Sunday, May 23, 2010

Systemic indefensibilty

For some reason this riles me up. Among all the wrongs in the world, this is pretty minor, but there is something about it that feels like an indicator of broad social failings.

Apparently New York State requires that middle school students be taught, according to the New York Times, "the various behaviors that can transmit H.I.V./AIDS." The official school syllabus further

directed that students be encouraged to use sexual terms that they understood, so that they could relate those words to the more formal terminology. "If students use different terms," the syllabus says, "make sure they understand the relationship between both sets of terms."

A Staten Island teacher, a 26 year veteran who probably knows very well what her students understand, wrote the polite/scientific terms for "sexual organs, sexual acts and bodily fluids" on the board -- and asked kids what they called the same human equipment and behaviors.

Some kids wrote down what students answered in their notebooks -- and their parents decided to complain. The principal charged the teacher with "corporal punishment" and "verbal abuse" (huh?) and tried to remove her. She eventually was returned to teaching, but sued the city for anguish and loss of income. The city is defending itself this way:

In a statement, Blanche Greenfield, a senior city lawyer, said that the words the students used, some of which she repeated in the statement, were “entirely inappropriate. Their use in the classroom reflects unacceptable and extremely poor judgment by the teacher and is plainly not consistent with community values," Ms. Greenfield said.

To be appropriately colloquial, what the fuck? Kids knowing that unsafe sex can get them sick is not "community values?"

I guess I should assume that the city lawyer is only trying to do her job -- to defend the indefensible.

But this kind of nonsense ending up in court with attendant publicity for this dopey sequence of events is what undermines faith in both government and the good judgment of our fellow citizens. I know school systems are huge, unwieldy institutions, but can't everyone cut each other a little slack? The teacher's job was to communicate literally vital information; the principal's job was to communicate with parents and if need be mollify they -- they may be unreasonable people but they are also probably trying to save their kids from danger; the school bureaucracy's job was to get everyone to back off. If parents want their children to learn, they need to demonstrate this by being willing to learn themselves. Instead, the whole mess somehow ended up in court. This isn't working and dealing with such systems is the sort of thing that undermines community life -- and values.

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