By Carol Lloyd
School violence. The very phrase is enough to raise the hairs on the back of parental necks everywhere. It's one of those things that nobody argues in favor of, right? But lately I've been encountering stories that touch on violence in schools and things are getting less clear, not more.
Last week, I heard Philadelphia Inquirer reporters, who just received a Pulitzer prize for their seven-part series on Philly's epidemic of school-related violence. The multimedia series, which included a database of violent incidents and drew from a district-wide survey, included stories of a girl being jumped by two dozen kids who entered her classroom and carried out the beating in front a teacher - a kindergarten teacher who had experienced multiple assaults at the hands of her young charges, and an elementary school girl whose sexual assault by a schoolmate was never reported to the police.
Underestimating children's violence
Much of the investigation targeted not only the outrageous number of violent incidents in Philadelphia's schools, but the widespread practice of adults not reporting what would have been crimes in any other context. Sometimes they would simply "forget" to report the incident, other times the report would downgrade the event from, say, an assault to harassment so that it didn't add to the record of that school's violence rate or trigger more oversight from the district.
Not surprisingly, the outrage at adults neglecting to act kid-on-kid violence was striking. The report spurred public hearings and a city-wide conversation about who was to blame. Now that nearly insolvent district is self-dismantling, having announced plans to close scores of schools and transition them to charters or simply leave them shuttered.
Vilifying children's mistakes
I've seen the same outrage aimed at a school administrator in my hamlet of San Francisco for quite the opposite behavior. A fifth grader known for bullying behavior assaulted another child on a bus. Following the letter of the law, the principal called the police to make a report. Many parents were in an uproar and decided that the principal could not be trusted. As one parent told me, "You don't call the police in for a fifth grader who hits someone." The principal did not retain her position.
Echos of this attitude came in the form of comments from a parent liaison representing the Philadelphia schools, who were on the same panel with the reporters. Speaking following a student leader, who had described seeing his fellow classmates beaten and bloodied, the woman opened her talk by saying something to the effect that this is a "painful issue" not only for the victims but for the perpetrators. After listening to the grisly cases from the Inquirer reporters, it seemed a breathless case of empathy spin.
The two responses are in constant play in most schools and, depending on your worldview as a parent, you probably come down more on one side than another: the civilizing influence of punishment, restraint, and protection of the victim versus the civilizing influence of teaching, empathizing, and protecting the young person who has made a mistake. When it comes to my child being a victim, I'd opt for the first. If my child was the one who had screwed-up, I think I'd appreciate the second.
Enforcer vs. understander
At the heart of these stories is the moment when adults make a decision about how seriously to treat kids' bad behavior. Do you make a big deal about it? Do you regard the actions as the behavior of a child - and therefore deserving of special understanding? For me that moment of deciding seems like the hardest part about parenting - my husband and I typically straddle the philosophies with him being the enforcer and me the understander, though therein lies the rub: when it comes to school culture I'm not terribly tolerant of teachers who behave like me.
Where do you fall? Do you ever contradict yourself the way I do? Do your views change as your kids grow older?