We've seen this sort of thing before -- zero tolerance policies that quickly lead to reductio ad absurdum results. The recent events at Mound Westonka High School underscore the point nicely:
The Mound Westonka Schools superintendent apologized Monday night for the suspensions of six varsity hockey players hours before a playoff game, telling a crowd of angry parents that the school activities director had been put on leave pending an investigation of the incident.
The meeting of some 250 people attending the regular board session cheered loudly at the news.
“This is on me,” said Superintendent Kevin Borg. He said he expected to lay out the plan for the investigation on Tuesday.
What happened? Apparently a group of students, as part of a class assignment, started a "Harlem Shake" dance in the school cafeteria. As a proud member of the out-of-touch parent generation, I'd never heard of the Harlem Shake until very recently. What is it, exactly? Well, here's an example from Knox College, in Illinois:
Near as I can tell, it's a cross between a dance craze and a flash mob, with momentary chaos involved but no real harm done. At least that was the intent at Mound Westonka. But there was harm done in this case. Although it apparently wasn't from the students involved:
The parents and students who spoke Monday said they didn’t blame Borg for the suspensions, instead concentrating their fire on the activities director, Dion Koltes. He had handed out the two-day suspensions after the hockey players, joined by two members of the school swim team, performed their version of the “Harlem Shake,” an Internet sensation popular with kids and college sports teams, in the school’s lunchroom on Friday. The students also were issued $75 citations by Minnetrista police for engaging in “a riot-like behavior.”
And the kicker, the bell that can't be unrung:
The hockey players were stripped of the opportunity to play in a sectional quarterfinal Friday night, which the team lost, ending a promising season.
Woe betide anyone who crosses the parents of a hockey player, especially in Minnesota. Most parents spend mind-boggling amounts of time and money supporting their kids as they move up in the ranks. Do you want to spend a weekend in Bemidji or Grand Forks to watch your kid play? Hockey parents do this sort of thing all the time. Take it away arbitrarily? Watch your back.
And there doesn't seem to be any dispute that what happened at Mound Westonka was arbitrary:
On Monday, parents stepped up to the microphone to complain about a rush to judgment and lack of due process for the students captured in a video taken of the dance performance, which was part of a class project. Students can be seen dancing on tables, but no vandalism was reported. The only damage seemed to be a broken lunch tray.
Many of those who spoke were emotional, including Mike Curti, who appeared on the verge of tears as he spoke of getting a call Friday afternoon from his son, Charlie, one of the suspended players.
“I found him in the school parking lot, kicked out of the building. He couldn’t go back in until I escorted him,” Curti said.
The two walked into the school’s administrative offices where other students waited with their parents. Curti said he kept looking at the clock, hoping the situation could be worked out in time for the game.
We had questions, Curti said, but “we weren’t getting any answers.”
Curti described a scene where parents’ pleas to administrators for mercy and time weren’t heard.
This is pretty typical. And it's multi-factorial, too. Some of what happens is simple petty bureaucratic officiousness, and some of it is the factory approach that we too often take to education in this country. It's easier to remove discretion from the equation, because if you just say you were following the rulebook, generally you won't be second-guessed.
In this case, though, the officiousness backfired. All it should have taken would be a call to the teacher who authorized the class project to verify that the students were telling the truth. Instead a rush to judgment seems to have resulted.
But the last line of the Star Tribune article is the beauty part:
Parents said they also wanted the incident removed from their children’s records and questioned why they couldn’t see the video at the center of the dispute. The superintendent said it is covered by data privacy laws.
Data privacy laws are a beautiful thing, especially if you are a functionary and want to cover your ass. But in this case the law is an impediment to finding out the truth of the matter. That was not the intent of the law, I'm guessing.
So what could the students learn? Two lessons, both of which seem valuable:
- When you give a bureaucracy power, it will assert it; and
- Life isn't fair.
Cross-posted and comments welcomw at Mr. Dilettante's Neighborhood.