School Nannies and the Death of Common Sense


It sounds like the opening line of a joke, "A father walked up to his kid's school and gets arrested…" but watch the video of Jim Howe trying to pick up his kids from South Cumberland Elementary School in Cumberland County, Tennessee, and you'll sooner cry than laugh. That's because Howe's alleged crime was walking into the school building and asking to take his children now that classes were over. Howe was supposed to wait, you see. All walking parents are supposed to cool their heels until a long line of drivers have picked up their kids, and only then retrieve their own children. That's because school authorities are convinced that making parents drive up to school for pick-up is somehow safer than allowing choice in the matter.

"Previously, parents were coming out to pick up children, they were just getting out of cars and coming to school," Donald Andrews, the director of Cumberland County Schools told the Huffington Post. "In this day in age, the PTO [parent teacher organization] was concerned that it was a safety issue, someone could come up and grab [any] kid."

No child was ever actually "grabbed" at this school mind you. But why let reality intrude on the important business of overregulating ourselves because of what might happen. Indeed, this incident serves to highlight a broad problem with safety regulations related to children, namely the absence of common sense.

It was a lack of common sense that led school security officer Avery Aytes to arrest Howe in the first place, telling him "I'm going to take you up to the jail… I'm not putting up with this today, you go ahead and record all you want … you're being childish and it's uncalled for." (Howe's girlfriend recorded the exchange and posted it to the internet, which is why we know what happened.) But Howe was never belligerent or even so much as raised his voice to Ayes, he just calmly said he had come to get his kids.

And it was a complete lack of judgment for the school superintendent to double-down on the original arrest mistake by promising to defend the school's actions in court. "A lot of attention is being drawn because someone doesn't want to follow rules and guidelines. I stand by the decision to [arrest Howe], we'll get negative press but that's OK if it's for the safety [and] well-being of our children," Andrews said. Is it really safer to have dozens of cars line up along the side of the road taking up a lane of traffic and making a daily headache for local drivers and police? And even if the rules were reasonable, was it good judgment to arrest a father for disorderly conduct when he'd been calm and polite?

Alas, lack of basic judgment and a devotion to driving isn't confined to Tennessee education officials. Maryland school administrators can be equally common-sense-challenged, as when a principal from Montgomery County harassed a local mother about how her daughter was getting to school. The parents and their 5th-grader had decided to have the girl take a 10-minute, direct city bus ride to and from school instead of driving her. But after hearing from some "concerned parents" the principal decided that the best use of her and a child protective services case worker's time was to investigate whether riding the bus was OK.

As the mom reported to Lenore Skenazy's blog, Free-Range Kids, the principal at first inquired as to the girl's safety. "Safety from what?" the mom inquired. "Kidnapping," the principal replied. The mom knows that crime statistics do not bear out that level of fear. The principal then tried to pressure the parent by invoking child protective services. The mom reported that the principal said "if you want to explore the bus option that [the school] would have CPS determine whether or not they felt this was ok to do… Apparently, [someone at the central office] got in touch with a liaison who works with the school system and CPS and this is how they would like to move forward should you decide to not drive her," the principal told the mom. "Do you want them to meet with you?  This would not be a report regarding neglect or abuse but rather a confirmation or not that it is ok in the eyes of CPS," the principal explained.

Got that? Parents decide to let their kid ride the bus, nothing happens except that the girl gets to and from school every day, and yet the principal insists that child welfare should get involved to "approve" of the parents' decision. Did it never occur to the principal to tell the busybody "concerned parents" to mind their own business? Then again, if the principal is irrationally afraid for her students' safety then common sense may be in short supply.

These tales of overreacting school officials, moreover, aren't exceptions; they represent the rule according to Barry Schwartz, who discussed the death of practical wisdom during a TED Talk in 2009.

Schwartz tells the story of a dad who mistakenly bought hard lemonade for his son at a Detroit Tigers game and the security guard who saw the seven-year-old drinking an alcoholic beverage and proceeded to overreact. Instead of approaching the father to strongly suggest the drink be taken from the kid, the security guard called the police, the police called an ambulance, and the kid was rushed to the hospital. After determining that there was no alcohol in the boy's blood, the kid was forced to stay in foster care for three days. After that the boy was allowed back home but only if the dad left the house. Two weeks later the family was reunited. But as Schwartz explains, "the welfare workers and the ambulance people and the judge all said the same thing: 'We hate to do it but we have to follow procedure.'"

Perhaps time has come to recognize that in the name of "protecting the kids" we've gone over the cliff in terms of reasonable safety rules and regulations. Getting back to good-enough standards, or at least to a place where authorities do not fear using their own judgment over extreme rules, is not going to be easy.