Should Schools Enforce Rules for Off-Grounds Misdeeds?

August 2, 2006

Along the same lines as the public “scolding” piece, Brain, Child Magazine published a debate on “Should Schools Punish Kids for Off-Grounds Misdeeds?”

Writer Miriam Peskowitz, author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?, said the school should punish students for off-campus naughtiness such as a case a few years ago when a group of boys placed a nanny-cam in their friend’s bedroom to tape him fooling around with his girlfriend. After the media got a hold of the story, the school suspended some of the boys and expelled the two ringleaders.

She said the school as the center of a community is charged with instilling values in its youth.

But we can be uncomfortable with the kind of discipline schools tend to mete out these days and still firmly believe it is their place to hand it out, even for events that happen off campus. Only the most strident of parents’ rights advocates would make the case that school is purely about academics — because the reality is that schools work with the whole child, not just their academic capacity. We’re comfortable with our kids’ preschool teachers instructing them not to hit other kids in the sandbox — and are pleased when the message carries over to the next family get-together. We very much hope that teachers and guidance counselors who suspect a student is being abused off campus intervenes on behalf of that student. What happens in school affects what happens outside it, and vice versa. To foster a strong moral code in a child, the rules and values that apply inside the school walls should apply outside too.

On the hand, Heide Aungst, contributing editor of Cleveland Magazine, wrote a punchy and convincing essay on how schools have overstepped their boundaries in even disciplining students for comments they write on their personal web blogs. She blames this paranoia on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.

Schools that use evidence of misdeeds culled from cyberspace are the most likely to overstep their bounds. There are a growing number of cases of students receiving school suspensions — and being hurt academically — for things they’ve written online. (In some cases the ACLU has stepped in, saying kids have the same right to freedom of speech as adults.)

In February, at a Michigan high school, fifteen students faced two-week suspensions from sports and other extracurricular activities for their activities at a weekend party. Who turned them in? Some parents who saw a picture of them drinking posted on one student’s blog.

What’s next? If another child comes to my house over the weekend and bullies my son, should I call the principal on Monday morning and ask for a suspension? In a different context, that’s exactly what those Michigan parents did.

Brain, Child does such a great job covering the nuances of an issue. It’s a tough one for me. I would hope that school officials could differentiate between normal adolescent behavior like throwing a party when mom and dad are out of town versus a serious infringement like the nanny-cam incident (although I think expulsion went overboard). I remember my brother telling me that immediately following the Columbine shootings our high school was nabbing boys for wearing black trench coats. Ridiculous.

But I would support the school placing safeguards to protect students such as the metal detectors our school had installed. Also, it should be made clear to the students that harassment of any kind — such as the nanny-cam prank — is unacceptable even off campus. Otherwise why go through the trouble of creating and enforcing rules? If they are good rules for school then surely they are good enough for home.