Mission Creep


Jane Weinkrantz



.                            I was saddened, but not surprised to learn that the William Floyd school district is adding a drug treatment program to its high school.  Certainly, there has been a disturbing increase in addiction to opiates among teens on Long Island and William Floyd is to be commended for addressing this issue directly and honestly.  In a district where there is no local rehab center and little public transportation, Daytop, a Huntington Station based drug recovery center, will bring rehab to the high school at no charge to the school district. Kids will be able to pay with their parents’ insurance.  Though the plan is an innovative one, it is not without vulnerabilities or risk. Yet Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence told Newsday, "If they can do this the right way, they can make it a model,"  (“William Floyd Plans Substance Abuse Clinic at High School” by Stacey Altherr and Michael Amon, November 16, 2010). That model is what worries me.

.                            It is not that I am opposed to students receiving drug treatment. It’s vital to our society’s health that we reach young people with addictions and help them regain control of their lives.  But, I’m not sure I want the William Floyd approach to become standard. The American school is now our society’s foremost vehicle for addressing shortcomings and providing services that ought to be available elsewhere. Addiction treatment should be under the category of health care, not education. We teach kids not to use drugs in health class. That’s our job. But, is it also our responsibility to cure them of addictions? 

                            My concern isn’t limited to this one service. I was paging through an education magazine the other day and came upon an ad for something called “Breakfast in the Classroom.” According to the Food Research and Action Center ,  “Many children do not eat a nutritious breakfast every morning. Often families are living on very tight budgets and can’t afford to provide good breakfasts at home every day nor the money to buy them at school. Regardless of income, families today live busy lives that often make it difficult to sit down long enough in the morning to eat a nutritious breakfast. Sometimes children are not physically capable of eating breakfast at home when they first wake up. Other children may have long commutes to school or long periods between breakfast at home and school lunch, making breakfast at school an important option.” I understand that some children may have families too poor to afford breakfast and they are entitled to a free school breakfast, but why are we compensating for the cultural and economic problem “regardless of income” of “busy lives?” How can you be too busy to feed your own kid? If you really can’t fit that task into your crowded morning, you probably shouldn’t even be responsible for a hamster. If you and your child are able to afford breakfast but are simply on different morning schedules, how difficult is it to make sure that there’s always a box of unsweetened cereal, a carton of non-fat milk and a piece of fruit in the house? It is certainly easier to teach children who have full bellies. I know. I have served more than a few classroom breakfasts myself, but as American schools are constantly accused of “failing our kids,” our role is steadily increasing in children’s lives as expectations of their parents decrease and the line between home and school continues to blur.

.                            When we are not making breakfast, we are preventing childhood obesity, another problem that seems to me to be the domain of parents, not educators. Again, health teachers and home and careers teachers instruct students on how to eat properly. Michelle Obama’s initiative to promote healthy eating and exercise for American kids is a program with goals no one can fault. In addition to making cafeteria food healthier, our First Lady’s anti-obesity platform also calls for encouraging new mothers to breastfeed since breastfed babies are less likely to be overweight. However, I don’t see her demanding that offices provide private areas for new mothers to pump breast milk with half the zeal she expresses when it comes to getting the deep fryer out of the school cafeteria. If American children are overweight and the American Heart Association estimates that 30-40% of American children are obese, shouldn’t their parents change what they feed them? Shouldn’t their parents teach them how to choose healthy foods even when they are in the cafeteria? I have a friend who has taught her kids to reject certain foods because they are “little balls of fat.” Surely she is not the only person who can train her children to make healthy choices, even when she is not there to supervise them.

.                            Next, let’s consider online bullying and bullying in general. It is wonderful that this issue has received more attention recently because all of us can think of at least one or two heartbreaking stories from our own childhoods in which the victim suffered and the bullies somehow got off the hook. However, while schools are engaging speakers and implementing anti-bullying programs, is anyone promoting a campaign to help parents avoid the behaviors likely to produce a bully?  In schools everywhere, we provide strategies on how to respond to a bully, but where are these bullies coming from, anyway? According to the United States Department of Education, bullies grow up with “more family problems than usual; parents are poor role models for getting along with others; parents are poor role models for constructively solving problems; inconsistent discipline procedures at home; parents often do not know child’s whereabouts’ [bullies] suffer physical and emotional abuse at home.” While I certainly believe that no school should tolerate bullying, I also believe that where bullies are concerned, the family dynamic is more likely to produce a bully than the classroom dynamic. Yet, there seems to be no movement to offer parents coping skills and insights in order not to raise a child who is cruelly aggressive. Once again, bullying is---if not all the school’s fault---at least all our responsibility.

.                                        This constant “mission creep” has the approval of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who wants to use schools as community centers for computer literacy, health care, free meals and assorted other activities. Perhaps because Arne Duncan comes from the city of Hull House , this seems like a natural transition for him. But, while he criticizes our nation’s schools and educators, Duncan is all too happy to expand the school-as-safety-net model, forever considering possible ways to widen education’s responsibilities whenever our society fails to provide parents with the jobs, health care and the time with their children that they deserve. While he refuses to acknowledge the effect the absence of a steady income, health and stable household might have on student standardized test scores when they are used to evaluate teachers, Duncan is all too happy to use schools to fill the void when these things are missing from a child’s life.  But, these stopgap measures miss the point. No one is asking questions like: What kind of society makes it difficult for parents to provide breakfast for their own children and how can we fix that? Why are so many kids becoming addicted to opiates? Why are so many kids cruel to each other? Why is America failing at nurturing so many of its young people? Neither Duncan not President Obama have suggested any serious changes that would allow parents to spend more time actually raising their children. The last pro-parenting legislation I can recall was President Clinton’s Family Leave Act.

.                            Being a parent is tough; supporting a family in this economy is tough. But raising a good kid is a joyous and proud accomplishment and the utmost gift to our society. Instead of making schools in loco parentis in ways they never dreamed possible, we should make the creation of conditions for excellent parenting a top priority. If children are our future, our country has become remarkably shortsighted.

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