“Children Need Advocacy and Support, not Ignorance and Punishment” (By: Michele Babcock-Nice)

Not a day goes by that I am amazed and disappointed by the lack of insight and support that many people have regarding children.  Even in regard to people who one might believe are trained in child development and education may be completely oblivious to realizing that their words and behaviors are unsupportive of, and in many cases, detrimental toward children.  What children in our world need – especially those who may have special considerations, including disabilities – is advocacy, understanding, and support rather than ignorance, misunderstanding, and punishment.

When people in child development, education, and other fields are rigid and unbelieving about the needs of children – and who, in fact, do not have an understanding of children that is in the child’s best interests – children suffer in many ways and can be placed at great risk in many cases.  In medical and healthcare fields, individuals are supposed to do their best to ‘do no harm’ and adhere to the Hippocratic Oath.  While the medical field, however, often practices from a perspective of illness, the counseling field strives to recognize people from a view of wellness.  An illness or disease is not the person; but rather, it is the person who must be supported in a view of wellness in order to improve or recover from illness.

Educators, child care specialists, and others – including parents – need to have a wider view of what is best for children.  In cases of highly contentious and adversarial divorces, for example, psychological evaluations and/or assessments of the parties involved, may be ordered by a judge.  In such cases, by today’s standards, these reports, typically made by an unbiased psychologist, provide judges and attorneys with a more clear perspective of family relationships and parenting.  Thus, people in the legal field recognize that they may not have the training needed to make such unbiased evaluations.  They rely on psychologists to ethically and professionally perform them so that the best interests of the child are maintained.

Unfortunately, and to the detriment of children, not everyone recognizes that they do not have the insight or training needed to work in and make decisions that are in the best interests of children.  From my knowledge and experiences regarding many schools, particularly those in the South, individuals in education are quick to punish, including for minor issues, and may not realize that they do not have the insight necessary to best support children and do what is best for children.  Exercise as punishment (such as being made to walk or run laps outside, including in high temperatures) and lengthy detentions (including 30-60 minute lunch/recess detentions), particularly for insignificant issues, and issued toward children, do not resolve, but compound issues, making children potentially distrustful, disrespecting of, and hopeless about school officials.  (I know of at least four schools in my immediate area where these are practices.) 

These situations are compounded and worsened regarding children who have special needs.  Sometimes, it appears to be the children and/or parents who are blamed in situations in which school officials promise support and accommodation to such children, however they may just be going through the motions and not adequately or effectively be meeting such needs.  And, punishments toward children have been shown in research to be ineffective; truly, they may only serve to increase distrust and resentment in children toward adults who are supposed to have their best interests in mind, but who, in fact, do not.

In some situations, an array of psychological evaluations and assessments may be provided to educators that address children’s special needs – and parents may inform school teachers and leaders about what is best for their child – however, for whatever reasons, school teachers and officials may simply be ignorant about such needs, may not follow the suggestions of professional evaluations or parent recommendations, and may completely misjudge the situations.  Doing this places some children with special needs in greater danger and at higher risk for worse outcomes and situations at school.  Through the school officials’ own lack of insight – and in some cases – lack of compassion and motivation to learn, grow, and develop – children are, in fact, harmed by their ignorance and lack of support, and in some cases, are blamed and punished due to it – the pitfall of blaming the victim.

When children with special needs are not sufficiently, nor positively accommodated in schools, great risk and danger may be imposed upon them due to others’ ignorance.  To some people, what is clear and obvious in certain situations goes completely unrecognized – and therefore, not at all addressed – in others.  What is worse in these situations is when people who are ignorant about these situations categorically deny that they have occurred and escalate already tense situations that may involve high emotions.  Such lack of insight and understanding reflects not only their ignorance, but their rigidity, inflexibility, and absolute refusal toward even having an interest at gaining any increased understanding about the issues or situations.  

