Risk and Legal Fear in Schools
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A New Hampshire school district bans dodgeball. A Georgia school sends a kindergartener off in handcuffs. A Florida high school is shut down when a student brings in a mercury thermometer. Across the country, schools and school districts are overreacting to risk—often to the detriment of children’s education.

We entrust our children to teachers and principals with the expectation that they will be both educated and protected from harm. When, inevitably, incidents happen—especially when those incidents are tragic and well-publicized—communities often press for stricter rules and procedures. School administrations have reacted to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School with extreme protectiveness; one school suspended a six-year-old for “pointing his finger like a gun and saying ‘pow,’” while another suspended two boys for playing cops and robbers.

In addition to protecting children from harm, schools also look to protect themselves from lawsuits, which a study by Public Agenda labeled a “perpetual fear” that influence teacher and principal decision-making. To shield themselves from legal exposure, schools have attempted to eliminate every conceivable risk—no tire swings, no dodgeball, no monkey bars. Field trips require complex liability waivers. Teachers can’t be left alone with students. Every activity requires paperwork—documentation, permissions, waivers.

Administrators’ authority has been diminished by an increased reliance on police to handle disciplinary matters as well as by restrictive policies, often imposed by state legislatures, that create an illusion of safety but prevent schools from making sensible disciplinary decisions.

Schools’ reaction to parents’ and the public’s decreasing tolerance for risk (and the possibility of litigation) has cultural, legislative, and regulatory dimensions. Red tape and legal fear have soured the student-teacher relationship and, with the increasing number of safety protocols and removal of outside-the-classroom activities, have made our schools less welcoming and engaging. The loss of teacher and principal authority in disciplinary matters has made it more difficult to maintain supportive and orderly learning environments, and unnecessary suspensions and expulsions cost students irreplaceable learning time and may create snowballing disciplinary problems.

Our schools should be safe, but are the steps we take in response to threats at the extremes—everyday playground accidents on one end, school shootings at the other—doing more harm than good? Is it possible to address risk and legal fear in a more balanced, less red-tape-intense way? In this forum, we’re inviting experts to consider these questions. Specific discussion topics may include:

  •  What level of risk is reasonable in a school environment?
  •  Are lawsuits really prevalent enough to justify defensive measures taken by schools and teachers? Or is their perception of legal risk exaggerated?
  • Do zero-tolerance policies lead to counterproductive disciplinary action?
  • Should judges take a more active role in setting the boundaries of reasonable risk in schools?
  • When should waivers be required?
  • Do we need to encourage a cultural change against risk obsession?  If so, what role should principals, teachers, and parents play in this process?
In Conclusion

Posted June 20, 2013, 12:00pm

Common Good: 

Many thanks to all our participants, including those of you who have left insightful comments below. This marks the end of our conversation here, but certainly not the end of conversation and reform concerning risk and legal fear in schools. Stay up to date on this issue and others at www.commongood.org, and be sure to come back here for future discussions!

Nancy McDermott Former Chair Park Slope Parents
Nurturing Informal Relationships

Posted June 17, 2013, 3:15pm

Nancy McDermott: 

I have argued that informal relationships are the key to restoring trust and balanced risk assessments in our schools, but this could be said of almost every area of life today. Institutions like churches and social clubs that once served as lynchpins connecting individual families with their wider community are in serious decline or struggling to stay relevant in light of demographic changes or worse, in the shadow of scandal.

The loss of these important ways of knowing one another and the potential that implies has created a pent up demand for trust that is very difficult to satisfy. It’s here that the lesson of Park Slope Parents (PSP) is relevant for this discussion.

What started as a simple email network of local parents a decade ago has metamorphosed into a new sort of community institution of 5000 families. It has been instrumental in lobbying the local hospital to create a pediatric ER; creating an annual survey of Nanny Employment and the creation set of best practices for hiring a nanny. Recently PSP facilitated upwards of $17k in cash and countless donations of clothing and food to local victims of hurricane Sandy. All of this and more accomplished informally, as an LLC, not a non-profit charity or 501c3 membership organization. 

