In late June, Jan Hoffman of the New York Times explored the tough issue of cyberbullying and the schools. She led her provocative piece with an anecdote about parents asking their 6th grade daughter's principal to intervene in a particularly difficult situation involving abusive and sexually suggestive email from a boy. They didn't want to involve the police, and they knew the boy's parents socially. The principal's response was cut and dried: "This occurred out of school, on a weekend. We can't discipline him."
At first it looked like that was a legalistic, hair-splitting response--until we read about a principal who did get involved, was subsequently sued by the angry parent of the offending child, and lost. That's horrifying, but it's the reality.
The takeaway, however, is not that schools are right to split hairs and decline to get involved. Instead, we need some redefinition, some fresh thinking.
Consider for a moment how non-public schools function. Most have a code of conduct, one that students who have chosen to attend must accept. So if a student from Andover or Pencey Prep does something on a weekend that is an egregious violation of the behavior code and is caught, that student would suffer the consequences. No way the school head could drop that "not my responsibility" line and get away with it.
The key point here is that these schools embrace values. And having values is generally a 24/7 proposition. As the old chestnut goes, you cannot work in a whorehouse on weekends without consequences for M-F.
Parents-and perhaps the kid--chose their non public school with their eyes open. Often they are choosing a school because of its values. And, of course, some public schools--think KIPP and other charter schools--have a code of conduct that all are expected to adhere to.
Because values matter, why not build schools around the concept of choice and variety? That would mean embracing the true mission of education, going beyond 8AM-3PM, test scores, athletics and college admissions.
What if a district embraced differences and variety and choice, but at the same time insisted that each school develop its own code of conduct, of acceptable behaviors?
Publish the choices and the code of ethics/behavior, and let families make informed choices.
We would put 'safety,' particularly emotional and intellectual safety, at the top of the list of priorities.
Check out John Merrow's new book Below C Level in which he devotes a long chapter to the issue of school safety. The horror stories are there, of course, because it's important that readers understand just how pervasive bullying and cyberbullying are. We don't have the luxury of standing on the sidelines on this one, not parents and not school people either.
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