Here is my monthly parenting column in the Home News Tribune
What responsibility does a school have in filtering personal family matters that a child might innocently offer in a public display?
This question occurred to me after reading about one mother’s hurt feelings when her daughter’s publicly displayed essay listed Dad as her role model in life and not Mom. I wondered why the daughter wasn’t approached by her teacher who might have suggested that she warn her mother about the essay which would be posted, and discuss why she picked her dad over her mom. This may have softened the blow.
Rather than trying to hypothesize about where free speech ends and where school censorship begins, I contacted my friend Philip who has been the associate principal of a large elementary school in South Jersey for over twenty years. Right off the bat he declared, “It always comes down to common sense, and unfortunately that’s hard to bottle.”
“Our teachers know that essays, computer postings and year-book entries all have to be read carefully while letting children have free speech. But they do not have the right to gratuitously insult people in a school setting. We will not provide students with a forum to be hurtful.”
When I described the essay that caught my attention Philip responded, “When a student says that her role model is her father, that’s not gratuitously insulting to the mother, even if it is a bit hurtful. Maybe the child wants to be a musician like her dad, and not a biochemist like her mom.”
Philip believes that the school should seek out the offended parent and accept some part of the responsibility together with the student. “I would tell that parent that we didn’t intend the essay to be hurtful. It did not appear blatantly hurtful, but since you have expressed that you are hurt, we are sorry.”
He wants students in his school to know that free speech exists, but the school, as an institution, has standards and will not support hurtful speech. Philip expects his students to be sensitive to that. Philip gave an example of an essay that a child wrote about a teacher who he really liked. “Mr. Smith is a great teacher who explains things thoroughly unlike Mr. Jones, who always leaves me confused.” Philip brought the student to his office and explained, “You need to rethink the way you are complimenting person X and simultaneously hurting person Y, so think of a better way to do it.” Philip correctly refers to these discussions as an educational opportunity which is part of their mission as a school.
Providing another example from his school, Philip described a young boy who, in an essay about family life, went into great detail about his parents’ divorce and how the non-custodial parent just picked up and left town. The child was expressing the hurt that he felt, but it was totally inappropriate to display publicly. The teacher grasped the teaching opportunity and the child was able to redirect the essay without the anger. “The teacher brought the student with his corrected essay, to the Principal of the school who complimented his maturity and sensitivity.”
Philip appreciates when parents preemptively share problems at home (in confidence) with a teacher and administrator, so that educators can be on the lookout for behavioral or academic fluctuations. “If a parent fails to warn the school about family matters, be they emotional or health-related, and the school calls home describing behavioral problems, we have already made errors in the classrooms that may have exacerbated the situation.”
In closing Philip urged, “These children are precious souls. Adults have armor to protect themselves from hurt, not children. Anything we can do to make the child’s environment in the school healthy and positive, we are required to do. If we can avoid a situation because we are sensitized by some extra information, we must do it.” To all of you who are students, have a wonderful and safe summer.
Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column via his website www.FamilyThinking.com