A New Hampshire school district bans dodgeball. A Georgia school sends a kindergartener off in handcuffs. A Florida high school is shut down when a student brings in a mercury thermometer. Across the country, schools and school districts are overreacting to risk—often to the detriment of children’s education.
We entrust our children to teachers and principals with the expectation that they will be both educated and protected from harm. When, inevitably, incidents happen—especially when those incidents are tragic and well-publicized—communities often press for stricter rules and procedures. School administrations have reacted to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School with extreme protectiveness; one school suspended a six-year-old for “pointing his finger like a gun and saying ‘pow,’” while another suspended two boys for playing cops and robbers.
In addition to protecting children from harm, schools also look to protect themselves from lawsuits, which a study by Public Agenda labeled a “perpetual fear” that influence teacher and principal decision-making. To shield themselves from legal exposure, schools have attempted to eliminate every conceivable risk—no tire swings, no dodgeball, no monkey bars. Field trips require complex liability waivers. Teachers can’t be left alone with students. Every activity requires paperwork—documentation, permissions, waivers.
Administrators’ authority has been diminished by an increased reliance on police to handle disciplinary matters as well as by restrictive policies, often imposed by state legislatures, that create an illusion of safety but prevent schools from making sensible disciplinary decisions. …
Our schools should be safe, but are the steps we take in response to threats at the extremes—everyday playground accidents on one end, school shootings at the other—doing more harm than good?
more (with responses from Lenore Skenazy, Walter Olson and several more)