Wednesday, November 10, 2004

No coat hooks, part 2

Twenty years ago, when VCR's were new, my school had once player. It was kept in a geography classroom on the second floor, just overtop of my physics classroom. There was a tree outside the window. One night, someone climbed the tree, broke a window, and stole the VCR. There had been intruder sensors in the halls, but this enterprising thief beat the system by entering and leaving the upstairs window via the tree.
How did the principal respond? He had the tree cut down! Because our school was ringed with windows (it was built before the period of fortress-like schools with tiny windows), cutting down the tree reduced the number of accessible windows from about 250 to 249. I couldn't believe this ridiculous over-reaction.

Don't you think this story, although less tragic, is similar to that of the removal of the coat hooks mentioned in the previous posting?

One difference is that the tree decision was made by one person. Nowadays, I think it's the lawyers who call the shots. Lawyers told our board of education that teachers were not to be taking students to Europe during the March Break (during holidays!) because if there was a terrorist attack somewhere and the trip got cancelled, the students might lose their deposits and the school board would get sued. So, no more educational trips.
I had taken students to Greece, Italy, and Spain. I protested. I got a letter from the tour company saying that money would be refunded if a government travel alert was sounded for the trip destination. The board official responded that the students would be too disappointed if a trip was cancelled so they were not going to allow the possible disapointment to occur! I guess they felt that no one would be disappointed if there were no trip offered at all. Thank you Board of Education lawyers.

Probably it was the lawyers who recommended removing the hooks. Imagine, they would have said, what would happen if there were a repeat of that tragic situation: what if a student in this board of education were killed by being hung on a coat hook? The parents' lawyers would say in court "You KNEW that a student had been killed on a coat hook previously, yet you DID NOTHING to prevent it happening in your schools?"

The darn thing is, the lawyers would be right. That argument would win, wouldn't it? So what's wrong. The lawyer's advise was probably good. By following the advise the board was acting in its own best interest, and, perhaps, in a now-not-to-be-killed child's best interest, too. Yet I can't help thinking that the removal of the coat hooks was a dumb overreaction to an extremely rare event. If that's so, where is the flaw in the logic? How do we fix this paradox?
There are no coat hooks in my school
About 10 years ago a little boy in an Ontario elementary school was lifted up and suspended on a coat hook. He suffocated. Police were unable to find who killed him. Now all the coat hooks in all the washrooms in all the schools, elementary and secondary, in my board of education have been removed.
This brings up an interesting, though unsettling, question: was the removal of all the coat hooks a vast over-reaction? In over 200 years of public education in Canada, one student in one school was killed on a coat hook. Now, intellectually, it is hard to argue against a position that if the removal of the hooks saves even one child, the policy is worthwhile. How can you measure the cost of a life of a child against the inconvenience of hot being able to hang a coat or jacket on a hook?
On the other hand, as callous as it seems, we might say that there are many ways and times, in 200 years, that someone can be killed, and you can't stop them all. There are more children killed falling down stairs than being hung on coat hooks, and we still build multistory schools.
Sometimes a reality check is needed.