I believe that PSP’s success is due in part to good leadership, but also because we chose not to go what has become the traditional road for civic organizations – becoming a non-profit. This decision, made purely to avoid the many time consuming requirements of non-profit status, turned out to be a good one. Our surveys show a very high level of trust in PSP that is arguably higher than in area non-profits. It has achieved this because without a special sanction or status it has to earn its members' trust every day.

PSP is not unique. Like other email groups, it began as a response to the loss of other social networks, but unlike most groups, which never grow beyond a certain size or last for more than a few years, PSP has stood the test of time. I believe its informality has been key to its success. As the most recent CNN report of America’s Worst Charities shows, non-profit status is no guarantee of integrity. It sometimes seems that the very measures we have put into place to make organizations and groups formally accountable ultimately work to undermine their trustworthiness.

When trust is at low ebb, informal talking shops or loose coalitions of concerned parents and teachers tend to become the places where people air their concerns, hopes, and disappointments. The problem is that when these informal grouping try to take things to the next level by seeking official status, it acts as a sort of kiss of death for their effectiveness.  

It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to help these new networks and institutions to emerge is to encourage them not to see their informality as a barrier to effectiveness but as its best guarantee. 

Nancy McDermott Former Chair Park Slope Parents
A National Campaign

Posted June 11, 2013, 10:28am

Nancy McDermott: 

Any institution that touches the lives of children today is apt to be hyper-regulated and risk adverse. But of all these institutions the school is probably the one with the greatest potential for positive change. Why? Because it is the one where the consequences of our current climate of mistrust are clearest.

While we may be blind to the implications of what we do in the course of raising own kids, in schools, the effects of bad policy and excessive caution are clear to see. This is not just because of news stories about children suspended for ridiculous reasons but because these policies are in so much flux that many people experience their dampening effect on their child’s educational experience in a direct way.

Thanks to the efforts of people like Lenore Skenazy there is a significant minority of parents and others who recognize that something needs to be done about the problem of fear mongering in our schools. What they lack are the tools to go beyond mere recognition and isolated gestures.

I believe the timing may be right for a provocative national campaign both to serve as a focus for people who would like to do something and to highlight the problem for others. What’ s more, these issues are already coming up in the course of what is a lively debate about the future of education.

A successful campaign would have a media component but its most important function would be as a resource and point of connection for people across the country. Parents, teachers and principals need facts at their fingertips, forums where they can raise questions and compare notes. And perhaps most of all they need the support of a campaign or perhaps an ACLU-like organization able to offer legal help and advice to people prepared to stick their necks out by defying bad policies.

It seems likely that people are already finding ways to resist things like zero-tolerance policies on a small scale. For every teacher and school district suspending a child for bringing a Lego gun to class, there are more teachers who simply confiscate the toy and districts that keep the issue in proportion. For every parent suing a school because their child hurt an arm on the playground, there are more parents choosing not to. For every principal forced to implement a security plan that discourages parents from spending time in their child’s school, there are more finding new and creative ways to make parents welcome. This passive resistance is good but to really turn things around it needs to become active and deliberate. 

Lenore Skenazy Writer Free Range Kids
Making Parents WANT More Open Schools

Posted June 9, 2013, 11:07am

Lenore Skenazy: 

At the risk of yet again emphasizing how crazy our schools have become, vis a vis security, let me give a few more examples of how carzy our schools have become, vis a vis security. Here's a note I got today:

My son is in Kindergarten and the kids stand behind the gate at the end of the day like prisoners waiting to be release while the teacher walks each one to their parents. The process takes so long that the cars back up into the street prompting impatient people to drive on the wrong side of the road, it's a nightmare.

So much for making things safer. And here's another:

At my daughter's middle school (7th and 8th graders), I have to sign in and get a badge to walk ***10 feet*** to the glassed-in administrative office to sign my child in and out of school. Apparently parents can't walk 10 feet in a public space without having had a background check and signing in. I have to show my driver's license to two sets of people as well.

