicians and parents did not see the tragedy as part of a huge new threat. They saw it for what it was: A bizarre anomaly. They understood that, for the most part, kids were still very safe at school.

That's a kind of perspective we have lost, in an era when we've been trained to automatically think these two thoughts:

1 - If anything bad happens to any child, anywhere, it is likely to happen to my kid, tomorrow.

2 - If we are proactive to the point of paranoid, we can achieve 100% safety.

The result has been a rash of excessive, expensive and sometimes exasperating new measures designed to make schools safer...that don't. My favorite is the reading specialist who told me that ever since Sandy Hook, when she goes to a classroom to help out, the door is always locked. As she is not trusted with a key, she has to knock on the door. But before the teacher WHO KNOWS HER can open it, the reading lady has to say the secret password.

Is it "Security Theater"?

Actually, I have one other favorite. There's a school in rural Oregon that has taught its teachers: If you ever hear a fire alarm but don't feel any heat, lock the kids in your room, because it COULD be a madman trying to lure kids into the hall.

Frankly, if I was a madman and I knew that school's M.O., I'd set fire to the building.

The problem is that when people are afraid, they can't think straight. And in an era when we are encouraged by the media and our lawmakers to be constantly fearful and tearful -- "Could your school be NEXT?" -- we are stuck in panic mode. We throw everything we've got at the problem, without even realizing...it's not a problem.

The job for those of us still thinking rationally, then, is simple. We must help parents, principals and politicians re-gain that old-fashioned, 1927 perspective that understood: Sometimes bad things happen, but that doesn't mean all kids are in constant danger. What's more, over-the-top security measures don't even make them safer, in part because madmen work around obstacles, but also in great part because the kids are already very safe.

Just not 100% safe.

And I now open the floor to anyone who has a good idea how to load this into the public's psyche.

]]> Frederick Hess We Need to Keep Things in Perspective

The cult of caution has gone too far.  It’s not just schools. Our litigious society is rife with examples of over-the-top efforts to defend against liability and lawsuits.  But schools are especially susceptible. First, they’re public institutions.  School board members, superintendents, and state officials know they can catch grief for a single unfortunate incident, so they have enormous incentive to do everything they can to prevent those while underestimating the costs in terms of time, money, and focus.  Second, we want to protect kids from bad things.

Consider President Obama’s response to Sandy Hook. After any tragedy, there’s a natural desire to order educators to ramp up the safety quotient - without much regard for distractions or tradeoffs.  Each mandate is reasonable enough, but the cumulative result is that each requires little slivers of training, time, money, and paperwork from teachers and school staff. Everyone then bemoans the fact that too many schools and teachers need to develop more of a laser focus on student achievement. 

The President proposed to train 14,000 school officials and law enforcement officers in how to handle active shooter situations. Here's the dilemma: a dollop of training is unlikely to make any difference in the rare event of a school shooter, while more time means focusing on a scenario with lightning-strike likelihood rather than things that are more likely to save or improve lots of lives every day.

Similarly, the president wanted to require that schools receiving federal funds for safety develop and practice emergency plans. While more than 80% of schools already have response plans for a shooting, the White House lamented that only 52 percent had drilled their students in the past year. Though these drills may be a nice idea, they can also create chaos, breed mischief, disrupt carefully planned lessons, and consume a half-hour or more of instructional time. For all that, the likelihood that any given school will ever employ its plan is infinitesimal, and the odds that anything short of routine practice will actually result in saved lives is modest at best.

The president proposed a tiny smattering of dollars, $15 million, to fund "mental health first aid" training for teachers and others who work with youths to detect signs of mental illness (the money was almost entirely symbolic--perhaps $150 for each of the nation's schools.)  Educators would likely get a few hours of desultory training, just enough to waste their time without making a difference. Or, if they actually got the requisite training and support (with the $150 per school!), the time spent would likely come at the expense of the time they have to prepare instruction, craft assessments, monitor student learning, and so forth.

