Last week in the small town of Dunlap, fear and foolishness set up residence after a high school principal says he found a piece of paper in a trash can, allegedly containing a "hit list" of around 300 names. Six teenage girls, between 14 and 15, have been charged with homicide conspiracy.
Names on the list included Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise and The Energizer Bunny. Also, reports say names of people in the school were in this list, which alarmed the principal when they also discovered a My Space page used by the teens and saw the word "kill" used once. The story has made headlines at CNN, Boing Boing and newspapers nationwide.
The Secret Service has also investigated the situation, according to a report in the San Diego press, with a claim that President Bush's name was involved, though they determined no threat existed.
I do understand that knee-knocking fear has gripped school officials, parents and news organizations since the dreadful events at Columbine H.S. In most every public school now armed officers are on patrol, metal detectors are in place, anti-bully guidelines have been adopted and implemented in many states, t-shirts and other clothing as well as entire host of "offenses" can lead to the invoking of so-called "Zero Tolerance" disciplinary actions by schools. Lockdown reports are as frequent as pep rallies. And some politicians have called for arming teachers with guns -- just in case.
One of the oddities of all these urges to make schools safe (and statistically, public schools are still among the safest places for a juvenile) is the "Zero Tolerance" policy. It most often results in the student being banned from a school, and other public schools won't allow a student to enroll once labeled as a violator of this policy. Halting education and isolating kids who find themselves accused of offenses minor or major is better than sending them to a detention facility, though it seems to me more educational efforts and improved involvement with their peers would be much more effective if the goal is to correct bad behavior.
I often wonder what a student today makes of being under the strictness of a Zero Tolerance policy -- where else do they see such rule enforcement? Actual crimes committed in the private and public sectors typically result in months or years of investigations, talk show appearances, book deals, and often evasion of anything resembling being held accountable. Mandatory sentencing guidelines may approach these issues, though many in the judiciary question the wisdom of such broadly harsh sentences often at odds with the crime committed.
Educational reforms get nifty labels, like No Child Left Behind, which will leave an entire school system left out of funding appropriations -- which leads administrators and teachers under grueling pressure to make sure a high test score is attained, usually at the price of teaching the subjects and lessons most needed. A classroom is not a single homogeneous entity, and requiring them all to achieve a standard established by legislative action, in my opinion, isn't a constructive approach.
Tennessee has recently begun implementing "pilot programs" in a handful of counties to provide "obesity report cards" to parents in conjunction with their grades in studies. Students are rated according to the Body Mass Index (B.M.I.). So add more to the responsibilities of schools and add more money for staff to study BMIs and issues regular reports.
At the federal level, new policies are being promoted for random drug testing to take place, and many schools already conduct such tests among athletes and students who engage in extra-curricular programs. Other trendy new policies arrive daily -- but they always seem to address an issue or hot topic via tests and not by education. And again, more pressure on schools to focus on another test, far outside the needs of a classroom.
Teachers and students must be mind-numbed by all this. A typical school conversation about things that annoy or irritate them (like the Energizer Bunny or Tom Cruise) can lead to criminal charges. One has to wonder what students make of the world and the futures ahead of them - a fearful, dangerous world of gun-toting, overweight, drug-addicted, sex-crazed, easily criminalized adults who demand of children behavior those adults struggle to attain.