Monday, April 18, 2011

Sometimes, Life Doesn't Give Second Chances

By Sandra Ruttan

The school the kids attend has a vision: be a safe and nurturing learning community focusing on academic excellence, open communication, and the needs of all the students and staff.

It's on the home page of their website.

They also have a mission, which is also on the home page of their website. To prepare successful students who think strategically, demonstrate the 4 R's, and strive for academic excellence.

Sounds excellent, doesn't it? Except that they have a punctuation error in the mission. Rs isn't possessive, it's plural, so the apostrophe shouldn't be there.

The four Rs. Respect. Responsibility. Be Ready. Re-think.

Sounds catchy, doesn't it? It isn't just the politicians who know how to coin a soundbite and develop what amounts to a campaign slogan. We're a society that's all about glossy deception, while few pay attention to the lack of substance beneath the surface.

Yes, I have some harsh words for the school right now. There are a number of issues that have come up over the past few years, including a substitute teacher striking a student - her own son - in Child ZZ's class. And this past fall a boy in the same child's class brought a knife to school. It's really reassuring when the kids haven't even reached an age with double digits. I mean, we don't live in the city. The kids go to school in the county. The whole reason is to avoid the types of problems that plague city schools.

I'm going to focus on one recent incident. One of my stepchildren was supposed to remain after school for a club. Permission had been granted, child had been signed up, and I was to pick them up at a specific time at the school for dismissal of club.

The school's been extremely rigid about student dismissal this year. Although last year the kids could ride the bus home or to our sitter's (different bus) per our instructions, changing buses and arrangements hasn't been allowed this year. Even when their mother had to work and needed the kids to come to our house, the school wouldn't allow them on the bus.

Which would leave them waiting at the school for nobody to pick them up.

And so I had to leave work early, because in their infinite wisdom, parent pick-up and the arrival and departure of all those cars happens before they start letting buses leave now. It used to be after.

So when we agreed to the after school club, we clearly understood the pick-up time and the arrangements and the school's policy for dismissal. I grew up at a time when they didn't check names off of lists for buses and there wasn't any such thing as first or second bus wave. Now, they don't let the kids leave until someone with authorized ID picks them up from parent pick-up, or they've been placed on the bus they're assigned to.

Yes, we thought we understood the procedures. Until the day our child didn't stay for club and just left the school.

What makes matters worse is that said child did not do this without school knowledge. The homeroom teacher, also one of the club teachers, saw our child and reminded them about the club.

This is where I'll interject with the fact that the homeroom teacher should always know of a change in dismissal for a child. The office communicates with them to ensure the child goes where they're supposed to go when they leave. Last year, we emailed the teachers any time after school arrangements changed. This year, that open communication the school says it strives for? Yeah, not so much.

No parent had changed our child's arrangements. But when our child said they weren't staying for club, our child was allowed to leave school with no parental notification.

The problem? I was expecting to pick up the child from school an hour later.

An hour.

And the school let our child leave on a bus on a day our child wasn't supposed to be on the bus, with no parental authorization, or parental notification.

Imagine this was an only child. Imagine I'd picked the other child up from parent pick-up. Imagine we were out running errands. Imagine I didn't leave a key out, because I didn't expect anyone to need it.

Imagine the bus was in an accident, or someone snatched our child from our driveway because our child was left standing outside because they were supposed to be at the school. Placed in a club and entrusted to the care of the school for a full hour after regular dismissal.

It isn't hard for us crime fiction fans to start to imagine all the things that could have gone so horribly wrong.

As it is, none of those things happened. Thankfully, our child is safe.

None of that changes the fact that we were upset with the school for how this was handled, and we had a right to be concerned.

But our concern about the lapse in procedure that day, regarding our child, is nothing compared to how I feel about the school's response to our concerns.

We played it cool. Sent a simple email, outlining what we understood had happened, and asked what could be done to make sure it didn't happen again. Didn't ask for a head on a platter. Didn't point fingers and say anyone was incompetent.

The response? Basically, thanks for bringing this to my attention and I've asked the homeroom teacher to be in touch, take care.


Really concerned. Really focused on open communication, and actually answering our question about how we could be sure this wouldn't happen again.

Then it got better. The homeroom teacher scrawled a note in the child's school agenda and first claimed the didn't know our child was leaving on the bus, then said they saw our child leave for the bus but didn't know our child didn't have permission to leave on the bus.

If the homeroom teacher doesn't know, it's pretty disconcerting. Who should know? The kindergarten teacher? The cafeteria staff? No. I'd expect the teacher of the classroom the children are dismissed from... their homeroom teacher.

Another follow-up with the school was issued, detailing our disappointment about how this whole situation was handled.

And still, we did not receive an answer to our original question.

And since we couldn't trust that the school would ensure proper dismissal of club children, our child was taken out of after-school club.

Because we need to know. Because if I didn't show up here and something happened to our child, you better believe I'd be investigated.

Which is why I think the school should be accountable as well.

I do firmly believe that, but the thing I keep coming back to, above all else, is their vision and their mission, and the four Rs.

Respect. Responsibility. Be Ready. Re-think.

The absolute failure of the school to offer a sincere and genuine apology shows their lack of respect for our children, us, and our concerns for the safety of our children.

Thing is, I've worked for a lot of schools and programs with children over the years, and sometimes lapses in procedure happen. They aren't malicious, and they aren't even necessarily unprofessional. My first concern is not necessarily that there was a lapse; it's that we acknowledge what went wrong so that we can determine how to fix the problem and keep it from happening again.

And, you know, in my opinion, that's part of taking responsibility.

How can I expect the school to guide children to take responsibility when they refuse to take responsibility themselves?

Clearly, whatever happened that afternoon with our child was something they weren't ready for, and their reluctance to address our concerns professionally suggests they haven't rethought how they're ensuring the safety of their students, or how to address legitimate parent concerns.

My conclusion is that the school has failed to model the 4 Rs they list as one of the three key components of their mission.

The glossy surface looks good.

But beneath the surface, it's a different picture.

And that's part of the reason I keep coming back to crime fiction. Because in this world there are so many who will exploit our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities, and will cut right through the fa├žade we hide our truths behind, and rip our lives apart in the process. So many people go through every day and get lucky - lucky because the bus wasn't in an accident, lucky because they did leave a key outside. Lucky because a trustworthy neighbor saw to the needs of their child...

That's something I remember from my own childhood, when my mother was in a car accident. Mrs. Zorich, coming out to the bus when it stopped at our home and making us feel safe and secure until my mom was able to come home.

Can you tell my anger still burns hot over this? And it's a few weeks old now. But as someone who's worked in a professional capacity with children for over a decade, I am appalled. There's nothing I take more seriously than safety, as anyone who's worked with me knows. And that doesn't mean I don't let my kids climb trees. It means I expect them to use common sense when they do it and learn how to do things properly so that they won't be hurt.

Something my stepson once said about me. I'm fine with anything as long as it's safe.

Not quite, but I appreciate the sentiment. He gets I'm anal about safety.

We got lucky. But our luck doesn't mean that the school was right, or that this issue should be ignored, and one day, when my rage over the response of the school has subsided I already have the opening scene for a story that will, and should, strike fear into the heart of every parent.

The way this incident still strikes fear in my heart.

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