My son, a high school student, asked me to bring him a notebook one day. I had to sign in at the front desk and get a badge, walk to the counselor's office for his grade, sign in AGAIN, sign another form to leave the notebook, then sign back out again at the counselor's office and again at the front desk. It took me over 15 minutes to drop off a forgotten notebook. I told my son NEVER AGAIN could I bring him anything. It was ridiculous. Talk about 'security theater!'

And now? One possible antidote: Reminding parents that childhood is not JUST about safety. The way to do that is to ask them (force them?) to think back on their own childhoods and what made them happiest. Chances are, it wasn't standing behind a fence, or being stuck in a school run like a jail.

To warm up the parents and principals alike, I'd suggest screening this 3 minute video. It's so wonderful, they may get teary-eyed.

That's what we want -- the better to thaw their shell of fear enough for them to start thinking: How can I give my kids an ADVENTURE? As opposed to: How can I lock my kids up even more?

Megan Rosker Teacher, Play advocate Let Children Play
We Are Responsible

Posted June 8, 2013, 2:00pm

Megan Rosker: 

Ultimately we are looking for safety and we want to have laws and regulations that will threaten people into behaving in safe ways. This fear, however, is shrinking our culture and shrinking what is feasible for our children, our families, our schools and communities. Culturally we have a bad "Can't Do" attitude instead of the far more optimistic outlook we had forty years ago. As human beings we have instinctive ways in which we can respond to a situation. We have instincts just as animals do. What if we simply prepared our children to use these instincts? Adults and children must begin to act from a place of instinct rather than react from a place of fear. Parents spend more time protecting and instilling fear, rather than guiding children in using their own instincts and resources. Adults would like to create a completely safe and secure world and it CANNOT be done. We are far safer and wiser individuals if we learn to use our inner instincts and resources.

If children are getting hurt on the playground, for example, instead of suing the school district, why not teach children how to play differently so they may not be hurt? Why not teach children how to walk to school and ride their bikes to the store? How about teaching social skills so we can get to know our neighbors again?

Ultimately we have to be responsible for our own lives and it is the not duty of lawyers or the government to ensure our safety. When we rely on officials to do the job of the parents, we will create and are creating helpless individuals. Many parents may feel they cannot do the job of putting their children back in touch with their instincts. When this is the case, then communities should step in to support children finding their independence. There could be workshops and school support in helping families to find more freedom from fear.

Walter Olson Senior Fellow Cato Institute
Reduce Liability Exposure

Posted June 7, 2013, 3:35pm

Walter Olson: 

As I mentioned earlier, the legal climate for schools is substantially a function of the legal climate for everyone else: if the prevailing jury award for a 10-year-old's broken arm is $50,000, schools will come under different and more intense pressures than if it is $5,000. If the old legal principle of assumption of risk gets chipped away, allowing more suits by baseball spectators over foul balls and the like, it will be bad news for both private recreation providers and school athletic programs. 

Several legal doctrines do especially implicate schools by applying to  injuries involving children, public services, or both. All of them, broadly, have been tending to evolve in a pro-plaintiff (and thus pro-legal-risk) direction over decades, but that process is not inevitable, as we have seen in England.

Unlike adults, young children are not always presumed competent to execute waivers of liability or understand disclaimers. Should older children be seen as competent to do so? What about adults? In 2001, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that even parents are not legally competent to sign binding release forms on behalf of their children against future negligence claims -- and of course the children are not to be presumed competent either. If no one at all can sign a binding disclaimer, children will simply be excluded from adventures and opportunities they and their parents would have valued. 

Or consider the issue of statutes of limitations. The law frequently adopts an extremely lenient view of statutes of limitations when it comes to children's injury claims, often providing that the deadline clock for suing does not begin to run until a child reaches the age of majority. Under some circumstances (deliberate concealment of injury, for example, or genuine inability to detect it) such an extension might make sense, but in other circumstances it is simply an undeserved stimulus to litigation, keeping alive claims too weak or dubious to have been filed in a timely fashion.

