Detoxifying Schools

By Gough, Pauline B. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Detoxifying Schools


Gough, Pauline B., Phi Delta Kappan


IN JANUARY 1994 the Kappan published an article by Kirk Astroth in which he suggested that, like previous generations of adults, our generation seemed to be suffering from ephebiphobia - a word coined from the Greek to signify "fear and loathing of adolescence." At the time, I wondered whether Astroth might be overstating the case, but I've since come to believe that he was on target.

Indeed, events since 1994 have thrown our schools and our society into a lockdown mentality where adolescents are concerned. Those events occurred in locales that we are not likely to forget, thanks to the intensive media coverage they generated: Pearl, Miss.; Paducah, Ky.; Edinboro, Pa.; Springfield, Ore.; Fayetteville, Tenn.; Littleton, Colo. In their aftermath, we have become ever more fearful of our children and thus ever more willing to strip them of their constitutional rights - even though Department of Justice statistics show a decrease in violent juvenile crime since the early 1990s.

We are simply not swayed by the facts. Instead, according to Dangerous Schools, a new book by Irwin Hyman and Pamela Snook, "we are increasingly relying on punishment and a spirit of meanness to solve social and school problems." And, as Hyman and Snook point out, "the intensifying and automatic use of punishment, as opposed to prevention of misbehavior and violence in schools, makes the schoolhouse toxic for too many children." Recent articles in Psychology Today (August 1999) and The American Prospect (20 December 1999) decry schools that mimic police states and that mete out punishments for students that do not fit their crimes. In "The War on High Schools," Wendy Kaminer, senior correspondent for The American Prospect, noted that "the American Civil Liberties Union has received hundreds of complaints" about cases like the following:

* the Ohio third-grader who was suspended for writing for a school project the fortune cookie message "You will die an honorable death"; the Virginia 10th-grader who was suspended for dyeing his hair blue;

* the Missouri junior who was suspended and required to perform 42 days of community service with the local police department for responding with a flippant affirmative when he was asked, in an Internet chat room, whether a tragedy like the Littleton shootings could happen in his school;

* the Louisiana 12-year-old who was suspended and held in juvenile detention for more than two weeks for uttering a "threat" in a lunch line: "If you take all the potatoes, I'm gonna get you. …

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