In this post-Columbine, post 9-11 era, America has simply lost it.
Just this past week, a 10-year old girl who brought a pair of scissors from home to school in her school bag to continue work on a magazine clipping class project, was summarily turned over to police in Philadelphia by a bureaucratically blinded principal, who allowed her to be shipped off to jail, handcuffed, in a police wagon. The principal didn’t even bother to notify the frightened child’s mother, who learned of her daughter’s ordeal when police detectives called her and said they had her daughter in a holding cell. The school district is justifying its over-the-top handling of this incident by citing the several hundred cases of weapons and sharp objects being brought into Philadelphia schools this year, as well as some serious incidents of attacks on students by other students.
Earlier, a young boy’s parents in Ohio were interrogated by detectives from the local sheriff’s office because their junior high school son, in a classroom discussion on the war in Iraq, had opined that he hoped American soldiers would all be killed in that military adventure. The boy had not engaged in violence, nor threatened it; he had merely expressed a perhaps unpopular and unpatriotic political wish.
The list of these over-zealous persecutions of children resembles nothing so much as the mentality of the Puritans during the Salem witch trials.
I experienced a little of this madness myself when my son’s second-grade teacher called his mother and me in for a meeting. We had no idea what the problem was but the woman sounded dead serious. When we arrived, she sat us down in the classroom and handed us a sheet of drawing paper, saying in a voice that sounded like someone had just died, “I found your son drawing this in class.”
We looked at the page, on which were neatly arrayed a set of artfully drawn swords of all types-daggers, scimitars, cutlasses, epees, broadswords, dirks and the like.
We both broke out in laughter, to the teacher’s dismay. Our son, we explained, was fascinated with medieval weaponry, and this was a graphic cataloging of his knowledge. What did she think? That our second-grade, 48-lb son was going to come to school with a Roman broadsword and decapitate a few classmates someday?
The teacher looked skeptical, but the matter was quietly dropped.
What made this visit so annoying was that our son has never shown the least sign of violent or aggressive behavior, and in fact is known for his openness and willingness to be friends with everyone he meets.
What is going on here?
Universities report that they are losing foreign students, who used to flock to this country to study, because the immigration service now makes it so difficult for anyone from overseas to get a student visa. Many potential students have just given up the idea of going to the U.S. because it’s not worth the hassle or the unpredictability of the visa process. Even in Taiwan, where I taught last spring, which has yet to send a terrorist to American shores and which probably ranks among the most pro-American societies in the world, frustrated students say they are given the third degree when they apply for a visa to study in the U.S. Every foreign student these days is viewed as a potential terrorist!
The Home of the Brave has become the Bunker of the Skittish.
It’s not that the nation has become less safe, either. Schools always had bullies, kids with knives, and in fact, by most measures, the crime rate has been falling (though you wouldn’t know this if you get your news watching local television).
And don’t get me wrong. I don’t want kids coming to school with guns either. But probably the best way to guard against that would be to make it harder for them to get guns-something our perverse society and political leadership seem averse to doing.
What seems to have gone wrong is this notion that bureaucratic rules and draconian punishments will cure the problem. Principals and teachers, like those involved in the above incidents are checking their common sense at home and turning into slavish automatons on the job. Administrators are handing down so-called “zero tolerance” guidelines on behavior and even speech that belong in China, the former Soviet Union or Iran, not in an American school.
The answer to student alienation is not more draconian school rules, any more than the answer to anti-American terrorism is banning foreign exchange students. What we need are more humane and engaged schools. If the welfare and development of all students is the goal, students who misbehave or exhibit anti-social behavior will be treated with kindness and sensitivity, and offered appropriate treatment or therapy, not shipped off in cuffs in a police van.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org