Finally, there is the issue of sovereign immunity -- under what circumstances can we sue public services and their providers when something goes wrong? This is a big, complicated subject -- hardly anyone holds to a consistent position either for or against all assertions of the sovereign immunity defense. It is worth noting that there has been a bit of a natural experiment within the U.S. on different approaches toward sovereign immunity, because the Supreme Court of the state of Washington has decided to dispense with the sovereign immunity defense over an unusually wide range of claims against the state. While opinions vary as to the results, my own conclusion is that the results of the experiment have been unappealing not only for taxpayers in the Evergreen State (who as one would expect are paying more for the judgments and settlements) but also for users of public services provided by the state.

Private liability defendants organized long ago in defense of their interests, and their voice is heard in state legislatures and elsewhere on behalf of efforts to reduce excessive or impractical forms of liability. But public providers have had little if any effective overall voice for their interests in avoiding unreasonable liability exposure. It's time for that to change.

Turning toward Solutions

Posted June 6, 2013, 3:00pm

Common Good: 

Thanks to all of our participants for kicking off the discussion, and to the readers who have already contributed some insightful comments below.

There seems to be broad agreement that something is dramatically wrong with the way schools assess risk and respond to it. From school boards all the way up to, as Frederick Hess notes, the office of the President, the perception of risk—or at least of liability, legal and/or political—is greatly exaggerated. Walter Olson notes that the problem in schools is symptomatic of a broader societal deficiency in handling (or knowing when not to handle) risk.

Let's move the discussion now in the direction of solutions. There’s plenty of responsibility to go around—from paranoid parents to government authorities to, as some readers have suggested, the media and corporate interests. What are some concrete ways to combat these various forces? Nancy McDermott argues that the root of the problem is a breakdown of informal relationships; what can we do to encourage people to rebuild those relationships? How can we assuage school boards' liability concerns? What would it take to persuade politicians and regulators to be more lucid about the costs and benefits of safety measures? What concrete steps can concerned citizens, activists, and policy makers take to have an impact?

Walter Olson Senior Fellow Cato Institute
Schools Following Societal Trends

Posted June 5, 2013, 4:30pm

Walter Olson: 

When they "err on the side of safety" in absurd ways, schools reflect trends in the wider society. Parents, lawmakers and influential opinion leaders have been sending off fearful and risk-averse signals for a long while now. Consider: 

  • Already, by ten years ago, British commentator Jenny Cunningham could write that "A significant body of research evidence now indicates that there has been a drastic decline in children's outdoor activity and unsupervised play. For example, it has been calculated that the free play range of children -- the radius around the home to which children can roam alone -- has, for nine-year-olds in the UK, shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970. Perhaps most damaging is that a climate has been created in which all unsupervised play is regarded as high risk, and parents or teachers who allow it are seen as irresponsible." Cunningham notes that families now tend to see the risks of being hit by traffic or (far less likely) abducted by strangers as ruling out outdoor play. "Yet, despite the increasing levels of worry, in reality children have never been safer." Sound familiar? (Play On)
  • Consider the wild legislative overreaction of the U.S. Congress -- ratified by then-President George W. Bush -- in passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008 in response to scattered reports of toys that failed to meet existing safety standards. In attempting to bar any levels whatsoever of lead or bendy-plastic "phthalates" from getting into anything designated as a kids' product, lawmakers wound up banning a ridiculously broad array of new and used goods, including classic children's books in libraries (can you be sure all the inks in the illustrations are lead-free?), bicycles and recreation vehicles (the valves might include brass with some lead alloy) and vintage kids'  jeans and winter coats in thrift stores (the zippers likewise). In a perfectly typical, if mind-boggling, application of the law, education-supply companies were told they could not furnish rocks for study in geology classes unless they tested them first to make sure they did not contain lead, the way a great many ordinary rocks laying around outside do. The good news for science teachers was that it was still okay to hang up posters with pictures of rocks on them. While Congress eventually did pass a followup bill aimed at fixing some of CPSIA's more amazing excesses, that came too late to save many small makers of children's' products that had been driven out of business in the mean time. (CPSIA on the rocks)
  • Or consider schools as places of employment. Lenore Skenazy passes along the story (noted at my Overlawyered site) of the teacher who discovered that innocuous household supplies -- baby wipes, dish-cleaning liquid -- when kept in a classroom had to be accompanied in each case by a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) spelling out the risks of each. (MSDS sheets have been giving way more recently to a replacement known as SDS.) Readers wrote in to say this was nothing specific to schools -- workplaces of any sort that wanted to be sure of compliance with the law have to manage large assemblages of MSDS sheets (covering, for example, each variety of wood in a carpentry shop) even when the risk of toxic overdose or explosion seems fanciful at best. Even bottles of distilled water can't stay on hand if lacking their MSDS. (Cleaning supplies in the classroom? Your papers, please)

