You know for sure the state of California is serious about school reform when it threatens to withhold money from a district for refusing to institute a policy to protect second-grade boys who want to wear skirts.
That's right. The state may show its deep commitment to education by holding back millions of dollars from Westminster schools in Orange County because three board members voted to reject the state's wording in an antidiscrimination policy designed to protect transgendered students (all .001% of them) in the district's 13 elementary and three middle schools.
This latest example of political correctness run amok may sound like another kooky California story, but in fact the flap, whose origins lie in the lofty-sounding California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, taps into a serious misunderstanding about how to improve school discipline, a misunderstanding that reaches far beyond the Golden State.
No one, including the board of the Westminster School District, could quarrel with the goals of the act, known as Assembly Bill 537.
In an attempt to address youth violence in the aftermath of the massacre at Columbine, the bill's architects sought to ensure all students "the inalienable right to attend campuses that are safe, secure and peaceful."
To this end, legislators required that schools stop discrimination and harassment of students based on qualities like race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or — and this is the sticking point in Westminster — "perceived" gender.
Problem is, despite the gut instincts of liberal legislators, there's little evidence linking school violence — or bullying, which educators these days usually see as a prime cause of that violence — with racism, sexism and homophobia.
Sure, there is racial tension in the schools. And there's no question that schoolyard bullies look on gay kids the way hunters look at a grazing deer. A recent study titled "Safe Place to Learn" by the National Center for Lesbian Rights says that 27% of students say they are harassed for not conforming to sexually stereotypical behavior.
But as any 10-year-old knows, all kinds of kids who don't fit into neat, socially acceptable categories get harassed: kids who are short or fat, who wear dorky clothes or geeky glasses, who smell bad or walk funny. What legislators don't seem to grasp is that kids bully — and turn, in some cases, to more serious forms of violence — not because they are prejudiced in any familiar adult sense but because they are crude, Darwinian creatures trying to stake out territory and proclaim their dominance.
A UCLA study published in the December issue of Pediatrics found that bullies are usually "cool" kids "high in social status." These are kids who reinforce their social power by lording over their peers who are for whatever reason perceived as weak or vulnerable. This explains why so many bullies are jocks and so many of their victims are 90-pound weaklings.
It also explains why state legislatures, or laws like AB 537, can't solve the problem. In order to deal with bullying, harassment and violence, educators have to smash the peer-driven hierarchy that sets the tone in most middle and high schools. Schools without bullies — and though rare, there are such things — are places where dynamic principals build a supportive but serious community whose norms are set by adults.
Instead of promoting the personal touch and adult-driven ethos essential for healthy school communities, laws like AB 537 add to the regulations and paperwork that turn principals into distracted bureaucrats and quasi-police officers. AB 537 is all of two pages, but it was immediately followed by a long-winded, 31-page task force report recommending "a permanent advisory committee" to oversee policy, legal compliance, resources and training in order to implement the bill.
And the problems continue. The recent "Safe Place to Learn" report in January found persistent "bullying based on sexual orientation ... despite an anti-harassment law that took effect four years ago." Now, instead of coming to grips with that problem, the state is threatening to withhold millions of dollars from Westminster schools not because its kids are shooting their classmates, tying up their teachers or stuffing their gay peers into closets — but because of a few words in an official policy that most kids don't know exists.
The truth is that laws, bureaucrats and legalistic, politically correct policies imposed from the top down can't stop harassment and violence in the schools of Orange County or anywhere else. Only front-line educators can do that.