Even those most highly-trained in supporting children may sometimes miss critical pieces of information, however this should be an indication to others that as much training and information is needed to enlighten themselves to children’s needs and what is in children’s best interests.  Additionally, because there is often the tendency in people to desire to perceive issues and situations in an optimistic manner, there should be an awareness of this so that critical issues about others are not missed and do not turn potentially tragic. 

In short, particularly when it comes to educating children, it is not acceptable to be clueless about and not practice what is in their best interests.  And, situations that are detrimental and potentially tragic to children that occur out of the ignorance of educators and school officials should not be escalated – but diffused – in the best interests of children. 

In my book, perhaps schools in which ignorance and a lack of support prevails toward children may be performing okay with some students, but they may also be harming those students who are most at risk.  Such characteristics, policies, and/or the lack of policies of schools become dangerous to children when people in education do not even realize that what is occurring is creating a potentially harmful or tragic situation for children.  Parents must be acutely aware of and insightful about such circumstances in order to advocate for and protect their children as much as possible, particularly in schools where everyone may not be on the same page about what is best for children.

“Student Exodus from Area Parochial School Could be Avoided” (By: Michele Babcock-Nice)

St. John Neumann School Billboard, August 12, 2013, Lilburn, Georgia

St. John Neumann School Billboard, August 12, 2013, Lilburn, Georgia

During this Summer of 2013, 15 rising fourth grade students left St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School in Lilburn, Georgia.  Only three new students entered the fourth grade in addition to the 15 who left.  During the Summer of 2012, eight rising third grade students left the school.  Only two students entered the school as new pupils in the third grade.  Interestingly, both of those students also left the school this Summer, after only one year at the school.  Additionally, the vast majority of students who have left are Caucasian; most others are of mixed race parentage.  Each year for the past three years, the school has considerably down-sized in terms of student population as well as faculty.  Currently, all grade levels have two classes; it used to be that most or all grade levels had three classes up until three years ago.

As a person who has been Roman Catholic all of my life, and who has provided a Catholic education to my child, the exodus of students and faculty from St. John Neumann School is concerning and disturbing.  One must ask, then, why there are so many who are leaving the school.  I have the answers to that, and it does not necessarily involve finances, budgets, or economics.

I suspect that I will come across as “the bad guy” to many by sharing this information regarding the school, however it is for my concern for students’ welfare, well-being, safety, and positive growth and development that I am doing so.  Additionally, my son is aware that I have a blog, and he also asked me to include his perspectives; my son is 10-years-old.

First, let me state that St. John Neumann School provides an outstanding – outstanding – education to the students.  Overall, my observations of what students learn through the challenging curriculum are well above my expectations.  Each year that my son was a student at St. John Neumann School, however, was a roller coaster.  There were wonderful and memorable experiences that he had with several outstanding teachers, however there were also many situations that he experienced by peers and adults at the school that were mentally and emotionally harmful and injurious to him. 

I often communicated with both school administrators and school system administrators, encouraging that greater sensitivity, compassion, and understanding be provided to the students.  Some of my suggestions were put into place, and some were not, and some were later removed after they were first implemented.  As an involved parent at the school, as well as an active volunteer for five years there, there was much that I personally observed and/or was informed about by students.  By far, the most serious issue facing students is the bullying, harshness, and often insensitive treatment they experience by administrators and certain teachers and staff.  I often encouraged upper administrators in the past five years to hold sensitivity training for employees of the school, though that never occurred.

Another very serious issue at the school is bullying that students’ experience from their own peers.  Some children repeatedly experienced bullying from teachers, adminstrators, and/or other staff, as well as certain peers.  This has created an unnecessary and avoidable stressful and hostile environment for many students.  One problem is because many of the school employees are so harsh and insensitive toward students, they are bullies themselves, and they therefore do not recognize, nor put a stop to student bullying.  Last year, more than 25% of parents responding to a school survey stated that bullying is a problem at the school.  I am one who has, again, encouraged school system administrators to hold anti-bullying and bullying prevention programs for faculty and staff at the school, however that has also never occurred.  Such training may help reduce bullying and increase sensitivity and compassion of adults and students toward other students.

