MAXWELL:  Don’t undercut teachers’ authority

11/16/1994 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The hypocrisy of many parents is undermining public education in the United States. Everywhere parents are complaining like never before that the public schools are doing a lousy job. Obviously, according to standardized tests and other indicators, many schools are failing to fulfill their academic responsibilities. Most parents, however, ignore their own vital role in the success or failure of the public schools. And one of the worst things that parents can do, which they do a lot these days, is to compromise the authority of the adults _ the teachers, counselors, coaches, administrators and others _ in charge of the schools.

Nothing, in my estimation, is more harmful to adult authority than for irresponsible parents to side with their children in challenging rules intended for the good of the greatest number of students and to bring frivolous legal action against the schools.

Such is the case at Hollidayburg Area Senior High in Pittsburgh, where a few parents are complaining that mandatory showers after gym classes violate their children’s right to privacy. Bunk! Hollidayburg and other schools nationwide have had shower policies for decades, for darned good reason and without incident. Now, these modern-day, rights-obesessed parents and their peevish little darlings have been joined by the American Civil Liberties Union in challenging the school’s authority. The superintendent, trying to balance the interests of everyone, modified the policy and had private shower stalls built. But the parents and their kids still want the shower policy itself killed.

In Florida, we have our share of kids and their parents challenging adult authority in the schools. Most of our cases involve distributing religious materials on campus, using unsavory and hurtful language, wearing apparel containing potentially offensive messages and instances of sexual harassment. In too many cases, school officials, faced with the prospect of costly legal battles, back down, letting children win when they do not deserve to win. Religious pamphlets, for example, with headlines such as “Satanism bred in secular school system” and “Pro-choice women aid Playboy agenda” have no business in a public school setting _ period. The parents of children wanting to distribute this junk should know better.

While these same parents are complaining that the schools are denying their children individual rights, they are griping, as hypocrites would, that the schools are not teaching their children well. How can the schools do their job when their authority to control the children has been weakened? A teacher who has no authority to discipline a boy for wearing a contraband T-shirt or a coach who has no authority to chastise a player for missing jump shots on the court, more often than not, will lack the authority to teach that child in the classroom.

Public schools, like the workplace and other environments requiring order, operate best when adults are firmly in charge. If you think I am being too harsh, take a look at the schools in your district, public and private, that boast of genuinely good academic records and you will find strong adults in charge. You will find that most rules are non-negotiable. You will find that kids do what they are told.

Today’s new generation of spoiled, immature parents apparently needs to know that learning to follow rules is an integral part of their children’s education and social development. They need to know also that their children’s dislike of rules does not necessarily make the rules wrong. Most of all, these parents need to know that, when they help their children defeat adults, they undermine the system and jeopardize their children’s education.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.


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