Protecting kids from bad stuff is important. But it’s also important to recognize that these protections steal time and energy from teaching and learning.  And, for the vast majority of children, the biggest danger is not some dramatic incident but the silent, invisible threat of a mediocre education.

]]> Nancy McDermott Prioritize Informal Relationships

The most important point we need to understand about the fearful climate in our schools is that is does not originate with parents or the public. It is a by-product of the decline of informal relationships between people in the schools and people in communities they serve.

Informal relationships are those hundreds of sustained, casual interactions between teachers and students, parents and local schools for which there is no guidance, policy or code of conduct. They may seem trivial, but over time they create just enough mutual familiarity and confidence for people to set aside their emotional response to risk (any is too great) in favor of a more reasonable approach.  Without these relationships, cooperation and trust is impossible.

This erosion of informality is occurring in many areas of social life but has accelerated in schools partly because of the way education is now seen as a therapeutic tool for meeting social policy objectives and partly as a consequence of the new levels of bureaucracy that come with school reform. 

Over the past 30 years the scope of education has expanded beyond traditional subject matters into areas like sex education, character education and self-esteem. By attempting to teach what children really only learn over time and in context, schools have made students, teachers and their parents, hyper-aware and even paranoid about how they conduct interpersonal relationships. School administrators who intervene to prevent children making “best friends” are a sad example of how this over-think makes authentic relationships more difficult and actually pathologizes them. 

The process of reform has exacerbated the problem by making schools less accountable to their local communities and more beholden to state and federal authorities. Tax levies seldom raise enough to fund annual budgets. As a result, school districts are forced to cobble together the remainder of their funding from a combination of state aid, entitlement and competitive grants like Race To The Top. Each source of funding brings a new set of requirement for schools: requirements for measuring and reporting progress; codes of conduct that must be followed; targets and outcomes that must be achieved. Principals, teachers and administrators are left with little discretion and expected to follow procedure rather than use their judgment or initiative. In this context, parental concerns become largely irrelevant. 

This juridification of experience at every level of our schools is profoundly demoralizing. Simple disciplinary matters tend to escalate beyond all reason. That children are now regularly suspended from school for possessing guns the size of toothpicks is testament to institutionalized mistrust that has taken on a life of its own. 

Informal relationships have not gone away and they are still incredibly important. This is why the actions of a few motivated principals, teachers or groups of parents can make such a positive impact in individual cases. But they are under pressure and will need to be nurtured to survive. The challenge for policy makers is that they may of necessity have no positive role to play.

]]> Megan Rosker Freedom to Play

Our country was founded on the common credence of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". These words were to be our guiding principle as our country evolved.  Now, in its adolescent years, our country has fallen victim to over-regulation.  I am a mother, a teacher, a play advocate and a writer.  I get concerned when I see our children’s freedom continuously imposed upon by the regulations of heavy handed government and school officials. 

Children should be freely engaging in dodgeball and kickball.  They should be recklessly playing cowboys and hanging upside down from the monkey bars.  These activities guide children to explore the world, learn personal and social boundaries and teach important physical developmental skills.  However, such activities are deemed too dangerous. To help our children "survive" we have imposed thousands of regulations on teachers and students.

Just because our children are too young to fight for their right of expression, doesn’t mean they don’t have as much of a right to express themselves as adults.  The number one way children express themselves is through play.  Unlike adults who can hold discussions and work out ideas and problems through a variety of different thought processes and procedures, children really only have one means of expression, play. When we take this away from them, we impede the most natural way in which they interact with the world. Play is truly unique to children and must be understood as something sacred to a child, not an extracurricular act that can be discarded when deemed too dangerous.  Play engages every part of a child creative, psychological and emotional being.  It is imperative to healthy childhood development.

Play naturally encourages risk.  When we take it away we aren’t allowing for a healthy amount of risk.  On my own Freedom to Play Scale of one to ten, where one is the Play Gestapo and ten is complete anarchy, schools should be functioning at a seven.  This means there are rules to keep children safe, but there is still plenty of exploration too. 

