Smiley Face Tyranny – For the Children

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” – George Washington

I have three children in the Munster public school system. I have outsourced my children’s schooling to them. The school system is in a very real sense my servant as it serves the families of all the children who attend. It’s a scary thing when a servant starts to think themselves your master. When you’re giving them your kids for 6 hours a day, it’s doubly scary. That was my reality this week as a very nice, pleasant woman explained why I must undergo a background check to supervise my own child.

Schools are given certain powers “in loco parentis” (in place of the parents). Since there is no parent normally available on the spot, schools can manage the child in their absence. This is a very important power and necessary for the health and safety of our children.

Schools do occasionally sponsor events which they insist that a parent attend as a condition of the child participating in the event. At that point, their powers should, at least if the school is not out of control, return to the parents who are now there to directly exercise them. In Munster at least, that is not the case and it’s a very slowly creeping and creepy sort of tyranny that results.

We all know and understand that if you’re dealing with other people’s children, you need to have a background check. Munster schools, at least at Frank H Hammond where my children attend, they occasionally have trips where they tell children that parents must come for them to go on them. This year, the 2nd grade is going to a park to fly kites. Separately, several days later, they send home a background check form to permit you to supervise your own child.

The immediate, visceral response is revulsion but it takes a while to intellectually clarify why, even to yourself. For whose child is the school system acting in loco parentis in placing this requirement? It can’t be the children on the trip. They’re in the company of their parents and the parents don’t have the ability to demand such a background check. Nobody is supervising anybody else’s children so there is no question of a parent temporarily exercising in loco parentis powers over someone else’s child.

So where did the school get the power to demand that check? I spoke with Frank H Hammond’s principal, Mrs. Nancy Ellis about background checks. Boiling down her more lengthy rationale to a word, it’s convenience. In her opinion, they can’t be making special provisions, treating individual parents specially. It would be too complicated. They tried that approach when they instituted their background check policy, carefully weighing the issues and looking at all the nuances. Then along the way they decided that was too much bother and a simple blanket rule would be much more convenient. And I agree that it is much more convenient, for them.

It’s inconvenient to remember your place as a public institution that stands in as a substitute for parents when they aren’t around. It’s inconvenient to deal with the occasional complexity like an event that has parents that are supervising only their own children. But school authorities, any authorities really, remembering their place is one of those vital underpinnings of liberty.

A quick refresher for those who might have forgotten. It is not normal to have public outings with your children where all the other parents there have undergone a background check. You don’t have this at the mall, the train station, the theater, parks department events. In fact, the only time you have background checks done routinely is, once again, when you’re handing out in loco parentis powers. Routine investigations into your background as a condition of attending an event with your child (when you are not supervising other children) simply has no basis in US law.

And there’s the rub. Doing things that are convenient but have no basis in law is tyranny, no matter how smiley you are in your presentation, how convenient it is for the administration of an institution. You just don’t do it. It is wrong.

The story has a somewhat happy ending. Only I will be excluded from the event. If you push hard enough, someone else will still come and supervise your child “in loco parentis” if you challenge. But I won’t cry over missing a kite flying occasion. But my daughter did. My only damage is that I had to feel like my heart was being ripped out of my chest as she sobbed about not being able to go over the weekend (got the form on Friday, had my talk yesterday).

I do not have any great hopes for this. I’ve done my push back, I’ve gotten my child included in a trip she really wanted to go on. And I know that quietly, when convenient, the same sort of soft ‘nudge’ will go right back in to pressure parents to prove themselves competent to supervise their own child. After all, it’s very convenient. It’s very popular with the political class. There’s even a book.

There is only one real cure, never-ending vigilance. I had the distinct impression that there wasn’t a long line of parents complaining about the usurpation of their parental rights. Had there been, suddenly this policy would have become very inconvenient and been reversed, not to be tried again for a very long time. Too bad, because I’ll keep my liberty while others give up theirs. I hope their chains rest lightly.

cross posted @ Northwest Indiana Politics

22 thoughts on “Smiley Face Tyranny – For the Children”

  1. There was an interesting development today that is distantly related to yours. The Boy Scouts lost a molestation suit today and this seems to me to be a perfect mirror of the long running battles they have had with gay rights groups and their supporters over gay scoutmasters. Now the gays will say that they don’t molest children and it will be interesting to learn how old the plaintiff was at the time.

    Still, it seems to me that the scouts can’t win.

    Parents having these background checks are probably the reaction to some molestation story somewhere in the education institutions. The Edbiz, as John Derbyshire calls it. The dinosaur has a tiny brain and there is a long distance between that brain and the tail. Eventually, the signal gets there, probably long after the stimulus has gone to another dinosaur. Zero tolerance is a useful policy for authoritarian regimes.As long as hey are incompetent, they are not much of a nuisance. Theodore Dalrymple’s stories about Britain show that, eventually, they get more efficient, if not more competent.

  2. What a relief to read this. I, too, am banished from accompanying my children on their field trips; I, too, would not submit to this gratuitous insult from the State.

    Yet another reason to homeschool next year.

  3. For every time you have to go through these background checks (our church has one for volunteers) your personal information (SS, driver’s license, address, phone, school records, etc. are sent to an agency, whose staff you don’t know at all and don’t know what they are doing with this information or whether they have been cleared to work with children since they’re just working with information. I’d sure ask if the teachers have been through such a check.

  4. I don’t know that this is the o’erweening power of the state as much as it is a risk manager drunk on loss prevention, and it’s unlikely if your principal or teachers know either. It’s more than possible that a directive came down from the school board that all parents who go on activities must have their backgrounds checked as a matter of loss prevention. This is no different from a doctor practicing defensive medicine. If they check on all the parents, they have that as a defense if one of the parents turns out to be a previously undiscovered bad egg. It’s the risk manager’s job to root out every exposure to loss and come up with a way to prevent the loss from happening. This makes them a bit paranoid – it’s an occupational hazard.

