2001-06-09 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

The new law that has been proposed by the mayor that would hold school staff responsible for not reporting cases of "injury" to students is another one of those things that sounds good on paper but becomes a morass when transported to the real world.

The law would cause a teacher or administrator to be liable for a fine of $1,000 or a year in jail for failing to report to the police any situation that "could result in harm to a child."

I wrote a little bit about this topic last week, but it has become important enough and controversial enough to give it more space.

Think of the myriad of possibilities. A student comes to a teacher in tears. "Johnny just told me that my mother is a crack addict," she tells the teacher. This situation is obviously causing the student pain. Does the teacher call 911 to report the incident? Most people would say that the answer to that question would be "no," because it is only a case of one kid teasing another.

Suppose then, the kids have a fight on the bus going home. When the girl goes home, all bruised and dirty and tells her mother, "Tommy was picking on me all day and the teacher did nothing about it. Then, on the way home, he knocked me down."

What will the mother do? She will call the police to have Johnny arrested for assault and the teacher will wind up on the front page of the Post as the poster boy of the day for the ills of the school system.

The teacher will lose his job and get himself arrested because he failed to respond to a child who was at first verbally and then physically harmed by another kid. It might even cost him $1,000 bucks.

How, then, should the teacher have responded? The law says that he has to call 911 immediately.

Being in the classroom, that obviously is not going to happen, unless he uses a cell phone. That, unfortunately, is against district policy. A teacher cannot have a cell phone that is on during the school day in the building.

So, he calls the principal and tells the principal what has happened. The principal now, under the law, has to call 911. The principal has no discretion in this matter, no investigative powers.

The principal calls 911 and the police respond.

"I want to make a report," the principal says, hoping against hope that the report will cover his behind if the proverbial you know what hits the fan.

"What is the criminal activity," the cops ask,

"That young man told a girl that her mother is a crack addict," the principal says.

When the cops stop laughing, they advise the principal that "calling names" is not a criminal offense. They refuse to take the report.

Where does that leave the teacher and the principal? Where does that leave the cops? Think about it.

Here is another one to think about.

Two kids have been in middle school classes all day and decide to cut out and have some fun. They sneak out of school and head for the local beach.

Their seventh period teacher realizes that they are cutting and reports it to the dean. As required by our district, the dean notifies the assistant principal, who is mandated to call a "missing person" report to the police. After all, the kids might be stuffed in a closet somewhere, or taken by a sexual predator.

The assistant principal calls the district to notify them that there is a missing child. He calls the parents to tell them that their children have disappeared. Then, the police are called.

The police respond. "Is there any indication that there has been foul play," the cops ask in words to that effect.

"We think they cut out of school again," the assistant principal admits.

"Then, according to our rules, the kids are not missing until they don’t show up at home tonight," the cops say.

They refuse to take a missing child report.

Does anybody else realize that this is becoming a big waste of time?

We’re wasting the teacher’s time, the assistant principal’s time, the principal’s time, the cop’s time, responding to something that happens ten times each day in each school in the nation.

If there is a genuine sexual assault in a school and the administration does not address that by notifying the police, then the administration should be punished.

If there is a genuine physical assault on a student, then it should be addressed and the cops should be called.

Bullying and charges of "he touched my butt," however, are another case completely.

No law will stop them. All that the law will do is punish professionals for not being able to stop them.

The new law should give teachers and administrators the right to investigate charges prior to calling the police.

Like judges, if they make the wrong decision, they should be held harmless as long as they did what any reasonable person would do.

We are going to quickly clog the system with reports of "sexual assaults," "missing kids" and "physical assaults" that are nothing by child’s play and part of growing up.

I am sure that is not what the mayor and city council have in mind, but that is what they have wrought with their new law dedicated to "saving children from harm." We all want that, but sometimes we cannot legislate away every eventuality. This is one of those times.

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