If these are the trends in the outside society, how likely is it that schools will be able to resist?

Megan Rosker Teacher, Play advocate Let Children Play
Freedom to Play

Posted June 5, 2013, 4:21pm

Megan Rosker: 

Our country was founded on the common credence of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". These words were to be our guiding principle as our country evolved.  Now, in its adolescent years, our country has fallen victim to over-regulation.  I am a mother, a teacher, a play advocate and a writer.  I get concerned when I see our children’s freedom continuously imposed upon by the regulations of heavy handed government and school officials. 

Children should be freely engaging in dodgeball and kickball.  They should be recklessly playing cowboys and hanging upside down from the monkey bars.  These activities guide children to explore the world, learn personal and social boundaries and teach important physical developmental skills.  However, such activities are deemed too dangerous. To help our children "survive" we have imposed thousands of regulations on teachers and students.

Just because our children are too young to fight for their right of expression, doesn’t mean they don’t have as much of a right to express themselves as adults.  The number one way children express themselves is through play.  Unlike adults who can hold discussions and work out ideas and problems through a variety of different thought processes and procedures, children really only have one means of expression, play. When we take this away from them, we impede the most natural way in which they interact with the world. Play is truly unique to children and must be understood as something sacred to a child, not an extracurricular act that can be discarded when deemed too dangerous.  Play engages every part of a child creative, psychological and emotional being.  It is imperative to healthy childhood development.

Play naturally encourages risk.  When we take it away we aren’t allowing for a healthy amount of risk.  On my own Freedom to Play Scale of one to ten, where one is the Play Gestapo and ten is complete anarchy, schools should be functioning at a seven.  This means there are rules to keep children safe, but there is still plenty of exploration too. 

Adults have laws to keep ourselves safe as well. We don’t allow theft, rape or murder.  These crimes encroach upon the freedom of the victim and therefore we don’t allow them.  These laws, however, do not impose on the expression of the victim, only the perpetrator and only on the negative action he has taken against another human being. 

School regulations must take the same approach.  Children should not be hurting one another, but they should be playing imaginatively. Sometimes imaginative play is rough, like playing with sticks as guns and swords.  Roughness does not mean danger, however, and we must carefully walk a line between allowing expression and allowing children to be hurt.

Tragic things happen in our world.  We cannot pen laws, however, that impose our adult fears on kids.  The tragedies that transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary or Columbine High School are not child problems.  They are problems transpired by the lack of care by adults for children.  It is never the responsibility of the child to fix our social problems and likewise our children should not be shouldering the fear that accompanies our social problems.  Adult problems that must be dealt with and understood away from the presence of our children. When we allow the fear of a few adults to influence our whole society, then we have just stolen the freedom of our society at large and thus we will all be enslaved by the emotional problems of a few select individuals. When this happens, we lose our most important rights, in this case, play.

Nancy McDermott Former Chair Park Slope Parents
Prioritize Informal Relationships

Posted June 5, 2013, 4:15pm

Nancy McDermott: 

The most important point we need to understand about the fearful climate in our schools is that is does not originate with parents or the public. It is a by-product of the decline of informal relationships between people in the schools and people in communities they serve.

