Sunday, June 7, 2015

There Oughta Be a Law

One of my trademark catchphrases for the past twenty years or so is "Abuse leads to policy." Recently, the horrors of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, and the actions of some more locally recognized characters, have made this little axiom literally true. This isn't an entry about their actions, however; it's a analysis of our reactions. Not so much the abuse, but more the policy.

Making rules is easy, just:
1. Know in advance what bad thing people are going to do.
2. Figure out a rule that will prevent this bad thing
3. Make sure that everyone follows the rule.

Yeah, making rules isn't easy at all.

Rules aren’t made to be broken; rules are made when people break them in advance. Most of the rules I've made for my classes could have earned naming rights. Maybe I should invest in a little plaque inscribed with the student's name, offense, and the rule that resulted. For example, early in my teaching career I made a rule that one student of each gender could leave class at a time for the restroom, based on the assumption that they were headed to similar, but distinctly different, destinations. Then one day, word reached me that two of my students (one from each gender as, at the time, permitted by statute) did not utilize the restroom, but rather met up for a brief liaison. Hence, the resulting rule is: One student—regardless of gender—may leave for the restroom. I have no desire to first ascertain the dating status and sexual orientation of students before they head off to the loo. I have not named this rule the “Jack and Jane* Gender-Blind Restroom Regulation,” but I could have. That particular couple has long since broken up, so the rule named for them would have survived well beyond their love for one another--that is either poetic or horribly sad.

*not their real names

Just like I did with my restroom policy (I sometimes wish that I had a job that didn’t require me to develop a restroom policy, but school teaching isn't all bad), what we mostly do in the world is make rules in response to bad things people have already done. What we mostly do is build airlocks and buzzer systems after a stranger from the outside enters a school and does us harm. What we mostly do is install metal detectors after students bring weapons to school. What we mostly do is pass gun legislation after a mass shooting.

Uhm, maybe not so much that last thing.

I’m not saying that this is an entirely worthless approach. If you think about it, closing the barn door after the horse gets out is actually a good move if it keeps the cow in there. We can't know the future when we're making policy, so we try to arrange it so that we don't repeat our past exactly.

With some infractions, we not only make policy in response to bad actions, we feel that infractions require that a rule be made up on the spot. This is a useful strategy with minor and uncomplicated infractions. I have developed a habit of announcing perfectly common-sense things as if they are commandments: “STUDENTS ARE ASKED NOT TO GROOM ONE ANOTHER, OR TO APPLY PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS OF ANY KIND, OR TO ALTER OR ENHANCE THEIR SCENT THROUGH THE USE OF PERFUME, DEODORANT, OR EAU DE TOILETTE, FOR THE DURATION OF MY CLASS.” However, when the problem is more nuanced and the problem behavior is harder to nail down, rules made up on the spot are rarely sufficient, and rarely correct the specific problem. Some problems that develop when rules are made in this way:
  1. Institutional Memory - Organizations aren't so good at keeping multiple thoughts going at once, so as soon as a new crisis presents itself, everyone tends to forget about all of the previous ones. Those strangers from the outside are still dangerous even after a crisis perpetrated by someone from inside. They are still dangerous long after the students start sticking door props in the doors because it’s too inconvenient to go through the office when they forget something in their cars.
  2. Targeted Response - Reacting to a bad actor with a series of policies applied to everyone often means that the original target is rarely hit. My restroom policy change assumes that I continually have couples in my class who would do this, and that none of my students are meeting up with students in other classes. That first couple was only affected by the new rule for a few weeks at the end of their senior year, but every subsequent student has needed to live by this rule. How many teachers, coaches, and directors give speeches about attendance and punctuality to the very students who are in attendance and punctual. Huh? Oh, just me? Soooorrrrrrr-y!
  3. Demographic Targeting - Not applying policies to everyone, however, quickly develops a very slippery slope of its own. Maybe we can agree that every grandma and toddler doesn't present the same terrorist risks as members of every other demographic, but fairness is a high bar. Even if we agree that it isn't okay that preschoolers are stopped and frisked, the alternative is to impose increased scrutiny on a person because of gender, age, race, manner of dress, etc.
  4. Proportional Response - A national speed limit of 45 MPH would eliminate a high percentage of traffic fatalities, save fuel, preserve engines, and promote a more leisurely driving experience for all. It would also be exceedingly maddening to be on the turnpike with not a car in sight, on a road built for 70 MPH, and putter along at 45. The more straightforward a rule, the less likely it is to correct the specific problem, and doling out a ton of cure for an ounce of problem inevitably brings in some collateral damage.
Particularly bad actions or events often prompt the most immediate and significant response, and the rules that result are usually chock full of the problems listed above. The Patriot Act sailed through Congress because everyone knew that we needed an immediate solution. It instituted, however, some of the greatest challenges we face today--torture, Gitmo, unrestrained surveillance, and the War on Terror. I have come to view the words "pilot program" with a great deal of suspicion. Pilot program seems to be a method of instituting unpopular initiatives and deferring any outrage or criticism to an undefined point in the future (hopefully after everyone has come to accept the new regulations).   

