Sunday, December 23, 2012

# 29 It's My Life.

    Public schools are different than other important institutions in that they temporarily house  societies most valuable resource.  If you accept this position it is easier to understand that protection of the inhabitants is always a priority.  In spite of the fact that outside invaders to our schools receive an inordinate amount of attention through the media, they are fairly rare. The biggest security problems are encountered from the inside and more often than not, are awarded little or no public attention.

    My experience is most kids want to be in school, just not always for the reasons that society likes to pretend. When approached correctly they love learning, but for many kids, school is about socializing and learning curriculum is second.  For example, I have taught many kids over the years who do not attend many classes, fail courses often, but they will show up at the school almost every day, like it's a neighbourhood drop-in center. (I call them in-school drop-outs) Add to this the fact that they are at a stage in their lives where breaking away from the social structures is the norm, and you have a recipe for dissension. So, it's understandable that kids often view the canon of school rules oppressive.

    I have learned that brighter and often leadership prone kids are relentless in quest to reject authority and they can be very inventive in their approach to that rejection. Their intuitive wisdom  seems to look for the gray area in the litany of rules and play it to their advantage.

   To give you an idea of the atmosphere in a public school, I'll touch on the structure of a day in the school. Time is controlled by bells which sound at very specific times throughout the day. (Ironically, most school clocks are never in-sync.) All exterior doors in the school are locked at 9 a.m. and while we can get out, theoretically, no one can get into the building unless they go through the front doors. However, kids who want to get in through any door will simply text a contact on the inside, the contact asks the teacher to go to the washroom and will instead open the door for the texter.

    So, a warning bell five minutes before classes sounds in the morning and then five minutes later a bell to start class:  10:27 a.m. class is finished, 10:32 next class begins, 11:47 lunch, 12:25 warning bell, 12:35 class begins, 1:50 class dismissed, 1:55 class begins,  and 3:10 bell classes are done. (as I write this I am feeling more like Pavlov's dog.) 

   We use to have bells to indicate a fire drill, or lock down, but in spite of the fact these bells always served their purpose officials have replaced them with the most offensive ear splitting alarms, talk about over kill!. I think the reasoning is that they will help vacate the building faster, but I am convinced it must be someone in the purchasing department who got a deal on these alarms, because we have never had anyone get stuck in a school unaware there is a reason to vacate. These squelchy alarms are most painful if you are teacher remaining behind to make sure everyone is out of the building. Bells are about behavioural training and they were doing that job quite well.

   All fire alarm stations are covered with a Plexiglas cover which squeals when lifted, heat sensors protrude from the ceiling every few feet. We have had a rash of false alarms over the years, kids would pull the alarm and bolt from the building. It seems some kids discovered that they can set off the alarm by either whacking the sensor with clothing or holding a lighter close to it. The end result is disruption and expensive visits from the fire department.

   While in class, teachers are watching students at all times and we are in fact legally responsible to record their location during every class. Once they leave class, there are staff members who watch students for fights, drug dealing, and other inappropriate behaviours. In addition, there are cameras recording all people in the halls, at all times. In fact the only place where students are not supervised is the washrooms and in my particular school students of six hundred plus, some washrooms have been eliminated, down to two, one for each sex on two levels of the building.

    So, as you can imagine, the security is pretty tight, almost all aspects of life in the school are monitored at all times. So, the security breaches come from a small number of kids, and they commit crimes against the system on a regular basis. Personally, I classify these crimes in three levels. Level one is just nuisance behaviours that while undesirable, perpetrators are rarely caught and the minor damage is left to custodians to rectify. For example: littering in the halls at lunch time, yogurt smeared on the walls or on the stairs, jamming drinking fountains with left over food, blocking the spout of the fountain so the water shoots out all over the floor when used or my favourite, injecting glue in the classroom door lock. None of these behaviours seem to warrant police action, kids know it, and unless you have eye witnesses, it isn't worth the effort to hunt them down. Many people tend to conclude that the severity of the crime depends on who or what has been hurt or lost, but regardless of the severity they are all technically crimes.

    The next level of crime is where outside labour is hired to clean up or repair damage to the building. This might include broken windows, lockers, destroyed books, jammed toilets etc.. A popular one is graffiti and it comes and goes from year to year. We had an incessant problem with graffiti on the outside of the school for a few years. Kids would attack the building late at night with spray paint and compose profanity laced exhibitions of their inner anger. The school needed to hire a guy with a pressure washer to come by and spend a day removing it. I think it was fifteen hundred bucks a visit.  One year, I was so accustom to seeing the 'art work' every morning that I would do my own little CSI when I read it.  I concluded it was boys, grade 11, too much time on their hands, rebels without a clue.  However, one time, I was elated to discover that the kid who painted "Fuckin' school...." had used his apostrophe correctly and it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to know some excellent English teacher had reached out and connected with a student.

    More serious crimes (level three) are both financially demanding to the system and the psychological damage it greater. For example, when students and staff see constant graffiti, or broken windows it darkens your perception of the learning and working environment.

   We have had a few incidences over the years where the school has been broken into after hours and complete computer labs removed, money stolen, students have defecated on the floors, pissed on the walls and completely destroyed windows. Many years ago we had a rash of fire bombings in the washrooms and hallway garbage cans. When the fires start, the fumes from all the melting synthetic materials are extremely toxic.

   About fifteen years ago the government announced that they were going to provide every teacher with a classroom computer. ( I guess they saved enough in salaries from fired secretaries) So, the install job was to take place in June when exams were on, and most classroom would be empty. About fifty computers were delivered on skids and the technicians went about their task. One day the job was delayed because some students saw opportunity in these modern compact flat screens. They removed them from the boxes and made off with seven in their backpacks. They casually walked out of the building like nothing happened, no one was caught, new screens were ordered and I am sure some technicians were called on the carpet.

    One scary incident was when a student from another school walked in through the front doors, up to second floor, asked where he could find a particular student.  The kid was pointed out in the class and the intruder walk into the room, down the isle, punched the kids several time in the face and left. He was never caught. That kind of crime is very bad for the atmosphere of the school, at all levels.

    So, what causes kids to participate in acts of juvenile delinquency?  I am sure the experts have a multitude of complex answers and I am sure they all contain some academic merit. However, I am a pragmatic person and look for tools to help me in the immediate. Consequently, I have my own conclusions about the causes of delinquency.

    Apart from the usual desires to break away from the confines of the adult world; the seed of juvenile delinquency seems to lie in socially acceptable skill based interests and the ability to communicate with other people who engage in the similar interests. All people want to belong to a group and when in a foreign environment they will always seek out people who have similar interests.  As an example, suppose a kid with no skill based interests like sports, music, or computer games moves to a new neighbourhood.  If she is weak in constructive social skills, she will seek other kids with similar abilities.  It takes very little skill to commit most juvenile crimes.  Stealing a bike or breaking a window, tagging mail boxes, smoking dope require less skill than playing hockey, piano or chess.

    So, what is the solution? As the population of parents with weak parenting skills or overly lax styles grow, schools are increasingly saddled with the task of socializing kids. The best we can do in the schools is to teach them confidence to learn new constructive skills and how to interact with other people who also enjoy those skills. When kids are not taught how to behave within society they take their social handicaps with them to the broader public. It is a difficult task to ask teachers to perform and one which I feel is not justified. Teachers should be reinforcing behaviours learned at home not trying to create basic social behaviours in addition to delivering curriculum.