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Jewish World Review June 15, 2000 / 12 Sivan, 5760

George Will

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Consumer Reports

Schools Beset by
Lawyers And Shrinks -- The contest between Al Gore and George Bush for the office of national school superintendent means Washington will expand its role in education. Until the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the federal government had essentially nothing--certainly nothing essential--to do with elementary and secondary education. Today the federal government supplies only 7 percent of the money spent on such education, but 7 percent of $313.1 billion is a large lever for moving state and local education policies in directions that Washington favors. And money is not the full measure of the national government's influence on education. Consider school discipline.

Last month Al Gore endorsed a good idea, "alternative educational settings"--special "second chance schools"--for children expelled from schools for disciplinary reasons. But one reason such schools are needed is that the federal government has complicated the task of maintaining school discipline. To understand how this happened, see "Who Killed School Discipline?" by Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.

Because schools reflect the families from which the pupils come, school discipline was bound to worsen as more broken families resulted in more troubled or badly reared children. And maintaining order was bound to become more difficult as popular culture became a sensory blitzkrieg of promptings to sexual and other self-assertions by adolescents. But government has made matters worse.

In 1969 the Supreme Court held that a school violated five students' constitutional rights when it suspended them for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The court said students do not shed their free speech rights "at the schoolhouse gate" and schools cannot be "enclaves of totalitarianism."

Thus did important matters of school discipline become federal cases. Thereafter, a principal who confronted, say, a student wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "WHITE POWER" or with a swastika had to construe the Constitution. Could the principal prove that the behavior was "significantly disruptive"? Did he want to litigate the question?

In 1975, in a case concerning students suspended for fighting, the court expanded students' due process rights, holding that students have a property right to their education. So lawyers and judges were pulled even deeper into school discipline procedures, presiding over--at a minimum--elaborate hearings with witnesses. Designed to make schools more "fair" and "responsive," such decisions, writes Hymowitz, made school administrators act defensively and look legalistic and obtuse:

"When a New York City high school student came to school with a metal-spiked ball whose sole purpose could only be to maim classmates, he wasn't suspended: Metal-spiked balls weren't on the superintendent's detailed list of proscribed weapons. Suspend him, and he might sue you for being arbitrary and capricious.

"Worse, the influence of lawyers over school discipline means that educators speak to children in an unrecognizable language, far removed from the straight talk about right and wrong that most children crave. . . . Students correctly sense that what lies behind such desiccated language is not a moral worldview and a concern for their well-being and character but fear of lawsuits."

What also lies behind it is the therapeutic impulse.

In 1975 Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires schools to provide disabled children an "appropriate" education, within regular classrooms whenever that is possible. The act addressed real needs of many mentally and physically handicapped students. But since, and partly because of, the passage of the act there has been, as Hymowitz says, an explosive growth in the number of children classified under vague disability categories such as "learning disability" and "emotional disturbance."

Part of the legal definition of emotional disturbance is "an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers." So children who are unruly, for whatever reason, can claim--and litigate for--protected status within schools that, before 1975, would have had a freer hand to expel them.

The IDEA arrived just as society was becoming suffused with the therapeutic impulse, which deemphasizes free will and moral responsibility, and postulates social or physiological causes of behavior. This engenders a search for pharmacological treatments, or such therapeutic "remedies" as role-playing games, breathing exercises and learning to "identify feelings" and "manage anger." What Hymowitz calls "the skittish avoidance of moral language" by the therapeutically inclined indicates an enthusiasm for behavioral techniques and an aversion to "inducting children into moral consciousness."

If School Superintendent Gore or Bush wants school discipline that arises from a moral environment that socializes children, he should consider how schools stopped being moral communities and became cockpits for lawyers and playgrounds for therapists.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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