Adults have laws to keep ourselves safe as well. We don’t allow theft, rape or murder.  These crimes encroach upon the freedom of the victim and therefore we don’t allow them.  These laws, however, do not impose on the expression of the victim, only the perpetrator and only on the negative action he has taken against another human being. 

School regulations must take the same approach.  Children should not be hurting one another, but they should be playing imaginatively. Sometimes imaginative play is rough, like playing with sticks as guns and swords.  Roughness does not mean danger, however, and we must carefully walk a line between allowing expression and allowing children to be hurt.

Tragic things happen in our world.  We cannot pen laws, however, that impose our adult fears on kids.  The tragedies that transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary or Columbine High School are not child problems.  They are problems transpired by the lack of care by adults for children.  It is never the responsibility of the child to fix our social problems and likewise our children should not be shouldering the fear that accompanies our social problems.  Adult problems that must be dealt with and understood away from the presence of our children. When we allow the fear of a few adults to influence our whole society, then we have just stolen the freedom of our society at large and thus we will all be enslaved by the emotional problems of a few select individuals. When this happens, we lose our most important rights, in this case, play.

]]> Walter Olson Schools Following Societal Trends

When they "err on the side of safety" in absurd ways, schools reflect trends in the wider society. Parents, lawmakers and influential opinion leaders have been sending off fearful and risk-averse signals for a long while now. Consider: 

  • Already, by ten years ago, British commentator Jenny Cunningham could write that "A significant body of research evidence now indicates that there has been a drastic decline in children's outdoor activity and unsupervised play. For example, it has been calculated that the free play range of children -- the radius around the home to which children can roam alone -- has, for nine-year-olds in the UK, shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970. Perhaps most damaging is that a climate has been created in which all supervised play is regarded as high risk, and parents or teachers who allow it are seen as irresponsible." Cunningham notes that families now tend to see the risks of being hit by traffic or (far less likely) abducted by strangers as ruling out outdoor play. "Yet, despite the increasing levels of worry, in reality children have never been safer." Sound familiar? (Play On)
  • Consider the wild legislative overreaction of the U.S. Congress -- ratified by then-President George W. Bush -- in passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008 in response to scattered reports of toys that failed to meet existing safety standards. In attempting to bar any levels whatsoever of lead or bendy-plastic "phthalates" from getting into anything designated as a kids' product, lawmakers wound up banning a ridiculously broad array of new and used goods, including classic children's books in libraries (can you be sure all the inks in the illustrations are lead-free?), bicycles and recreation vehicles (the valves might include brass with some lead alloy) and vintage kids'  jeans and winter coats in thrift stores (the zippers likewise). In a perfectly typical, if mind-boggling, application of the law, education-supply companies were told they could not furnish rocks for study in geology classes unless they tested them first to make sure they did not contain lead, the way a great many ordinary rocks laying around outside do. The good news for science teachers was that it was still okay to hang up posters with pictures of rocks on them. While Congress eventually did pass a followup bill aimed at fixing some of CPSIA's more amazing excesses, that came too late to save many small makers of children's' products that had been driven out of business in the mean time. (CPSIA on the rocks)
  • Or consider schools as places of employment. Lenore Skenazy passes along the story (noted at my Overlawyered site) of the teacher who discovered that innocuous household supplies -- baby wipes, dish-cleaning liquid -- when kept in a classroom had to be accompanied in each case by a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) spelling out the risks of each. (MSDS sheets have been giving way more recently to a replacement known as SDS.) Readers wrote in to say this was nothing specific to schools -- workplaces of any sort that wanted to be sure of compliance with the law have to manage large assemblages of MSDS sheets (covering, for example, each variety of wood in a carpentry shop) even when the risk of toxic overdose or explosion seems fanciful at best. Even bottles of distilled water can't stay on hand if lacking their MSDS. (Cleaning supplies in the classroom? Your papers, please)

If these are the trends in the outside society, how likely is it that schools will be able to resist?

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