Stop Blaming Teachers for Misbehaving Kids

Our education system gives children too much power to misbehave.

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Thank heaven for kids like Wallace Kubler-Kramely, a 15-year-old in East Amherst, N.Y., who made a video "We All Get Older," which is a tribute to the parents and grandparents and other older folks who have taught him and guided him in his life. Wallace's sweet video not only restores some faith in young people after middle-schoolers in nearby Greece, N.Y. tormented a 68-year-old school bus monitor. But it helps underscore what I have always found to be the more common values system in my native western New York. I do believe there are more kids out there like Wallace than there are the bullies who went after Karen Klein.

But the episode should cause school districts and parents to do a rethink of the rules of elementary and secondary education. And that means that the power needs to be returned to the adults.

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There's a reason those kids in Greece thought they could get away with bullying a 68-year-old bus monitor. It's because administrations are so terrified of parents, and parents are so defiantly defensive of their misbehaving children, that the kids often end up with way too much power in the schools. A kid fails to show up for class, or refuses to do homework? Fail the child, and the teacher will hear about it from the administration, which already would has gotten an earful from a parent eager to get the child admitted to a top-tier college. And if the kid is deservedly failed in the class anyway, it's the teacher who is held accountable under No Child Left Behind. You can't teach an empty seat, as city of Buffalo teachers sought to explain to state officials who wanted to hold the teachers accountable for the academic performances of the kids who didn't bother to come to class. The teachers were told it was incumbent on them to create a school environment the children wanted to attend. But student or parent accountability? None.

Then there are the teachers who are bruised or worse because they tried to get in between two fighting students—or even because they themselves were assaulted by a student. Teachers aren't allowed to touch a student, ever, so it's pretty tough to serve as anything other than a punching bag for violent kids. And the kids know it. They may not all be studious, but they're not stupid. They know what they can get away with and not suffer consequences. You can't even threaten a child with the dreaded summer school anymore, since so many districts can't afford summer instruction anyway.

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Many students want an education, and they are victims here, too, since the misbehaving group takes school attention away from kids willing and able to do their work and keep out of trouble. As long as kids believe—rightly, in many districts—that they will not be held accountable for their behavior or poor study habits, their behavior will not change. And there's a reason why so many new teachers leave the profession after just a couple of years. Who wants to be treated with such disrespect—not only by parents and administrators, but by the students themselves?

It's awful, what the Greece middle-schoolers did. But they learned it from someone. And they've learned that the adults they harass have little recourse. It's time to put the grown-ups back in charge.

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