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Saturday, August 27, 2011

School rules

The Education minister has announced the end to arbitrary search and seizure at schools. At last something recognisably progressive from the National government and a long time coming this has been.

“These new guidelines should give principals and teachers more confidence to pre-empt and deal with difficult situations, and ensure that this minority of students gets the message that drugs and weapons are not acceptable in our schools.

“This will allow teachers to manage any disruptions, and get on with the important job of lifting achievement.

“I have also instructed the Ministry to investigate changes to legislation which will give schools even greater support in what is a complex legal area.

The Minister says the policy is about drugs and weapons, but that's the thick end of the wedge. What about other incidents?

I'm guessing my school experience of the 80s and 90s was pretty standard: the teachers asserted an absolute right to search bags, desks and lockers and a right to confiscate whatever they liked. They did this as a matter of loco parentis - the only latin ever taught us. That meant whatever a parent could do to you so could a teacher. Up until 1989 when parliament banned it that also meant dishing out beatings with various traditional torture implements. I can still recall listening to that debate as a secondary school student as Labour pushed it through over the vehement objections from some of its own members, most notably the increasingly grumpy and reactionary Trevor de Cleene.

While the physical punishments have been outlawed the routine assumption by school authorities that students had no protection under human rights legislation continued. And the assumption continues despite laws and regulations to the contrary. Indeed the central contradiction of the school (and there is no distinction between private or state institutions in this regard) is that while the school demands of its students total obedience to its own plethora of pedantic and petty rules the school authorities themselves are wantonly subverting and acting in defiance of the rules that are supposed to govern them. They act as a law unto themselves. Thus the perceptive students (and there are unfortunately very few) who observe this happening learn from this that the power of one over another is not based on a concept of justice, or the facts of the written law, or even what they officially claim it is, but on the whim of the strong over the weak, their own convenience and circumstance. And then come all the lies, bluster and nonsense needed to support the inconsistencies which inevitably arise with this contradiction - further undermining the credibility and moral stature of the school authorities in the minds of those subject to it. These new guidelines may be a small measure to address that problem.

Of the many, many examples of abuse of power and the arbitrary actions that pass as school policy the random search would be one of the worst. At my secondary school they were common practice. The most absurd instance I recall with any clarity was an urgent circular from the principal to every teacher in the school that they had to check every student's bag... because a telephone had gone missing. The teacher was as contemptuous of this as her students were. "Do we search your bag too?" - the obvious retort to her. The assumption by the principal (or really the deputy as all operations of this sort were at the instigation of the deputy) being a student had stolen it, rather than any other possibility, and the automatic response that a dragnet invasion of every student's privacy was necessary. So in one hit the school authorities imputed guilt and responsibility exclusively upon their students (and without cause), and then demonstrated that institutional mistrust in a comprehensive policy that not only was far beyond reasonable but also embarassing and humiliating to both students and teachers.

That's one of those incidents at school when you find out which of the three types of person you are: those that associate themselves with the personal power of the teacher and the authorities to bully and coerce others, the ones who don't think at all and just comply with whatever those in power demand without question, and those that understand what's going on and object because it is unjust. The first lot become prefects and then tomorrow's police, parking wardens etc. and enter professions where the power of punishment and control can be obtained for themselves. The second lot are the bulk of the population who will acquiesce in almost anything the first lot do - no matter how monstrous - not just because of their (at times wilful) ignorance of the situation but because their own personal exposure to the injustice is limited - making them in some ways as selfish as the first lot. The third lot are the smallest group in society - those that will never join the professions of the overseer class (apart from protest/activist politicians, lawyers etc.) and find it difficult to attract and mobilise the middle group, and often find themselves concentrated in tiny cells within academia, the bureacracy or alone on the fringes with no institutional support or networks. That is what society is like and that is what school teaches you if you were paying attention.

Another way of putting it is the first is the rapist and his mate, the second are the dozen or so pretending it isn't happening or that she deserves it somehow, the third is either calling the cops or grabbing a baseball bat to put a stop to it. The analogy may be crude - yes - but accurate, absolutely. And it is something of a grand hypocrisy that there is so much focus on anti-bullying campaigns in schools when it is the school system itself that is the epitome of bullying.

The Ministry of Education's guidelines themselves are merely that:

Note: These guidelines are not a legal code and are not a substitute for specific legal advice. They are instead designed to provide general guidance to schools in their management of incidents that may give rise to possible search or confiscation.

So there is ample wriggle room for schools to continue arbitrary search and seizure unfortunately. However by making it clear that the reason is for harm (including self-harm so that drugs can also be a reason) means such random and dragnet operations and group punishments like searching the whole school for a telephone will no longer be acceptable. It's a step towards a full recognition of rights, but it's a tiny one and one prone to constant erosion as drug hysteria pushes the authorities to testing and dog sniffing and so on. For trust to be established it needs to go deeper than just some guidelines.


At 27/8/11 6:38 pm, Blogger KjT said...

Unfortunately it seems the new law still allows gross invasions of privacy. Like reading items on personal laptops, dairies and cellphones.

At 27/8/11 7:56 pm, Blogger Fern said...

Thank you, Tim, for that excellent analysis.

At 28/8/11 11:30 am, Blogger flemhoof said...

well put tim, and as one of the third group i couldn't agree more. i have just watched this play out on my teenage son. first was the meetings to address his anger issues, then when he was caught smoking tobacco it was random drug tests. sadly all the goodwork i had done to help my child deal with drugs and peer pressure was undone in a second. drug testing meant you are a failure and we will get u. soon his attempts to avoid testing meant suspension for absence,and eventual exclusion. it wasn't till a friends child fell into the same pit and was accepted back into the school despite far more unacceptable behavior that i wised up. his family could pay the school fees and 'donations', i couldn't.

At 28/8/11 12:09 pm, Blogger DebsisDead said...

he thing that always amazed me about the hypocrisy of institutional power as wielded at a NZ secondary school was the internal conflict going on for about 90% of the masters. That was these over educated old men would claim to be teaching out of some sort of vocation. They held that being a teacher was a respected profession dating back to the Greek and Roman civilisations they insisted we 'chew and spew' (© T. Shadbolt 1966).
Yet the way they behaved toward all should any of us question their absolute right to control every aspect of our individual selves, revealed a nasty surprise. Purple faced rage and canings galore. Their attitude was one of fear and loathing. They hated our youth, deeply resented our still unbridled expressions of spontaneous action, and were shit scared that one tiny spark could make their ivory tower illusion come tumbling down. Causing us the students to wreak vicious acts of revenge upon them for all the petty oppressions they had inflicted.

Since it is doubtful all these blokes started out this way when they came back from killing germans, intent on making a better world, one has to suspect that this power that society grants to teachers destroys them and corrodes whatever inclination they may have had to idealistic transfer of knowledge style teachers.

At 29/8/11 4:52 am, Blogger jane said...

@DebisDead, I don't think they have changed their spots a bit:http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10747938


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