Adults Must Say 'No'—To Save Children

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I'm angry—and have been for most of my 13 years in public education.

Child abuse and neglect make me livid—especially when our public-school system is the perpetrator. The fact is, public education, through sins of commission and omission, trains millions of youngsters to fail in their dreams and to excel at crime.

Meet Andrew Phillip Valdez, 17, Colorado's latest victim summa cum laude of our School for Crime.

On Oct. 2, the Rocky Mountain News reported that he had been sentenced to "36 years in prison—one of the harshest sentences ever given a minor in the Denver area—for the Feb. 26 murder of a Lakewood roller-rink employee."

He was an escapee from a juvenile-detention center when he shot and killed Jerry Lee Tuffield, 19, one of my former students.

In pronouncing sentence, Jefferson County District Court Judge James Zimmerman described the murder as a crime "against us all."

Mr. Tuffield "was trying to be a peacemaker," the judge told the defendant. "What you did was shoot him in the back and kill him."

Andrew Valdez will be in prison until he's at least 35, when he'll be eligible for parole. During the next 18 years, he'll eat, drink, sleep, and work in prison, the tax-supported extension of his public-school education.

But Andrew Valdez was imprisoned long before his Oct. 1 court date.

When our children have drinking problems, we tell them to "just say 'no."' Same with drugs. And now that the AIDS epidemic is supposed to be fought by educational means, everybody's preaching the Puritan gospel: Say "no" to sex.

Educators and parents, however, won't—or can't—say "no" to kids. We don't see that by saying "yes," we actually deprive and even imprison kids.

Many of those holding positions of influence lust after school-improvement policies fancy or expensive, or both. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, for example, prescribes for students more days in school, more tests, more graduation requirements, and more college-entrance hurdles. And for teachers, he demands more tests, more days in the classroom, and more qualifications.

But I'm talking about routine, day-to-day decisions that get made in schools and homes nationwide. Small, even unnoticeable, though these actions may seem, each has the potential to put away a child.

At one local school, lazy parents conspire with an equally indolent counselor to change a student's class schedule. It seems a math teacher, Mr. Frank, is too hard on Suzie Waffle. Mr. and Mrs. Waffle demand an appointment with the guidance counselor. He agrees that geometry is just too demanding and changes the schedule.

There it is! Did you see it? That microscopic, gutless act that told a child, quite plainly, "You don't have to attend the class called 'Reality.' Between daddy, mommy, and a couple of 'educators,' we can bail you out."

With decisions like that, we adults don't have to worry about the effects of drugs. That unreported schedule change—as pathological a flight from reality as any street dose of crack—is as commonplace as the counselor's office. Or the superintendent's. And it's all legal.

One local principal, whom I view as a pompous moral coward, requires tough teachers—those who give failinggrades—to support their decisions with mounds of paperwork. This strategy helps prevent failure, he says, for many kids whose psyches may be permanently damaged by any "negative situations."

As if suffering and failure, learning and grades were the responsibility of teachers, not students. As if our kids had to be taught not the sense of the freedom that comes with personal responsibility, but a cute, acute sense of dependence: "The teacher did it."

The message is especially dangerous for minority children: "Someone else-—usually a white racist—is responsible for your failure, not you. Never mind that you may have ditched class, cheated on what few tests you took, and handed in about 10 percent of the assignments. You come from a broken home with a single parent, and you can't help anything you do."

Sounds just like Andrew Valdez's case. The lawyer who defended him called Judge Zimmerman's sentence "a sad commentary" on society. "[Valdez] got a long time, longer than he's lived so far," mourned the lawyer. "It disturbs me that our society has come to a point where we're sending kids to prison for these lengths of time." He contended that Mr. Valdez was the product of a broken home that was both passive and violent.

How about the trendy religious excuses, so popular these days? They work, too.

For instance, I had assigned my 9th graders to memorize and recite, among other works, "Yet Do I Marvel," by Countee Cullen, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. One father, a local pastor, objected. There was something theologically unsound in any black man's contemplating God's divine providence. His daughter (who hadn't completed any previous assignments either) would not, on religious grounds, recite that humanistic piece. But, warned her God-fearing father, she'd better get a good grade for the assignment.

Our public schools ought to just say "no" to thousands of such undisciplined and lazy kids—and to their incompetent, abusive, and negligent parents.

In a column in Newsweek last fall, Robert J. Samuelson suggested just that. Although he was alluding mainly to problems of colleges, he suggested we could improve schools "if we made them matter more by letting fewer students go to college."

"Almost anyone who wants to go to college can," he wrote. "All that's required is a high-school diploma. ... High school loses its relevance because students know they can go on to the next stage."

In response to the increasingly socialistic mentality that wants public education to do and be everything for everybody, I must sound a warning.

To disruptive loafers, we ought to say "no." To kids and parents who think public education is the great dumping ground, a tax-supported babysitting facility, we ought to say, "Look elsewhere."

If we really love them, we have to say "no" to our children. No to their failure. No to bad behavior. No to lack of self-discipline. No to being unlovable and unloved. No to smarting off and dumbing up. No to spending the best part of their lives in jail--just like my impoverished, imprisoned brother, Andrew Valdez.

If we don't tell our kids "no"—and mean it—some court akin to Judge Zimmerman's will.

We have to get there first.

Vol. 7, Issue 22, Page 32

Published in Print: February 24, 1988, as Adults Must Say 'No'—To Save Children
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