All of that said, though, the worst are the rules that are not really even meant to solve a problem. Some rules are devised not to protect anyone or make things run more smoothly. Some rules--the worst rules, in my opinion--are tools for insurance carriers and to nurture our litigious nature. These rules don't provide any real protection, except to the backside of the institution that does the absolute minimum to claim they've done what they could. The new fetish for background checks (see: here) and an initiative called Safe Schools Mandatory Reporter training--a webinar recently completed by every Pennsylvania public school employee--are examples of this sort of thing.

The training is summarized: Don't hurt kids. Some kids are hurt by others. When this happens, you must report it. That bit of instruction, vital though it is, was condensed to three + hours of videos and quizzes that any person possessing the slightest amount of common sense, and more than a bit of test-taking chops (i.e. True or False: A person never doesn't lack the requirement to refrain from usually never withholding the lack of required information.) could easily pass without actually watching the videos.

The purpose of this exercise was to prevent another Sandusky problem. Actually, these videos wouldn't prevent any such thing. It may not even prompt more aggressive and timely action by the participants in the cover-up. The purpose is to be able to say at the indictment hearing that each of these people had been through three hours of training and passed three quizzes to be certified as a mandatory reporter.

Jerry Sandusky would have passed these quizzes. Jerry Sandusky would have passed the background checks until June 21st of 2013. Yet, Pennsylvania’s legislature and governor stepped up background checks so that they need to be repeated every three years, and schools now require them not only of teachers and coaches, but parent chaperones and host families. Background checks can't really look for people who do bad things. Background checks look only at people who do bad things, get caught, get indicted, and get convicted. Sandusky had abused kids, gotten caught, gotten reported, been spoken to, but still would have passed background checks.

Note: Like everyone else in the world, I'm not willing to come out against background checks. Other than imposing additional burdens on parents who are volunteering to help you out, they aren't actually harmful. The only problem with this sort of thing is once you have it, no one will ever make a move to get rid of it, lest people assume that you're arguing in favor of killers and rapists educating the children. I love background checks. Can't get enough of 'em.

Except, they're literally the least we can do. We don’t impose policies like this because they’re effective; we impose them because they’re easy for the institution. The problem with programs like the Safe Schools Initiative, and increased background checks, and whatever similar policy has already come along since I wrote this, is the illusion that we've made schools safer for anyone other than policy-makers and insurance carriers. Any softening of our resolve to find real solutions, any time spent patting ourselves on our backs to congratulate ourselves for doing something, any complacency that comes from a sense of accomplishment would be an injustice to the real victims of actual bad actors. Making actual progress on the evils that these rules are targeting requires a carefully assembled package of counseling, education, and policy making that is much more nuanced and targeted than the stuff we tend to do in the moment. 


  1. Do you have any idea how hard it is to carefully craft policy that sounds like you're ridding the world of evil while not actually changing a blessed thing? It usually takes a committee to inefficiently manage the process successfully.

    I had no idea you were so stylusly talented. This is great!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! You're right, of course; committees excel at this sort of thing--look busy and try to do nothing at all. Maybe that's another post.