A further big concern is the overwhelming pressure that is placed on students to be perfect in every area and in every way – academics, behavior, sociality, religion, and extra-curriculars.  Beginning with the youngest children, students who do not complete their homework are regularly disciplined.  In the past, teachers required students to stand outside for 5-10 minutes “on the line” – as they would say, on the outdoor paved parking lot play area, typically in the excessive heat.  This was an unspoken rule practiced by primary and early elementary school teachers and paraprofessionals.  Older children who did not complete homework are required to write answers to particular questions on a “behavior reflection” that reduces or eliminates their 15-20 minutes of recess time. 

St. John Neumann School Parking Lot Play Area, Lilburn, Georgia, May 2012

St. John Neumann School Parking Lot Play Area, Lilburn, Georgia, May 2012

For two of the past five years, another unspoken disciplinary rule practiced by at least three school faculty involved making students walk and/or run “laps” outside during recess on the parking lot, again, typically in the excessive heat.  Sadly, this practice appears to be somewhat of a common, unwritten practice in this area – requiring students to run laps as punishment in excessively high temperatures – as I have discovered that it occurs at many schools.  In regard to one second grade boy, I informed his father that he was required to run laps as punishment by a paraprofessional, outside in the searing heat, and the dad did not believe me.  How sad that some parents are not more concerned about what their child is experiencing at school.

Other teachers at the school regularly separated certain students from their classmates by requiring them to keep their desks far-removed from those of other students, whether for certain assignments or even months at a time.  I often observed where many teachers would use guilt, humiliation, and embarassment toward students to demoralize them into doing what they wanted them to, rather than speak to children with respect, compassion, and understanding. 

Early elementary students are also required to miss 45 minutes of lunch and recess by serving detention in the main office, including for extremely minor offenses.  Such harsh and unnecessary punishments are unethical, demoralizing, and depressing to many students, particulary those outstanding students who get caught in the crossfires of the political drama at the school.  In consulting with employees of other area schools, lengthy detentions are required only in the most severe situations of high school – high school – students, not early elementary students!  I personally requested of school administration to reduce or eliminate this practice, though there was no positive change, and in fact, only a worsening of it, amounting to nothing less than emotional sadism toward students.  When those who are charged with caring for children see nothing wrong with such unnecessary, harsh disciplinary action toward children for the most minor of offenses, definite positive change is needed. 

Also in practice at the school is suspending children as young as second grade – to my knowledge; one very sweet little girl was suspended last Spring for I cannot imagine what.  In other area schools, such a practice of issuing out-of-school suspensions to the youngest students is unheard of and entirely taboo.  Such a practice proves the lack of sensitivity, understanding, and compassion by school administration.

I feel sorry for the students who are at St. John Neumann School due to the harshness, coldness, and lack of sensitivity and compassion that so many experience from alot of adults as well as peers at the school.  I have often encouraged those in charge who could make a positive difference to consider being more sensitive, understanding, kind, and compassionate toward students.   Harsh, demoralizing, excessive, and/or inhumane punishments that are disguised as “disciplinary actions” – even for the most minor of wrongs – are well beyond what school employees should expect of children.

When students get seriously hurt or ill at the school, a parent is lucky to get a phone call or communication about the incident from anyone.  A second-grade student got a serious blow to the head during outdoor play, but no ice was placed on the injury and no phone call was made to parents.  Upon picking up the child from school, it was obvious to the parent that the injury was serious.  When the child spoke of dizziness a number of hours after the injury, the parent took the child to their pediatrician. 

A kindergarten student fell in the hallway and sustained a large gash near her chin.  Parents received no communications from the school about the incident, and only a band-aid was placed on the wound.  Upon removing the band-aid after the child got home, the parent observed the depth of the wound, taking her to the emergency medical clinic where she received four stitches.  There have also been instances in which students were genuinely ill, but when they asked to go to the clinic, they were refused by certain teachers and paraprofessionals.  Keep in mind that absolutely no communications to parents by anyone at the school was made in any of these situations.

