Bring Freedom of Choice to Public Schools or Issue Teachers Kevlar Guns 

(Article published in The Seattle Times  2.13.2001)



My wife tells me the other side of the story. She is a child counselor and every night she talks about children who are abused, frightened, unloved and hurting. I can see what her work means to her, how deeply she cares for these kids. My problem is that I was a teacher for too long. I can't get around knowing that many of these same kids are dangerous and do not belong in our schools.


Everyone remembers April 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed themselves and 13 others at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. More recently, we read reports from Hoyt, Kansas, where police apparently uncovered plans by three teens for a massacre at a local high school. Police found firearms including an assault rifle, 400 rounds of ammunition, bomb-making materials and other evidence they believed indicated a planned attack on Royal Valley High School. The three teens involved are 16, 17 and 18.


Worse is an even more recent report of yet another attack planned on a junior high school only 60 miles from Columbine. This time, according to Fort Collins police, two 14 year olds were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder and a 15 year old pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit assault. They are getting younger and they are getting more dangerous. Think about what this means to classroom teachers.


I listen to my wife carefully because she is a smart and caring person. She understands children in ways I never will. She goes into the schools and into the families of her young clients and does everything she can to help them become healthy and safe. She is a believer. Unfortunately, I do not share her faith. While I admire her compassion and gentle healing, my faith is in teachers and the work they can do when not under siege.


When I listen to the stories about the damaged children, I think about the damaged teachers. I remember people like English teacher Shannon Wright and science teacher John Gillette, who were both shot and killed by middle school students-Wright in a school yard in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Gillette at a graduation dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. I think about the Department of Education report that said on average each year there are 133,700 violent crimes against teachers at school. I think about the ten years I spent in high school classrooms.


In the past few years, as reports of school violence have become almost commonplace, I have struggled to understand. I know from experience how wonderful teaching can be. The joy and passion of it are extraordinary. Public schools can be astonishing and wonderful. They are important. A democracy needs educated citizens. But a democracy should not teach children about responsible freedom by using force to make them learn.


I believe there is more violence in school because school itself is based on violence. The kids are not in our schools because they choose to be there. The state uses force and makes them attend. That use of force undermines the very essence of what education is and I believe is the root cause for the violence we see in our schools.


Ask any teacher what they dislike most about teaching and they will almost certainly tell you classroom management. Most teachers love teaching, but hate being police officers. The attendance-taking, referral-writing, hall-patrolling, lunch-monitoring, bathroom-checking police work ordeal tears out the very heart of what teachers are supposed to do in our schools. If the students are essentially prisoners, the teachers are essentially guards. Build a lesson plan on that and see what you end up with.


More schools are using fenced and locked campuses, metal detectors, uniformed guards in the halls and other high tech prison hardware to keep the peace. While all of that is happening, more states are embracing a variety of school choice options from homeschooling to charter schools to online schools. The kids are not the only ones who realize that the public school system is more like a prison than a school.


Gov. Gary Locke has proposed throwing out the book on how to run public schools and has challenged schools to come up with a better system. I suggest that if the governor is serious, the first thing he should throw out is the use of force by the state to keep kids in school. Make K-12 public education a choice, similar to higher education. Get rid of the laws that use violence to keep kids in school and under control and you might find out that you don't need those things.


Given freedom in the public schools, you might find out just how effective teachers can be when they are working with young people who want to be there. You might find out how good our teachers really are when they can stop being police officers and spend their time developing creative and effective lesson plans. You might find out how much children really love education when they are free to learn.


The best teaching is by example. If we want our children to love learning and avoid the use of force, we need to model that behavior. We need to love education enough, trust teachers enough, to create institutions of learning where children are there by choice. Unless we free our children and public education itself, we may as well admit that schools are really prisons and issue teachers guns and Kevlar vests.


Steve Simpson publishes an online education newsletter, Ed.Net Briefs. He completed his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Washington. He can be reached at .


Copyright 2001 All rights reserved.