Informal relationships are those hundreds of sustained, casual interactions between teachers and students, parents and local schools for which there is no guidance, policy or code of conduct. They may seem trivial, but over time they create just enough mutual familiarity and confidence for people to set aside their emotional response to risk (any is too great) in favor of a more reasonable approach.  Without these relationships, cooperation and trust is impossible.

This erosion of informality is occurring in many areas of social life but has accelerated in schools partly because of the way education is now seen as a therapeutic tool for meeting social policy objectives and partly as a consequence of the new levels of bureaucracy that come with school reform. 

Over the past 30 years the scope of education has expanded beyond traditional subject matters into areas like sex education, character education and self-esteem. By attempting to teach what children really only learn over time and in context, schools have made students, teachers and their parents, hyper-aware and even paranoid about how they conduct interpersonal relationships. School administrators who intervene to prevent children making “best friends” are a sad example of how this over-think makes authentic relationships more difficult and actually pathologizes them. 

The process of reform has exacerbated the problem by making schools less accountable to their local communities and more beholden to state and federal authorities. Tax levies seldom raise enough to fund annual budgets. As a result, school districts are forced to cobble together the remainder of their funding from a combination of state aid, entitlement and competitive grants like Race To The Top. Each source of funding brings a new set of requirement for schools: requirements for measuring and reporting progress; codes of conduct that must be followed; targets and outcomes that must be achieved. Principals, teachers and administrators are left with little discretion and expected to follow procedure rather than use their judgment or initiative. In this context, parental concerns become largely irrelevant. 

This juridification of experience at every level of our schools is profoundly demoralizing. Simple disciplinary matters tend to escalate beyond all reason. That children are now regularly suspended from school for possessing guns the size of toothpicks is testament to institutionalized mistrust that has taken on a life of its own. 

Informal relationships have not gone away and they are still incredibly important. This is why the actions of a few motivated principals, teachers or groups of parents can make such a positive impact in individual cases. But they are under pressure and will need to be nurtured to survive. The challenge for policy makers is that they may of necessity have no positive role to play.

Frederick Hess Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies American Enterprise Institute
We Need to Keep Things in Perspective

Posted June 5, 2013, 4:08pm

Frederick Hess: 

The cult of caution has gone too far.  It’s not just schools. Our litigious society is rife with examples of over-the-top efforts to defend against liability and lawsuits.  But schools are especially susceptible. First, they’re public institutions.  School board members, superintendents, and state officials know they can catch grief for a single unfortunate incident, so they have enormous incentive to do everything they can to prevent those while underestimating the costs in terms of time, money, and focus.  Second, we want to protect kids from bad things.

Consider President Obama’s response to Sandy Hook. After any tragedy, there’s a natural desire to order educators to ramp up the safety quotient - without much regard for distractions or tradeoffs.  Each mandate is reasonable enough, but the cumulative result is that each requires little slivers of training, time, money, and paperwork from teachers and school staff. Everyone then bemoans the fact that too many schools and teachers need to develop more of a laser focus on student achievement. 

The President proposed to train 14,000 school officials and law enforcement officers in how to handle active shooter situations. Here's the dilemma: a dollop of training is unlikely to make any difference in the rare event of a school shooter, while more time means focusing on a scenario with lightning-strike likelihood rather than things that are more likely to save or improve lots of lives every day.

Similarly, the president wanted to require that schools receiving federal funds for safety develop and practice emergency plans. While more than 80% of schools already have response plans for a shooting, the White House lamented that only 52 percent had drilled their students in the past year. Though these drills may be a nice idea, they can also create chaos, breed mischief, disrupt carefully planned lessons, and consume a half-hour or more of instructional time. For all that, the likelihood that any given school will ever employ its plan is infinitesimal, and the odds that anything short of routine practice will actually result in saved lives is modest at best.

The president proposed a tiny smattering of dollars, $15 million, to fund "mental health first aid" training for teachers and others who work with youths to detect signs of mental illness (the money was almost entirely symbolic--perhaps $150 for each of the nation's schools.)  Educators would likely get a few hours of desultory training, just enough to waste their time without making a difference. Or, if they actually got the requisite training and support (with the $150 per school!), the time spent would likely come at the expense of the time they have to prepare instruction, craft assessments, monitor student learning, and so forth.

