First of all, the thoughts and prayers of everyone with First State Media go out to the folks at Polytech High School who have been rocked by 3 suicides in the last 2 months.
The tragedy at Polytech is the latest in a line of tragic incidents that really highlight the problems within Delaware’s public school system. At Cape Henlopen High School, a fight ended with threats from a 15 year old boy to shoot up the school and a driver in the same district was removed for disgusting and inflammatory comments made in Facebook postings. In Newark last year, a student was counseled in school about a previous suicide attempt and his depression only to be allowed to return home with no parental notification. When his parents returned from work, they found him dead in their home. A number of teachers have also been arrested in the last few months in Delaware for having sexual relationships with high school students. The events are all unrelated in their individual natures (although the cause of the 3 suicides at Polytech is unknown) but they do highlight a problem with the school system. Parental notification or more accurately, a lack there of is a huge miss in the First State.
Most parents can enrapture you with stories of their experiences with teachers and school administrators and the lack of coordination and consultation but these kinds of tragedies only make the issue more plain to the average person. Further, the problem of communication doesn’t seem to be institutional, that is that private schools (and most charter schools) do not have the same problems with parent/school communication. In fact, communication among private school parents and the schools their children attend is the best out of all the options. The most logical reason for the gap between public school communication and private school communication standards is the fact that private schools are often religion based and so they therefore share a common bond with the parents of students that places a high value on the parents staying involved in the child’s educational pursuits. Also not to be forgotten is the cost of private school education. Parents paying tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket each year to send their kids to a school tend to want to know the value of their expense. The question is why is there such a lack of communication between public schools and parents? Public school exerts more and more influence over our children and their pursuits in not just education but in more and more seemingly unrelated ways. For instance, schools now influence our children in the area of social interaction, nutrition, belief in faith (the ignorance and expulsion of Creationism while teaching the Darwinian concept of Evolution) and behavior modification. In fact, schools operate as pseudo parents on a day to day basis in a process that they call “in loco parentis” which basically means “in place of parents”. This is a commonly held belief among not only public schools but also private schools.
Parents are entrusting their children to these schools for between 7 and 8 hours every day just like private school parents do. It would stand to reason that a parent would want to know who their children are spending their time with. After all, most parents still make sure their young children are hanging around the right people and not getting into trouble at home, why should school be different? There are a few of reasons. First, public schools are for all intents and purposes, government entities in the eyes of parents and so they feel that the government is well prepared to care for their children and that they have the best interests of their kids in mind. After all, the government is there to protect us from danger right? Well unfortunately, as we’ve seen in incidents of rape, sexual assaults, suicides and brutally violent bullying and student on student violence, our government run schools are NOT protecting our children from danger. No one can tell you more about that than the parent of a child with special needs, a learning disability or some kind of social awkwardness. Those children are some of the first to face major problems in schools filled with children trying to fit in with others and including some kids who don’t place a high value on education either because of their own insecurities or because their family is not supportive of their education pursuits. Secondly, public school costs are not extremely well known. They have been hidden in the morass of massive government spending and just become another part of the apparatus that is big government. If parents knew, for instance, that Delaware spends more than $16,000 each year per student on education, they would be far more interested in how that money is being spent. In fact, when parents are asked, “If given a voucher for $16,000 to send your child to any educational institution, would you continue sending them to their current school?” Most of them will tell you that they would send them to one private or charter school or another. Therein lays the problem. Parents are not being given a choice in education nor are they even being given all of the information to make an informed choice about their child’s education. Some parents just don’t value their children’s education or are not involved in their child’s education. That is a sad and shameful fact but it’s not indicative of the majority. Most of the parents that fall into this category are parents who are struggling just to take care of the family, the home or to make ends meet. Some are struggling with their own problems be it substance abuse or some other kind of ailment that really restricts the amount of energy they can put into others. These are folks that need help and an attentive school and teaching base could provide the kind of help and stability that these parents need and could be catalysts for change in the familial relationship almost by accident. Finally, schools do not feel the “need” to be the initiators of any parental involvement. This is evidenced clearly by the tragic death by suicide of a Newark High School Student in 2010. A student was brought in for counseling by the school counselor because of an earlier suicide attempt at home that had been reported by a friend of the student and spent a number of hours with the individual. There was a clear problem that was so clear that the counselor thought to follow up with the student’s teachers and the school administrator after the student had returned to class. The child went home and that afternoon before his parents returned from work he hung himself in his home. The parents were never notified by the school that he had been experiencing problems and they were never told about the counseling session. The school didn’t reach out to them at all. The parents, upset and distraught at the tragic death of their son, in turn sued the school for wrongful death. The school knew that the student had attempted this before and that he was not entirely together but they didn’t notify the parents. Seems like an open and shut case to most people. The verdict came down in January of this year that the school cannot be held liable because the student himself did not initiate the counseling session and so therefore there was no “special relationship” created that legally required the school to contact the parents. So what you have is a system that expects to be able to mold and shape and define your child but feels no emotional attachment to the family or even to make sure that the student is properly cared for once they leave school grounds. Now this is not to say that ALL teachers are bad at communicating. There are some who go out of their way and step around the schools necessary outreach policy to be above and beyond but it’s not strictly a rule the way it is in private schools. Further, schools do not have counselors on staff that are trained to deal with issues such as suicide prevention and other societal and social problems. Most of the counselors at these schools help students with matters related to education and not so much psychology.
Does this mean that every school should now add a high priced professional psychologist to their staff? No. What it means is that had the school notified the parents and guardians of the student at Newark High School, they could have effectively dealt with the child’s issues. They certainly wouldn’t have let him come home to an empty house where he could do harm to himself. Details on the Polytech High School notification process have not been released but some parents of Polytech students were not aware until recently of the first tragic suicide in January. The school has scheduled counseling sessions for students during school hours and has setup public meetings for parents and students afterhours. Also, the students have been packing the halls and praying in the wake of the deaths. At Cape Henlopen High School on Feb. 2nd a fight ended with a 15 yr old boy threatening to return and “shoot up the school”. Parents were not notified of the threat or the incident by the school. Students were not allowed to enter the hallways even to use the bathroom and it was their text messages to parents that brought many of them to the school to remove their children on safety concerns. The lack of communication between public schools and parents is well documented and while some of it certainly falls to parents to be more involved in chaperoning field trips and spending time in the classroom helping the teachers when possible, the majority of it falls to the schools and the teachers to engage the parents especially with regards to the safety of their children.