    The real question is, are the teachers similarly screened periodically, as teachers are in a much better position to molest children than parents supervising field trips.

  5. I am sure this about insurance.

    Imagine something happens to a kid. The parents sue. They say that the school was negligent for failing to do a background check. The insurer wants to be able to put in sworn testimony that absolutely 100% no exceptions ever that everyone gets a background check. That may allow you to defeat the claim with a motion, or more likely settle it very favorably.

  6. Michael Kennedy – The victim was 10-11 years old in the years in question (83-84). He’s 38 now. Google is my friend.

    Parent/child relationships *are* authoritarian regimes. The problem here is that the school thinks that it’s the parent and that the actual parents are… I’m not actually sure what they think that we are as a practical matter but I’m reasonably certain that it’s not the font of their power over our kids which they exercise as substitutes for us when we’re not around.

    Tonestaple – There are state and board requirements but it was made clear to me by the principal that she and the teaching staff made that final step over the line on their own. It’s just too inconvenient in their opinion on the few occasions that 1:1 student:chaperone ratios exist to make an exception.

    Lexington Green – Lots of illegitimate powers would make it less likely for chaperone abuse to occur. The legal convenience does not make them legitimate.

  7. Whatever the rationale it’s an outrageous and brutal policy. It’s outrageous for obvious reasons. It’s brutal because a small child will think that a parent who has been singled out, no matter the reason, must have done something wrong. The school administrators have therefore set things up so that a child whose parent refuses to be bullied is inevitably hurt. They are making clear by their actions that your child in unimportant to them and that their institutional convenience is all-important. They compound the damage by putting on happy faces and pretending that their outrageous policy is for the benefit of the children they are hurting rather than themselves.

  8. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I am in a position to be able to afford to send my children to private schools.

    I found it difficult to see the difference aside from the affluence of the attendees.

    Lexington is correct as usual. The Insurance-Legislative-Judicial Complex is usually behind this kind of idiocy.

    And it is a stupid policy that will have beneficial consequences. It, and the many obnoxious policies like it, will ultimately lead to more and more dissatisfaction with the institution and the erosion of support for its greedy demands on those it fails to serve. Ultimately it will destroy itself and we will be better off with what succeeds it. But getting there will be painful.

  9. “…their institutional convenience is all-important…”

    It is survival not convenience. They cannot operate if they cannot be insured. Their insurers mandate what practices will best secure them against losses. The people who run the organization have no flexibility to say no to their insurers. So, they take a maximally risk-averse approach, and mandate that in the most heavy-handed way possible.

    I symnpathize with taking a principled stand against the practice.

    But the practice will not change, and under current conditions, it cannot change.

    People respond to incentives, period. I see no sign that these incentives will change.

  10. So, they take a maximally risk-averse approach, and mandate that in the most heavy-handed way possible.

    Nobody is forcing the school admins to lie about what’s going on. They could explain that insurance forces their policy. Better yet, they could refuse to subject parents to such an indignity. The latter course would mean canceling popular events. So be it. Nothing prevents the school from explaining why there will be no kite flying outing, or from trying to develop workarounds, or from publicly soliciting assistance from parents and others in developing such workarounds. Instead they cooperate with the insurer and stigmatize the principled parents.

  11. People often talk about the financial costs that the excesses of litigation impose on the economy. But these excesses also impose costs in terms of human freedom, of which this case is only one example.

    What happens to a society when almost every decision is significantly influenced by fear of a lawsuit?

  12. “What happens to a society when almost every decision is significantly influenced by fear of a lawsuit?”

    We are pretty much living in it now.

    Not sure how it will play out over the long run.

  13. Lexington Green – Had the principal said it was the insurers making them do it, I would be looking for a lawyer right now to file suit against the insurance company. They’re a deep pocket that won’t get me hated in my community if I slap them down for requiring their insured to take illegitimate action. But that’s not what the principal said.

  14. Lexington Green – I know that she lied to me. The question is only in what particular. This is such a rare bit of fascism that you need to be careful otherwise you end up like Lenny Bruce reading from his trial transcripts, completely bereft of all sense of proportion.

    A parent at the same school system said that they had not made background checks mandatory last year for this type of trip. It confirmed my sense that a bit of push back that made mandatory background checks unpleasant to demand was the right way to go. If I really needed to know where she was lying to me, I suspect I’d need legal counsel and go to discovery. That is expensive and not just in money terms.

  15. Go anyway. It sounds like it’s a public park. You won’t be there under their auspices, but they can’t very well prevent you from going, or from having contact with your child while there.

    (If they’re stupid enough to try, have no mercy. The press release practically writes itself.)

  16. I’ve been judging science fairs for a number of years. The fairs are held in the local malls during normal business hours. The local school board is making noises that the judges (volunteers) should be required to have a background check. Not only that but the judges should pay for it themselves (~$60). This process also includes fingerprinting. This has not been implemented yet because they won’t be able to get any judges but the pressure is on the science fair committee to comply. This is where these ridiculous policies lead. There is a real possibility that the science fairs will no longer be held. PS. You would not believe all the rules and paperwork the students have to adhere to due to blanket concerns for safety and liability. It a serious disincentive to both the students and the teachers to be involved.

  17. What a relief to read this. I, too, am banished from accompanying my children on their field trips; I, too, would not submit to this gratuitous insult from the State.

    Yet another reason to homeschool next year.

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