Bill (not his real name) is a student at a Maryland school. A couple of weeks ago Bill got onto the bus that takes him to school, pulled a gun and pointed it at another student. School authorities reacted immediately and harshly. Bill was suspended for ten days, and a permanent note of the incident was placed in his file.
Bill is five. The gun was a cap gun that "fires" rolls of paper caps.
Fortunately for Bill there were no caps in the gun. School authorities, just to ensure that everyone understood the gravity of the offense, said afterward that if the gun had contained caps they would have called the police.
Bill's parents protested. It appears that Bill had received the cap gun recently as a gift and wanted to bring it to school to show a friend. The school remained adamant that Bill had committed a grave offense. Bill's parents did what you do now in the United States when your son does something heinous like carrying a toy gun to school. They hired a lawyer.
Meetings were held. The lawyers argued. Reluctantly, the school agreed to end the suspension early and allow Bill to return to classes. The school refused, however, to expunge the incident from Bill's file. The five year old now has a record that will follow him for the remainder of his time in school. The parents have vowed to continue to litigate the issue, even if that means filing suit in court.
In March another Maryland school suspended an eight-year-old, because he had bitten a pop tart into what was believed to be the shape of a pistol.
Several students in Washington State were suspended earlier this year after shooting a Nerf gun at school. Their teacher had requested that the Nerf gun be brought to school, so that he could use it in a demonstration of the laws of probability. Prior to the beginning of class, a number of the students took turns shooting the "weapon", which fires foam rubber darts. All the offending individuals were suspended based on the school's uncompromising, "zero tolerance" policy. The parents of the children in question, all elementary school students, are now, predictably enough filing appeals.
In Massachusetts a 6-year-old boy was accused of bringing a Lego-sized gun onto his school bus. The plastic gun, intended to be held in the hand of small Lego figure, was a little larger than a quarter. The child in question was sent to detention and told to write a formal letter of apology to the bus driver for the "trauma" he had caused.
There was a time in American schools, not so very long ago, when common sense prevailed. Kids who got into fights at school were separated and made to shake hands, parents were called, life moved on. A kid who brought a pocketknife, or a toy gun or a slingshot to school had it taken away. His parents were called. He might or might not get detention. No forms were filled out. No hearings were held. No lawyers were involved.
That time has long passed. A system that was once the province of teachers and students has now, like so much of American government, become the domain of the bureaucrat and the administrator. Common sense has been replaced by procedures, regulations and paperwork.
Between 1950 and 2009 the number of public school students in the United States, grades kindergarten through 12th grade, increased by 96%. The number of full-time school employees grew by 386%.
It gets worse.
The number of teachers increased by 252%.
The number of administrators grew by 702%. That is more than seven times the increase in students.
The time period in question corresponds, of course, with an overall decline in the quality of American public school education. In fact, while the growth in administrators continues unabated, high school graduation rates actually peaked in the United States in 1970. We invest more money in public education than almost any other developed nation, and yet our students now rank fourteenth in reading, twenty-fifth in math and seventeenth in science among the industrialized nations of the world. Thirty percent of US high school graduates are unable to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the required test for entry on active duty.
Our decision to bureaucratize our schools has brought to our educational system the same wonders that we now enjoy in the rest of our government, which has grown far too large, far too complex and far too unwieldy.
Common sense and discretion have been outlawed. The principal who would have been trusted to handle a situation on his own in the past is now trapped in an inflexible system controlled not by professional teachers dedicated to service and education but by paper pushers intent on expanding their power and justifying their existence. What would have been handled informally and expeditiously is now adjudicated according to hundreds of pages of rules and regulations written by legions of bureaucrats, interpreted by yet more bureaucrats and applied by still more legions of functionaries intent on protecting their turf and expanding their domain.
The result, frankly, is little short of madness, rooms filled with highly educated adults, filling out forms, studying rules and weighing, as if they were deciding the result in a Supreme Court case, what should be the punishment for a five-year-old who brought his cap gun to school. An incident that any decent parent would address in a matter of minutes and then move on has become the province of lawyers, appeals and "zero tolerance" policies.
We need to get the administrators out of the schools. We need to put the teachers back in charge. We need to remember that the point of our school system is not to provide secure employment for people who never met a form and a ballpoint pen they didn't like, but to educate our children.
Until we do, our schools will continue to get failing marks, our kids will continue to suffer and common sense will remain all too uncommon.