September 22, 2017
School & Youth
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The Separation Of School And Society

Zach Sparks
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September 7, 2017

How Schools Decide To Intervene In Personal Matters Or Bring Current Events Into The Classroom

When the Netflix TV series “13 Reasons Why” was introduced in March 2017, parents and teachers had to scramble as they learned that the program contained more than just entertainment. The plot follows a teenage girl named Hannah, who leaves behind a series of tapes that explain her decision to commit suicide. Teens nationwide related to the story, but critics were convinced that it glorified suicide.

That conversation made its way around the world and around Anne Arundel County. “If we had a heads-up before something like this came out, we would look for resources to communicate to parents that this is coming,” said Lucia Martin, coordinator of school counseling for Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

“We didn’t realize how widespread it was until a middle school counselor came to us after students came to the counselor to talk about it,” she continued. “We sent resources to the counselors and they were able to post some of that on their websites. That was a wild spring we had, right on the heels of the Blue Whale Challenge.”

The Blue Whale Challenge is a game wherein an administrator assigns a participant to complete tasks for 50 days, with the final objective being suicide. As was the case with the “13 Reasons Why” reaction, AACPS sent disseminated resources, which often come in the form of links to websites of the Anne Arundel County Department of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health groups.

Luckily for AACPS, the next hot topic — the violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia — occurred during August, giving them time to gather resources.

“Charlottesville was all over the news, so you know parents and students were discussing it,” Martin said. “Our feeling was that we need to get some stuff out. At the central office, we talk a lot about what’s going on.”

That brings about an important question: How does Anne Arundel County Public Schools decide which issues to address with students, both internally (bullying, a teacher with cancer) and externally (the Charlottesville attack, the 2015 Baltimore riots)?

The answer varies by situation, by age group, and even by school. Elementary schools spend more time educating youth about recognizing unsafe situations that can lead to sexual abuse. For some high schools, suicide may be a more discussed topic.

“Counselors might work with kids about strategies to cope with depression or anxiety,” Martin said. “We have to be real careful in terms of messaging. We don’t want to be in a position that glamorizes suicide or belittles the child who died of suicide.”

For that reason, schools often choose not to announce to classrooms that a child died by suicide. “The kids think and know it is because they’re on Facebook and Instagram,” Martin said. “We can’t necessarily use that term. We say, ‘They died unexpectedly.’”

Bullying and drug use are behaviors that schools almost always bring to parents.

“If it was somebody I knew, I would recognize a change in behavior,” Martin said. “Maybe that child was communicating to me that they’re afraid to go to recess. … We have an obligation — it’s called a duty to warn — to notify parents when they are engaging in risky activities.”

Counselors also make judgment calls based on their own ethical standards, but there are limits.

“In the state of Maryland, teens are granted some right to take responsibility of their own medical care in the case of pregnancy,” Martin said. “By law, we can’t inform the parents if a student comes to us and says, ‘I’m pregnant.’ If a child is adamant that they don’t want the parents to know, we can’t tell the parents, but we can encourage the child to tell them.”

Those laws are the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Maryland’s Confidentiality of Medical Records Act. But there are no laws to mandate how schools address local or national events that concern controversial subjects, such as last May, when a teacher found a noose hanging near a window at Crofton Middle School.

Michele Batten, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said it’s critical for teachers to have a pulse on their students’ feelings and enable them to have those discussions in a constructive and productive manner.

“Our teachers, through the content of the curriculum, might find themselves in a conversation, and as they are hearing things happening around them, they are facilitating that discussion,” she said. “One of the roles we take is supporting parents to be problem-solvers and to encourage them to have those conversations with their children.”

While some parents might argue that the schools are meant to educate children and not entertain political arguments, AACPS manager of assessments Shannon Pugh explained how, in Anne Arundel County, those topics are used to further students’ understanding of curriculum concepts. As an example, she referred to the debate on the removal of monuments depicting people who did great but also terrible things.

“If I were in a high school government class, I might have a debate about whether they should take the statues down or not take the statues down, without [me] saying what is right or wrong,” Pugh said. “They would apply what they learned from the Constitution and other lessons. … Those issues are complex and in some cases very emotional, and we don’t want to overstep our bounds.”

Faced with a dilemma between addressing hot-button issues and having parent backlash, good judgment is the best consultant.

“You do what you think is right and what your ethical guide tells you to do,” Martin said. “We’re preparing the students to be productive, well-rounded citizens. Still, we’re teaching kids to be civil, and I don’t think any parent would disagree with that.”


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