Saturday, March 1, 2008

How parents fit in at school

Yesterday at a Miami high school there was a melee involving students, teachers, the administration and police in what looked to be a scene of total chaos. As of this morning some of the students were reportedly still in juvenile detention. What struck me as I watched the breaking news reports yesterday was the reaction of some of the parents on the street outside the school.

Let me start by admitting that any parent discovering that their child's school has been surrounded by police and that students are being taken away by ambulance or in handcuffs has every right to be distraught, especially with a complete lack of accurate information being passed along to them. I get their dismay. I really do.

What I don't understand is the immediate and unequivocal declaration that everyone with the possible exception of their child is to blame. People were ranting about the conduct of the police, about the school administration, about other kids. Nothing feeds hysteria more effectively than a vacuum and the lack of information clearly created a situation that frustrated and angered the parents.

The irony, of course, was that having no information, they somehow knew without question how innocent their child was. In many, many cases, I'm sure that stance was entirely accurate. In others, quite likely it was flat-out wrong. Someone had turned what had reportedly started to be a peaceful demonstration into a virtual riot. And at that point, no one outside of that building had a clue about the details of what had happened.

Yesterday's situation, about which details are still in short supply, reminded me of conversations I've had with my cousin, who's been teaching for around thirty years now. She's one of the best. Clever, imaginative, beloved by her students and her co-workers. And yet she admits to a certain hopelessness when it comes to dealing with disciplinary issues in today's school environment. We've discussed this in the context of everyday problems between students and as it relates to bullying.

The problem is that too often out of some misguided sense of family loyalty, guilt over not being around enough for their kids or whatever else might cause it, parents leap to the defense of their kids despite whatever evidence the school or teacher might present to the contrary. This is not an isolated incident. It's so widespread that there have been prime-time TV episodes devoted to it and storylines on soap operas, which mirror real-life far more often than most soap detractors like to admit. It's little wonder that teachers hesitate to make accusations in an environment in which they're likely to become parental targets. The threat of a backlash can be overwhelming.

Of course, not all kids are bad kids. An accused child may not be in the wrong at all. But parents don't do them any favors by ignoring reality and leaping to their defense before facts are known. When children claim to be innocent, they should be heard and defended in the context of the situation presented. Teachers and school administrators and even police should be heard with an open mind, as well.

Over the years I've seen too many kids bailed out of jam after jam by indulgent, well-meaning parents. They grow up with little sense of right and wrong, little sense of responsibility and, too often, a very misguided sense of their own entitlement.

So, by all means, support your children, be there for them, love them, but don't turn a blind eye to their failings. Especially listen to those who spend hours of each and every day trying to help them learn, not only the facts of history and geography and math, but the lessons needed to become a better person, a responsible adult.

The ranting, the vigils, the protests all need to wait until facts are known and justice can truly be served.

If you've had experience with an incident at your child's school or an occasion when one of your children was unjustly accused, share it with us by clicking on comments below. Feel free to agree or disagree with anything I've written.

And if you have another topic you'd like to have discussed on here, something you and your friends have been talking about, let me know about that by emailing me at I'd love to hear from you.

Sherryl Woods

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

School's no playground anymore

Can you recall when schools were a safe haven for kids, a place to grow and learn and make friends? This week's tragedy in Cleveland and the near-calamity in Pennsylvania made me start thinking once again about how much things have changed in recent years.

When I was a kid -- longer ago than I sometimes care to recall -- we did have a safety issue in our schools. They were in the process of being desegregated, the first schools to do so in Virginia. In junior high and again in high school, it sometimes seemed as if I attended school with as many state troopers as I did other students. Yet even during those very volatile years, I can't recall a single moment of being deeply afraid.

How different it must be for today's young people in the wake of the Columbine shootings and a myriad of other fatal incidents in schools nationwide. What kind of atmosphere must there be when metal detectors are necessary in some schools, when potential danger lurks around every corner, when any child seemingly has the potential to suddenly turn into a killer?

I wish I could wave a magic wand and come up with solutions to make things go back to the days of innocence, but far more experienced educators and security experts than I have tried and failed. Just yesterday Dr. Phil and his panel seemed stumped to come up with any sure-fire way to say this student represents danger and these do not. Given that, what can a parent do to assure the safety of their children? What can teachers do to help create a safe environment in the classroom? How about principals and administrators?

The one thing that the Pennsylvania case made clear is that young people themselves can be the first and best line of defense. Lines of communication need to stay open, conversations must take place assuring young people that telling a parent or authority figure about threats is not snitching, that it's heroic. It can save not only their lives, but those of their friends. It may even save the very person they've been intent on protecting.

If this issue has touched any of you, if it's something that troubles you, or if it's something you've dealt with in your own home, in your school system, please share those experiences with the rest of us. Conversations must take place at home, in the schools, and even right here...just between friends.

Sherryl Woods

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