Protecting kids from bad stuff is important. But it’s also important to recognize that these protections steal time and energy from teaching and learning.  And, for the vast majority of children, the biggest danger is not some dramatic incident but the silent, invisible threat of a mediocre education.

Lenore Skenazy Writer Free Range Kids
Lessons from Sandy Hook

Posted June 5, 2013, 4:00pm

Lenore Skenazy: 

The worst massacre at a school did not happen last year at Sandy Hook Elementary. It happened in 1927, in Bath Township, Michigan. A disgruntled (to say the least) school board member didn't want to pay any more school construction taxes. In protest, he blew up the school, his car, himself, four other adults--and 38 school kids.

Almost double the number at Sandy Hook.

Afterward, do you know what precautions schools all around the country immediately took?

None. Because administrators, politicians and parents did not see the tragedy as part of a huge new threat. They saw it for what it was: A bizarre anomaly. They understood that, for the most part, kids were still very safe at school.

That's a kind of perspective we have lost, in an era when we've been trained to automatically think these two thoughts:

1 - If anything bad happens to any child, anywhere, it is likely to happen to my kid, tomorrow.

2 - If we are proactive to the point of paranoid, we can achieve 100% safety.

The result has been a rash of excessive, expensive and sometimes exasperating new measures designed to make schools safer...that don't. My favorite is the reading specialist who told me that ever since Sandy Hook, when she goes to a classroom to help out, the door is always locked. As she is not trusted with a key, she has to knock on the door. But before the teacher WHO KNOWS HER can open it, the reading lady has to say the secret password.

Is it "Security Theater"?

Actually, I have one other favorite. There's a school in rural Oregon that has taught its teachers: If you ever hear a fire alarm but don't feel any heat, lock the kids in your room, because it COULD be a madman trying to lure kids into the hall.

Frankly, if I was a madman and I knew that school's M.O., I'd set fire to the building.

The problem is that when people are afraid, they can't think straight. And in an era when we are encouraged by the media and our lawmakers to be constantly fearful and tearful -- "Could your school be NEXT?" -- we are stuck in panic mode. We throw everything we've got at the problem, without even realizing...it's not a problem.

The job for those of us still thinking rationally, then, is simple. We must help parents, principals and politicians re-gain that old-fashioned, 1927 perspective that understood: Sometimes bad things happen, but that doesn't mean all kids are in constant danger. What's more, over-the-top security measures don't even make them safer, in part because madmen work around obstacles, but also in great part because the kids are already very safe.

Just not 100% safe.

And I now open the floor to anyone who has a good idea how to load this into the public's psyche.


Common Good
Frederick Hess American Enterprise Institute
Nancy McDermott Park Slope Parents
Walter Olson Cato Institute
Megan Rosker Let Children Play
Lenore Skenazy Free Range Kids

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Reader Comments

Part of the problem is that the media latch onto stories of dangers real or perceived and play them over and over until everyone is terrified. They shamelessly lure viewers to stay tuned during commercial breaks with threats of heretofore unnoticed threats lurking everywhere. "Is your rear view mirror killing you? Stay tuned after the break and find out how." Not only does this spur lawmakers and the public to seek safety measures everywhere, partial responsibility for copycat crimes can be pinned on the media too.

It's a tough, gray area, though, and there's little we can do to curb corporate-owned news outlets from trying to raise ad dollars.

-- jessiemez

Good to see Common Good kickstart this discussion. It's a hard nut to crack. I'd like to share some good news from here in the UK, where we have had some success in tackling the blame culture, in particular around playground safety. This has been achieved through a decade-long effort to secure support from leading agencies both for recognition of the seriousness of the problem, and for a shared set of values and understandings about how to tackle it. I know that there are some important differences in culture, politics and legal systems between the UK and the USA. Nonetheless, I believe this approach - building consensus across key agencies and institutions around shared understandings - is the key to tackling risk and fear in US schools too. I tell the UK playground safety story in more detail in this blog post: http://rethinkingchildhood.com/2012/09/03/health-safety-hse-statement/. Good luck!

