At 3:28: “So you say something brilliant like, ‘LOOK, I DON’T WANT ANYBODY IN THIS HOUSE TO TOUCH ANOTHER PERSON AS LONG AS YOU LIVE!'”
As Rorschach might say, “Good joke. Everybody laugh.”
Except that East Shore Middle School in Milford, Connecticut has taken it seriously:
A Connecticut middle school principal has laid down the law: You put your hands on someone — anyone — in any way, you’re going to pay.
A violent incident that put one student in the hospital has officials at the Milford school implementing a “no touching” policy, according to a letter written by the school’s principal.
East Shore Middle School parents said the change came after a student was sent to the hospital after being struck in the groin.
Principal Catherine Williams sent out a letter earlier in the week telling parents recent behavior has seriously impacted the safety and learning at the school.
“Observed behaviors of concern recently exhibited include kicking others in the groin area, grabbing and touching of others in personal areas, hugging and horseplay. Physical contact is prohibited to keep all students safe in the learning environment,” Williams wrote.
Oh boy. Where to begin?
Look, I don’t envy public educators. They get it from all sides. They are in the position of being able to please just about nobody no matter what they do, so the best they can do is just try to cover their butts from a standpoint of legal liability and make the most of whatever it is they have. They are officially there to educate children, but for all practical purposes, they also have to function as a pharmacy, a daycare, a counseling service, and virtually every other child-related service imaginable.
Legally, public schools cannot be flexible enough to allow kids to be kids, because they are ultimately the responsible party if something goes wrong. Any ambiguity or grey area only increases their exposure to liability, thus the black-and-white, crystal-clear world of zero-tolerance policies. The bottom line is that every rule exists because of an after-the-fact need for one — zero tolerance policies are an attempt to pre-empt that after-the-fact need. The more conscience people have, the fewer cops are needed; the more cops, the less conscience.
Is it ridiculous? Of course it is. Do zero-tolerance policies relieve administrators of having to think about how they apply the rules? Of course they do. Is the goal of education taking a backseat to the necessity of keeping order? You bet. Are absurd situations being created, like zero-tolerance policies on weapons being understood to apply to things like school plays? Yessir. Are we eventually going to be encasing our kids in sanitized, hermetically-sealed plastic bubbles at school and keeping from from directly interacting with anybody? Probably. Are we overly-sanitizing more for the sake of the convenience of administrators than the benefit of students? Pretty much.
But, in all honesty, twenty years ago when I was in junior high, it wasn’t exactly like they were breeding grounds of justice and fairness then, either. They can’t be. Their job is to educate. In order to educate they have to have and keep order. In the absence of being able to do that, they can’t afford to be liable for what goes wrong. They can’t directly mete out consequences to individuals that will mean anything — and by and large, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that as a society we fear what that would look like — so as things get worse, all they can do is have a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” policy that applies to everybody.
We’re sending kids to school with a lot of baggage these days, and we expect the schools to check that baggage for them while they are under the school’s roof. When I was in elementary school and junior high, it was “latchkey kids” and “kids from broken homes” that had people worried. Even as late as 1985/1986, when I was in fourth or fifth grade, divorce was a scandal among us kids, enough so that we didn’t quite know what to do with kids whose parents were divorced. Mostly it was poorer families who needed to have both parents work and thus making kids go home to an empty house. Now those are pretty much the baseline of what is normative. If that’s all a kid brings to school with him/her, everybody’s gotten off easy.
Is homeschooling, the ultimate “opt-out”, the answer? I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t claim to know what the perfect solution might be. Our society is what it is. Our kids are what we’ve made them. I have very little sympathy for administrators who arm themselves with zero-tolerance policies like they’re bulletproof vests and then claim that they have no choice but to blast with a firehose rather than paint with a brush, but I also understand that most of them are human, and wouldn’t choose for things to be this way.
Every day we are robbing ourselves, and our children, of more and more of our own humanity, and the inevitable consequences take away even more of it. Eventually we’re just going to give the rest of it away because it’s too much bother, and it’s going to look a lot like a zero-tolerance no touching policy.