Thursday, January 03, 2008

Punishing the Victim?

I read a story while I was in Houston that I felt deserved commentary: Instapundit reports on a troubling story from a school in Tennessee:
According to the Williamson County School System, self defense is no defense when it comes to getting suspended for fighting.

At Fairview High School, at least, it is an automatic five day suspension.

On December 7, Fairview High School junior Rachel Davis was suspended five days for fighting.

Her father, Gene Davis, a police, said the five day suspension is unwarranted.
The story goes on to point out that Davis tried to walk away from the other student, who followed her and confronted her again. Davis again walked away, the other girl followed her again, and then Davis was struck with either a purse or a backpack. Davis said she never threw a punch, but the two ended up on the floor wrestling, and the altercation was broken up by a teacher. But even though the sheriff's report calls Davis the victim here, she was suspended along with the other student.

Oh, and there was this little gem at the end of the story:
As far as the girls, they have at least one class together. Davis said the principal has no intention of changing either of their schedules to help avoid further conflict.
Oh, that's just beautiful.

The Instapundit post also led me to several other discussions on the subject. Darren at Right on the Left Coast pretty much nails how I feel with this post:
It's the laziest kind of CYA policy that expects students to walk away after taking a hit. I've discussed this with my vice principals several times and they refuse to budge--take a swing, get suspended, even if you're defending yourself. Heck, adults can legally and legitimately exercise self-defense, but we expect children to show even more restraint than adults after taking a hit.

The principal at my own son's school expects--and I kid you not--that students will curl up on the ground into a fetal position and hope that someone else goes running for help. No way will I support that. Stupidity of the highest form.

Perhaps a lawsuit or two and administrators will wake up to this rabid injustice.
I'm not a fan of excessive lawsuits, but that seems to be the only language these people understand. How can the school not be liable for its failure to protect the students with a policy like this? (As you may know, I've had zero tolerance for "zero tolerance" policies for quite some time now.)

I also spent a bit of time at the site of edublogger Joanne Jacobs, who also posted on the subject. Right off the bat, we were exposed to a ridiculous set of comments who said that the CYA approach was the correct thing for the school to do, because ultimately, it was more responsible to the school board and not the students. Here's a sample:
I suspect that the whole point of the policy, like many such seemingly ridiculous policies, is to avoid having to make any judgment call. As soon as you have to judge anything, no matter how clear, you are exposing the school to multi-million dollar lawsuits by the “wronged” party. That’s why so many policies are arranged to avoid allowing those in charge to have any discretion.

[...]The trend towards removal of discretion on the part of employees is found just about everywhere, although it is led by organizations that have deep pockets and thus the most to lose in the event of adverse judgments.
After quite a few other commenters went back and forth (including a few that tried to explain the school's position using business as a model and referring to adminstrators as "middle management," I jumped in:
I’m late to the party, but I have a few observations:

1) As others have said, rules that punish the innocent are ridiculous and should be changed immediately. Likewise, anything that serves only to “cover” the adminstrators from lawsuits–and has the potential to leave students unprotected in the process–has no place in an educational system. The students must be served first.

2) Those who are in charge of implementing the rules should have absolute legal authority to enforce those rules. It’s insane that some commenters feel that discretion should be taken away from the administrators (as in who’s guilty or not in a fight). Why do we even have the administrators, if that’s the case? If they don’t get to make the decisions they were hired to make, we could just have everything spouted out by a giant computer, like Zuzu suggested.

3) I hope I never read again of school administrators being referred to as “middle management.” As educators, we shouldn’t be looking to the business world as role models, and most middle management is useless to boot.

4) The 3-5% of kids who aren’t in school to learn should be removed from the schools–again, without fear of lawsuits or charges of racism. Let’s put some of the responsibility back on the parents, where it belongs; the school is not here to raise your kids for you.

5) The best way to solve problems like this–besides giving administrators the legal backup to make and enforce the tough decisions that they were hired to make–is to keep administrators from ever leaving the teaching field. Give them extra responsibilities, but require them to have at least one foot in a classroom, so that they won’t lose touch with what’s going on in education now (instead of 30 years ago) and never develop that bureaucratic, ivory-tower mentality. That’s right–administrators must teach. It’s an idea whose time has come.
And the commenter whom I first quoted replied to me:
Kev, I think you’re under the impression that schools exist to serve students. Fortunately or unfortunately, you’re wrong. They exist to serve the people who are paying for them - ultimately the voters. As voters, we have dozens of different higher priority items than simply serving the educational needs of the students, such as, as per this discussion, preserving the tax-payer from multi-million dollar judgments. a word, no. If there were no students, there would be no need for a school, and the taxpayer's money could be spent elsewhere. (One later commenter said, "As for your response to Kev, the mind boggles.") The guy (whom I'm declining to name, because ideas like his need as little publicity as possible) would go on to repeat the same thing in a subsequent comment.

This is a long thread, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts across for those who choose not to slog through the 72 responses at Jacobs' post (her site looks good, incidentally, and I'll be back). Does anyone here really think that the schools' primary purpose is to serve anything besides the students?

And as I said earlier, it's unfortunate that the almost certain outcome of incidents like the Davis altercation will be lawsuits, but that seems to be the only thing that will work until administrators are empowered to make actual decisions. As one Instapundit reader wrote,
My son had a similar problem here in Seattle. I called the principal and told him to inform the aggressor that assault and battery is a criminal offense and I would press charges if it happened again. Then I was going to sue the school, the district and the principal for not providing a safe place for my son to go to school. Aggression that had been going on literally for years stopped, but only when the consequences got big enough to get their attention.
Exactly. And I like Glenn Reynolds' response to that: "Yep. Violence is only a problem when it's a problem for the people in charge. In general, it's probably better to be a litigious jerk in these circumstances. They've made clear that that's the behavior they want to reward..."

As always, this probably won't be my last post on this subject.

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