Monday, January 14, 2008

The Culture of Concealment Part 1

Thanks to the recent publication of the school safety panel report investigating violence in Toronto schools, the general public has received a rare glimpse into some unpleasant truths about contemporary secondary education. One of the newspaper headlines, ‘Fears of career suicide stopped educators from reporting violence,’ was followed by the revelation of a board–wide staff failure to report problems due to fears that revealing anything reflecting badly on the board would be “a career-limiting move.” Unfortunately, however, people living outside of Toronto have little reason to feel smug. This culture of concealment is widespread in public education today.

Although now retired, as a teacher for thirty years I witnessed my own share of questionable decisions and behaviour based more on political expedience than educational principle, and most seemed to spring from the almost pathological fear many administrators have of dealing with unhappy parents or having their schools look in any way less than perfect. Sadly, such a short-sighted philosophy incurs both immediate and long- term consequences. A few of my own experiences may help to illustrate.

Years ago I broke up a game of hackey sack in which one student was being physically assaulted by two others; after delivering them to the office with a full report, I was dismayed to later learn that no discipline had been meted out, as the physical abuse had “been part of the game.” When I insisted to the vice-principal that suspension was warranted, he protested that such action would require him “to answer some hard questions from the parents.”

For several years now, smoking has been banned on school property. It is the practice of bylaw officials to inform schools of the date they will be visiting for enforcement purposes. For a time at my school, however, when such a visit was pending, daily announcements were made warning the students that the ‘smoke police’ would soon be arriving. The common perception amongst staff was that these announcements were made to ensure that no student would receive a citation, thereby minimizing the chance of parental outrage.

A strategy of containment is at times practiced by wary administrators. On one occasion, a student who had urinated on the floor outside of the school’s photo developing lab was apprehended by a custodian. I subsequently learned that the perpetrator was ‘punished’ with a week of cafeteria clean-up duty, and when I complained that such an egregious violation of the school merited a suspension, I was shocked to learn that the offender’s parents hadn’t even been notified, as administrators were concerned that there might be “home issues.”

Bullying, despite board rhetoric about zero tolerance, is another problem compounded by administrative ineptitude. In one incident, a vice-principal told me I would be receiving a new student, three weeks into the semester, as she had been the victim of bullying in one of her classes. When I inquired as to why the administrator was victimizing her a second time by revamping her entire academic schedule instead of punishing the bullies, I was told that the identity of her tormentors was unknown. Two days later, I learned from a very reliable source that the administration did, in fact, know who they were.

Perhaps the worst example of administrative indifference to school safety occurred several years ago. A colleague was threatened with death by one of her students, which she immediately reported to the office. The student who made the threat was told that if he ever did it again, he would face suspension. The victim suffered tremendous psychological distress as a result of this event, and was off on a sick leave for a significant amount of time afterwards, fearful that the student would, in fact, carry out his threat.

In Part 2, I will discuss some of the effects of decisions prompted by policies of parental appeasement, avoidance, and concealment.

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