When my phone rang the other day in the middle of the afternoon, I was alarmed. For a parent like me, a message from school can only mean one thing: my child is sick. But the news was even worse.
“Your son has been suspended,” the principal told me. My son had stolen a substitute teacher’s sunglasses, she explained; there were witnesses to the crime.
I pleaded for mercy. “We will pay for the sunglasses, we would accept another punishment, but please, please, don’t keep him out of school.”
The decision, she said, was already made. My son seemed deeply wounded by the accusations. Was it plausible that he had stolen a pair of sunglasses that even the principal admitted were not in his possession? My son’s father and I had entrusted him with all sorts of responsibilities and never found him lacking.
So his father and I stayed home from work the next morning, showed up at the principal’s office and refused to leave until we had been heard.
Two hours later, we received the litany of charges against our child, charges so lacking in substance that any court in the land would have thrown them out in a matter of minutes.
It seemed the sunglasses had fallen from the teacher’s desk. Our son had picked them up when a lens had popped out. At the instigation of the other children, the teacher had called the office.
Subsequent events were unclear. What happened to the sunglasses? No one knew. Did the other children hide them in mischief and accuse our son? It was possible.
The principal handed us the suspension notice. Written all over it were sections of the education code. A box titled “stole private property” was checked.
We pointed out that according to the principal’s own version of events, the most our son could be blamed for was damaging private property, a charge not even listed on the sheet.
“He lied. He denied taking them,” the principal fired back.
“Can you blame him?” We exclaimed in unison. “He was terrified.” We explained that the glasses had accidentally broken and our son had panicked. “When the CEO of Enron lies, he is offered First Amendment protection,” my son’s father, a reserved Englishman, said with rare vehemence. “But when a child denies his guilt, he doesn’t get Miranda rights?”
The principal explained that she wanted to make an example of our son for the benefit of the substitute teacher, whom she was hoping to impress. Therefore, she had given the substitute the option of reporting the “theft” to the police.
It was clear that in the principal’s world, our children existed to serve the teachers, and not vice versa. We asked for a hearing to establish the facts. We begged to speak to the substitute, but were told no one knew how to contact him.
An internal investigation had already been conducted, we were told. The notice was proof that our son had been judged, condemned and read his sentence.
When I arrived at work that afternoon, a colleague with children said, “School is the only place where the due process of the law doesn’t apply. If administrators decide to make an example of your child, they can unilaterally do whatever they want. Even in the military, suspects have more rights.”
I marveled at his perceptiveness, since I had told him only that I had a meeting at school.
The incident is behind us now, but questions remain.
Why do our textbooks tell our children that a person is innocent until proven guilty? That a person accused of a crime has the right to a defense? At school, in real situations, they learn the opposite.
Do our schools criminalize children unnecessarily? Does that lead some to such distrust of the world and loss of self-esteem that suspicion of misbehavior and even crime become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
I came away with a new lesson from my son’s suspension: In the world of schools, children may get harsh instruction in life. A vulnerable individual, in this case a child, may become a pawn in the games of those who are more powerful. The child could learn he’s presumed guilty, with little chance to prove he is innocent.
|Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found atwww.saritasarvate.com|