-- Tim Gill

Upcoming See All

  • Risk and Legal Fear in Schools
    With Lenore Skenazy, Frederick Hess, Megan Rosker, Walter Olson, and Nancy McDermott. Start date: June 5

Reader Comments (5)

Add Yours
1. June 5, 2013 6:02 PM

Part of the problem is that the media latch onto stories of dangers real or perceived and play them over and over until everyone is terrified. They shamelessly lure viewers to stay tuned during commercial breaks with threats of heretofore unnoticed threats lurking everywhere. "Is your rear view mirror killing you? Stay tuned after the break and find out how." Not only does this spur lawmakers and the public to seek safety measures everywhere, partial responsibility for copycat crimes can be pinned on the media too.

It's a tough, gray area, though, and there's little we can do to curb corporate-owned news outlets from trying to raise ad dollars.

-- jessiemez
2. June 5, 2013 7:21 PM

In Minersville School District v. Gobitis Felix Frankfurter spelled out the consequences of the Supreme Court becoming "the school board for the country." Three years after that decision the Supreme Court took on that very role trumping the judgment of state legislators all the way down to the judgment of local school boards and administrators. Is it any wonder teachers and principals have so little authority today. In order to restore the authority of the teaching profession you have to restrain the legal profession. And the legal profession which dominates Washington will never concede its power. We are essentially in a legally sanctioned civil war turning children against parents, parents against teachers, etc. The only profession that has thrived and profited from this civil war is...?

-- Mack
3. June 5, 2013 10:18 PM

I am thankful for your voices of reason, and common sense.

LOL, Lenore knows I could go on for hours, from some of the comments on Free Range Kids, that I have made. There are some major roadblocks standing in the way of returning to the days of a child actually having a childhood.

1. Money, and lots of it. Safety, is big business, with a built in, proven marketing campaign. FEAR sells. GUILT sells. Scared people buy and those around them buy, lest something happens, and they didn't buy. The old "if something happened, I would never forgive myself".
2. I have no proof, but I wouldn't be surprised if the companies that benefit from new safety laws, policys and such, are financially supporting the groups that lobby for the changes.
3. It is much easier to implement safety protocols than it is to remove them.
4. And I do not include any on this panel part of the ugly media, but you have to contend with the ugly media, that also live by fear sells.

Like I said I can go on and on, but will leave it here. Thanks you for your efforts.

-- Warren
4. June 6, 2013 4:45 AM

Good to see Common Good kickstart this discussion. It's a hard nut to crack. I'd like to share some good news from here in the UK, where we have had some success in tackling the blame culture, in particular around playground safety. This has been achieved through a decade-long effort to secure support from leading agencies both for recognition of the seriousness of the problem, and for a shared set of values and understandings about how to tackle it. I know that there are some important differences in culture, politics and legal systems between the UK and the USA. Nonetheless, I believe this approach - building consensus across key agencies and institutions around shared understandings - is the key to tackling risk and fear in US schools too. I tell the UK playground safety story in more detail in this blog post: http://rethinkingchildhood.com/2012/09/03/health-safety-hse-statement/. Good luck!

-- Tim Gill
5. June 6, 2013 8:10 AM

I'm a teacher and I couldn't agree more with Mr. Hess's comments. Students are learning a little less each year as we allow more instructional time to be siphoned off for safety drills and excessive testing. The drills have little to do with safety. Their primary purpose is to prevent liability for schools and administrators in the unlikely event of a major incident. Similarly, testing has little to do with assessing the needs of the students so that we might instruct them more effectively. Its primary purpose is to allow politicians to claim that they are demanding accountability, and to create quantitative documentation that is legally necessary to label a particular school, teacher, or student as "failing." In reality, almost all students are reasonably safe at school, and they would all benefit from more time spent with a teacher who knows them and can determine how best to assess and instruct them.

-- Patrick