Thursday, October 10, 2013

Schools Ban Tag, Cartwheels And 'Unstructured Play:' The Inevitable Outcome Of Unrealistic Promises And Expectations

From the look of these stories, there's no worse place for your cherished young ones to end up than the hellish warzone of the local school. Sure, we all made it through school with a minimum of injuries or threats from Pop Tart-wielding terrorists in training, but today? Today's school playgrounds are as safe as a minefield subject to hourly bombing runs. [UPDATE: As is pointed out in the comments, Weber Middle School's ban on balls and other activities is "temporary," due to construction occuring at the school.]
A middle school in Long Island, New York has banned the playing of typical schoolyard games and the use of many pieces of athletic equipment during recess.

CBS reported that Weber Middle School this week “instituted a ban on footballs, baseballs, lacrosse balls, or anything that might hurt someone on school grounds.” The ban also includes “hard soccer balls” and “rough games of tag, or cartwheels unless supervised by a coach.”

Assistant Principal Matthew Swinson explained that "sometimes when they participate in tag they use the opportunity to give an extra push.”
The school takes pain to note that organized sports, the sort of activity that brings in extra money, are not dangerous (if you ignore concussions, sprains, broken limbs, etc.)
In a press release, the school district stated that “structured athletics” with footballs and baseballs do not pose the risk of “an errant throw injuring a child.” However, “unstructured play with hardballs" is dangerous and therefore impermissible.
This isn't an isolated event from a single, overreacting school. RyanNerd sends in this announcement from a Michigan school that tag and its derivatives are being banned from its recess periods.
On Wednesday, Oct. 2, New Groningen kindergarten teachers sent home a letter alerting parents to the policy. It described the problem of children "running in packs, pushing, knocking other children over, and making the game dangerous."

On Thursday, Oct. 3, a follow up letter was sent home with students clarifying the policy after the "no tag" rule created a bit of controversy.

"We want our children to treat each other with respect, kindness, and with safety in mind," said Ginger Smith, community relations manager for Zeeland Public Schools, on Friday.
The concern, of course, is for the safety of the children, something even members of administration note is something it can't possibly guarantee.
"We know kids are going to get injured ... but we have a responsibility to lessen injuries," said [NY assistant principal Matthew] Swinson, explaining that the children could only be trusted with spongy balls.
Yes, a school has a certain responsibility to lessen injuries, but that should only apply to objectively dangerous activities, like fighting, kids on the roof of buildings, etc. -- the sorts of activities that should already be violations of school policies. Banning activities that kids have participated in for years with a minimum number of debilitating injuries is just ridiculous. Why not just take recess and PE off the table and keep the kids restrained (possibly with three-point belts) at their desks for the entirety of the school day?

This isn't the only form of panic being indulged by hysteria-prone school administrations. Check out this reaction to a simple bus mix-up by a Canadian school (via Overlawyered).
A four-year-old Scarborough boy wandered into the wrong classroom on his first day in school, wearing the wrong nametag, and wasn’t immediately spotted. Cue panic: The police were notified, an alert went out, dozens of police with a K-9 unit turned up to scour the neighbourhood, terror spread. The little boy watched it all obliviously, until teachers spotted the mistake.
This occurred on the first day of school, a time when children wander in and out of the wrong classrooms all the time. The district's bus company shuttles nearly 50,000 kids on 1,600 routes every day and an occasional mix-up is to be expected. The police response isn't. While it's admirable that staff leapt into action to make sure all children were accounted for, it's severely undermined by its immediate decision to get the police involved.

This slavish devotion to an unachievable aim (no mistakes; perfect safety) has even managed to hamper the school's own windmill-tilts.
The driver of Alexander’s bus had a list identifying how many kids were to get off at each stop, but wasn’t allowed to know their names for “security” reasons. The bus company had considered providing photographs to the drivers, but again feared unspecified “security” concerns. Over-reacting in the approved manner, the company is now considering radio frequency identification tags that could be attached to backpacks so every child on every bus could be monitored at every moment.
No one involved knows what they're doing, blindly thrashing around towards unachievable goals while hamstrung by misguided "security" efforts. I bash school administrations frequently, but everything detailed above is not solely the fault of blundering, overreaching institutions. There are plenty of parents who should share in the blame. If schools have set themselves up as paragons of child safety, it has as much to do with parents' ridiculous expectations as it does with bureaucratic striving for complete control.

Among any grouping of parents, there will be a subset that believes no harm should ever come to their children. Those few moments when they're prevented from hovering over their young ones, they expect the next line of defense to pick up the slack -- without the slightest drop in quality. There are also a number of parents who aren't as attentive, but still believe the school should keep their kids from getting injured or misplaced and are willing to make this point through lots of yelling and legal threats. Then there are those parents who view public schools as ultra-cheap daycare, but who still believe that the schools should do a better job parenting than they do.

Somewhere in between these extremes, there are sets of realistic parents who understand that sometimes undesirable events happen, including injuries, and that no one is truly to blame unless there's evidence of a severe lapse in controls or observation. But realists are no longer the majority -- if they ever were.

The problem is that administrators have let these unrealistic demands guide their policy making. Part of it is the desire to reduce legal exposure and liability. This leads to ridiculous policy changes like eliminating "hard" objects (with no sharp corners or heavy materials) from everyday play. This leads to kids being suspended for bogus weapons policy "violations."

Parents may express disbelief that tag is no longer allowed at their school, but many of those protesting need to take a long look at their own expectations. No educator can be expected to prevent every injury, threat or harsh word from affecting these parents' children. I think most parents realize this, but when something happens to their kid, all rationality flies out the window as the psyche indulges the very common human urge to attribute blame and hold someone -- anyone -- responsible for this "crime" against their flesh and blood.

To roll back school policies to something approaching reality will take a serious effort from both parents and administration. Schools need to stop over-promising (and reacting badly when they inevitably under-deliver). Parents need to realize the only way they can protect their kids from bad things is to keep them locked up at home. Both need to cede control, especially over eventualities they can't possibly hope to have any input in.

But this is a very unlikely outcome for two reasons. No school administrator wants to roll back policies only to deal with the wrath of parents who still expect schools to provide a protective bubble for their children. Very few parents (other than the realists) want to accept the fact that their children cannot be protected from every eventuality. Because of this impasse, ridiculous policies and overreactions will continue to be the rule, rather than the exception.

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