Safety is also a concern at the school.  There are no security cameras at the school, so there is no tangible record of situations that occur there – it is one person’s word against another’s.  A parent can inform an administrator about a teacher who belittles, bullies, and yells at a student – such as, simply for asking to use the restroom – but without any recording of it, the administrator does not believe it, does not want to get involved, and further, had already behaved in a bullyish manner toward children, so it is a lost cause.

Additionally, even with improved security measures having been implemented at the school this past Spring, it has not actually gotten better.  All visitors are to sign-in at the front office upon entering the building, however have been many occasion – including since the new policies were implemented – that I personally observed people enter and walk through the building without signing in at all, nor going to the main office.  There are also repeated instances of no one being at the front desk at the main office when people enter the school. 

St. John Neumann School, Lilburn, Georgia, August 2013

St. John Neumann School, Lilburn, Georgia, August 2013

Last Spring, there was an actual “intruder alert” that occurred at the school that was not a drill; I was at the school volunteering when it occurred.  Parents were not informed by any school officials that the intruder alert occurred.  While the Superintendent stated in an archdiocese newspaper article that such drills and procedures regularly occur at all schools, a teacher at the school shared that only one such alert – whether actual or drill – occurred there in the past seven years!  If she means that such alerts and/or drills occur every seven years, she would be correct that they occur regularly, however it has been my experience that many public schools, for example, practice them between 2-4 times each year.  Because these drills and alerts are not “regularly” practiced at the school, many teachers really do not know what to do.  When fire and even tornado drills are practiced more than intruder drills, I for one, am concerned about the safety of my child at the school.

Teachers are also known to leave outside doors propped or even slightly ajar when they are supposed to be closed and locked.  Unfortunately, this is also a practice at many schools, so that late colleagues can enter the school undetected by supervisors.  However, that this is regularly being done on the hallway that houses the youngest children is a serious safety concern.

Again, I will likely be viewed as the bearer of bad news by sharing this information, however I believe that steps need to be taken to make improvements in order to progress rather than regress at St. John Neumann School.  I know I won’t win any awards for my article.  That my son – a 10-year-old – also wanted me to share his views about what he experienced at the school reflects the tone and atmosphere that is present at the school. 

While we have had many wonderful and memorable experiences at the school, as well as having met, interacted with, and befriended many people – including some truly great teachers – it is a serious concern when a school does not live up to it’s mission and standards.  When “teaching the Gospel values” of God and Jesus in the Catholic tradition is merely spoken but not actually practiced by many school representatives, there is definitely something that must change for the better. 

So, at $7,000 per student in tuition only, St. John Neumann lost a total of 18 students from the second and third grades in the past two years.  I think that’s a total of $126,000 if I did my math correctly, right?  That’s alot of money to be losing.  In business, it is always said that it is much easier to retain those people who are already part of an institution rather than recruit new ones.  However, in sharing my perspectives about this to both school administrators and school system administrators, there has been an apathy and lack of concern about it.  For me, personally, as a Catholic and having desired for my child to have a Catholic education, this is a serious concern. 

Thus, the reasons that I have described herein, I believe, are those that have caused the increasing exodus from and diminished size of St. John Neumann School in Lilburn, Georgia.  Isn’t it time for a positive change?  My aim in sharing this information is not to be critical, however it is to be honest and urge for positive change and improvements to occur at the school.  St. John Neumann is surely an excellent school at which students receive an outstanding education.  And again, while we have had many wonderful, exciting, and happy memories at the school, there are also a number of issues that deserve both serious attention and improvement. 

It is definitely disappointing when a school of one’s own faith does not meet minimal expectations regarding the value and treatment of children.  Children should not be perceived, nor treated as bad what with issuing so many unnecessary and harsh punishments; it is the perspectives and training of the adults that need drastic improvement.  Maybe if more people put their heads together, praying and working hard in doing what is in the best interests of children, that will occur.