Gas station without pumps

2012 April 28

Nonsense advice from a principal

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:37
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The principal of the campus where my son’s home-school umbrella school is located just sent around an e-mail message about a rather disturbing incident (I’ve removed the names of the people and locations):

On Monday, April 23rd at 4:00 PM, a student was walking home from school.   As she walked past P_ Street on S_ Ave, a man on a green, rusty beach cruiser began following the student.  The student ignored the man who continued to follow her and say inappropriate comments all the way up until she reached her front door.  The student’s parents were home and S_ C_ Police were called.  The man, C_ H_, was arrested and jailed.  The police are investigating this incident and are asking others who might have had a similar experience contact them and report the incident to them.

That was useful, if somewhat disturbing, information—I appreciate the principal letting parents know, rather than waiting for us to read about it in the newspaper.  This is a town with a lot of transients, tourists, homeless people, and drug users, some of whom have mental problems, so incidents like this one are not rare. (Note: I am not equating the 4 groups of people, listed, nor claiming that C_ H_ belonged to any of them. I’m just pointing out that our small city is not a place where everyone knows everyone, and that “stranger danger” does exist here.)

Unfortunately, rather than praising the student and the parents for handling the situation in the best possible way, the principal went on to give some really senseless advice:

Please consider these guidelines in an effort to avoid any future situations:

  • Immediately call 911 whenever you are approached by anyone that you do not know.
  • Always let people know where you are when you are going anywhere by yourself
  • Travel in groups whenever possible; there is safety in numbers
  • Elementary students should not travel to and from school alone
  • Do not interact with strangers

The middle three pieces of advice are reasonable: someone should know where students are, particularly when they are traveling alone, and elementary school students (younger than about 9 years old) should probably not wander our city alone.  Being with a buddy is a sensible precaution against ordinary dangers like getting lost or twisting an ankle, as well as the much rarer stranger danger.  Some neighborhoods are fine for kids as young as 6 to wander alone, but the most attractive places for kids (like the beach) are also the most dangerous.

The first and last pieces of advice are not suitable as advice to children, because they are too absolutist and extreme. Consider the situation of a new student at school—they don’t know any one and no one knows them.  If anyone approaches them, they are to call 911.  If they approach anyone, then that person is to call 911. The poor kid can’t win, no matter what they do, if they follow the principal’s simplistic advice.  Even worse, if kids actually followed this advice, the 911 number would be flooded with calls, and the kids would probably be arrested for tying up the line with non-emergency calls.

The last piece of advice is vaguer than the first one, since neither “interacting” nor “stranger” is defined.  If taken literally, it is almost as ridiculous as the 911 advice, though, since it provides absolutely no way for a person to change from being a stranger to being a friend.

I’m sure the principal meant well—they usually do—but this sort of ridiculously overstated advice is not something we should seriously offering to teach our children how to be safe.  Always calling 911 whenever anyone you don’t know approaches you is neither reasonable not feasible (many students do not even have phones).  Perhaps it is just as well that this principal is stepping down at the end of the year, though I doubt that we’ll get anyone more reasonable—the job (like most middle-management positions) seems to attract people with small minds who like to make petty rules and enforce them, without thinking through the consequences of bad rule making. The one really good public-school principal I’ve met (who was principal at my son’s first elementary school) retired a few years ago.

What advice should we be giving our kids, so that they are safe now and become competent adults who will continue to be safe?  I think that kids do have to be aware that there is some danger in the world, and that other people (kids or adults) can sometimes be part of that danger, but that fairly simple precautions can reduce the danger to an acceptable level.  The hard part is coming up with the appropriate precautions for kids of different ages and different levels of social skills.  What is appropriate advice for a 6-year-old might be ludicrous for a 16-year-old (and vice versa).  Since the campus involves K–12 students including home-schooled and alternative schools, the age and maturity range for the school is even wider.

Surrounding yourself with people you know and who know you is a common piece of advice, and generally fairly good (the middle 3 of the principal’s list)—unless those people happen to be gang members or meth addicts.  Then you may be better off staying as far from them as you can.

The advice I would have given in a letter like this one from the principal is more restricted and more specific:

  • Elementary students should not travel to and from school alone.  Travel with a buddy or with an adult whom you know.
  • Let responsible adults (parents or teachers) know where you are going when you are going anywhere by yourself.
  • Travel in groups of people you know and trust; there is some safety in numbers.
  • If harassed by anyone, try to get away and call 911 as soon as you can, to let the police know.  Try to give the location and a good description of the person, so that the police can identify them. Do not confront the harasser and do not respond to verbal attacks, but defend yourself if attacked physically.

I’m still not really happy with this list, but it was the best I could come up with this morning. (I know that the vocabulary is more appropriate for high school kids than for elementary kids, for example.) Can any of my readers come up with a better succinct list suitable for sending out to parents of a wide range of kids?

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