Guns at the Door, Please

It was math class in a Chicago high school. But instead of learning geometry that morning, the students were taught a horrifying lesson about violence. The teacher was collecting assignments when two students entered the room, pulled out a knife, and attacked a boy. Within moments the boy fell to the floor, fatally stabbed. It's said Johnny can't read or write--but he sure can fight. That's the finding of a new report entitled National Education Goals. The study found that one third of 8th graders can't calculate the cost of a meal from a menu. One third of 11th graders can't write a coherent paragraph about themselves--not about history or literature, mind you, but about themselves. Yet, as I said, they do know how to fight. The study revealed an alarming rate of school violence. Over the past year, one in every 5 twelfth-graders was injured in school. Many of the incidents involved weapons. It wasn't so long ago that the weapons of choice among students were rubber bands and spit balls. Now if you check their bags, you're likely to find everything from handguns to knives, razor blades, brass knuckles, and broken beer bottles. Many schools use metal detectors and security guards to keep their halls safer. Some even issue computerized identity cards, which students slip into a slot before entering the school building every morning. A green light means enter. A red light means stop and be checked by a guard. What has caused this drastic erosion of school discipline? A changing view of rights and authority. The traditional view is that schools are an extension of parental authority over their children. But beginning in the 1960s, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions granting students many of the same rights as adults. For example, in 1967 the Supreme Court ruled that any school disciplining a student had to provide notice of the charges, right to legal counsel, right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, privilege against self-incrimination, and right to appellate review. And we're talking about high school kids! Rulings like this may have prevented abuses of authority in a few cases. But the greater effect by far has been to undermine school discipline. Litigation soared. Teachers' hands were tied. They hesitated to impose discipline for fear of being drawn into costly legal battles. Students flaunted their new found impunity and openly defied teachers, saying "You can't suspend me". But there is a better way. I began by telling you about a fatal stabbing in a Chicago school. Not far away is another school, where discipline is strict, students are well-behaved, and academic scores are high. One educator describes it as a "pocket of excellence" in the heart of a violent, drug-ridden neighborhood. What makes the difference? This is a parochial school. The teachers here are not frightened off by charges that they're violating student rights if they maintain strict standards of conduct. As Christians, these teachers know that courtesy, respect, and hard work are part of the image of God in all people. And that teachers who demand such things of their students are only asking them to live up to their best potential. What our school system needs today is more of these little pockets of excellence.


Chuck Colson


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