How school violates children's rights | The Open School

How school violates children’s rights

by Aaron Browder, Open School staff
September 17, 2018

Schools were originally built, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to be places of learning. Children couldn’t get proper educations at home, so they went to school for a few hours a day to be taught information and skills by qualified teachers.

Over the decades, schools became more compulsory and took up more and more of kids’ time. Mothers went to work and came to depend on school for child care. Now schools are no longer just places of learning, but places of living. During this same period, bullying and school violence became facts of life. We realized that schools cannot just concern themselves with learning, but must ensure that children are safe as well.

A handful of parents and educators have realized that our focus on kids’ physical safety is too narrow. Since schools are now like a second home for children, we need to make sure all their human rights are protected in school, not just their physical safety.

In fact, single-minded pursuit of physical safety can actually lead us to violate children’s human rights. For example, many public high schools now employ police officers (called “school resource officers”) to patrol the building. There’s no consistent evidence that these officers make schools safer, but they do result in more youth being arrested for minor offenses.

Human rights have come to dominate public discourse in recent decades. When we’re talking about women, people of color, or various oppressed minorities, we don’t just talk about how we can make sure they get educations and keep them physically safe. We now recognize that they need human rights, which means they need to be in control of their own lives and bodies, and not just controlled by well-meaning authorities.

I asked parents who send their kids to Sudbury model schools to weigh in on the issue of children’s rights in school. While virtually every kind of school has education as its primary goal, the primary goal of Sudbury schools is instead to protect children’s rights. Consequently, Sudbury schools generally do a much better job of not only keeping kids safe, but allowing them to thrive physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Many of these parents have stories from previous schools in which their children’s rights were violated. Others have never been to public school, but chose Sudbury right away because they valued their children’s rights. Here are these parents’ stories.

The Latin teacher at University High School — ranked best public high school in the nation — yells at children if they are even a moment late to his class, to a point where students experience extreme anxiety. This causes some students to have panic attacks and social anxiety, or to resort to extreme measures like sticking a finger in their throat to throw up rather than risking entering the classroom late. He threatened my daughter on the very first day of high school, in front of the whole classroom, that if she was ever late again, he would make sure to yell at her and make her cry.

I told him that his behavior was unacceptable, but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears. It’s been three years since I spoke to him, and I still hear from other students that he is practicing the same behavior.

~ Naomi, The Open School

“I think if kids feel more confident they would feel less of a need to bully.”

My daughter in public school suffered from severe bullying. She was shoved into a drinking fountain and called a dyke. I spoke with her teacher, principal, and superintendent, but never once was the situation addressed.

When my son was Kindergarten, he was so excited to get a backpack. He picked out a pink Minnie Mouse backpack, and all the kids in the pickup line made fun of him. I went to the teacher and she told me the solution would be for him to get a boy backpack. It’s important for kids to have a voice because it’s empowering. I think if kids feel more confident they would feel less of a need to bully.

~ Myriam, The Open School

“The things he needed — the freedom to move, the opportunity to explore his interests at his own pace, and free time — were denied to him, and his days were filled with all the things that made him feel constrained and miserable.”

From the time he was a toddler, our son has moved around — a lot. Dinnertime was one bite of food, then one lap around the table, repeat ad infinitum. He’s always been a bright and curious kid, but he’s easily distracted by things like cold drafts, uncomfortable shoes, or time pressure. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he didn’t take to the traditional classroom environment.

Starting in Kindergarten, his teacher expressed concern that he was always the last to finish in-class work. he understood the material. He just couldn’t sit still and focus long enough to complete it — and because he wasn’t allowed to leave the table until he did, the problem was compounded. Even though he had a vibrant school and caring teachers, he told us he didn’t like school.

As the years went on, his personality didn’t change — but the school days grew longer, recess got shorter, and the classwork became more complex. He would fall further and further behind with the assignments, despite understanding the material. And yet again, he was required to make up the work by staying in from recess or lunch, or adding hours onto his homework.

The things he needed — the freedom to move, the opportunity to explore his interests at his own pace, and free time — were denied to him, and his days were filled with all the things that made him feel constrained and miserable. He (and we) were told that he must learn to do things the traditional way if he wanted to succeed in the future. We took him to multiple forms of therapy, tutoring, and gave him medication for his ADHD.

At this point, he didn’t just dislike school. He hated school. For that matter, we, as his parents, hated school, too! We were tired of arguing with him over homework and pleading with his teachers to let him prove subject mastery in his own way. He spent his days feeling like something was wrong with him, and we felt like bad parents. School had made us enemies.

Shortly before we withdrew from school, he asked me, “What are some jobs you think I could actually be good at?” The question, and the defeated way he asked it, just broke my heart. I told him he could do any job (okay, maybe NBA player would be a stretch) if it was something that interested him and he was willing to work at it.

Now he is in a learning environment where he has the right to go outside, kick off his shoes, and explore the things that interest him at his own pace. Having a role in school governance and budgeting has also made him more aware of how the world works beyond a stifling classroom. Our nightly arguments about homework became interesting conversations about science or the news.

He’s never asked me again what kind of job he could actually do. Now he says things like, “I have expensive taste, so I may need to be a lawyer” or “I want to take an extra science class so I can put it on my resume for college.” And some days he just wants to play video games for life. Don’t we all.

~ Eve, The Open School

“Most of us adults wouldn’t put up with these conditions at work, so why do we force our children to do so?”

One day my 8-year-old son came home from school and seemed to be upset. He was quiet, withdrawn, and I couldn’t get him to open up about what was going on. At bedtime, after we read a book, he finally let it out. He had been accused of talking in the cafeteria at lunchtime during an announcement, and was forced to sit on the stage (it was a cafetorium).

He told me he was coughing not talking, and I knew he wasn’t hurt just because he wasn’t believed. It was the humiliation of being showcased as a (as he put it) “bad student” in front of all of his peers. Punishment by shame and humiliation, in my opinion, are carried out only by people who go into the school systems in order to control and abuse people who are weaker than they are, probably in an attempt to soothe their own inner children who were abused in the same way.

My second story is from my son’s last day at public school. It was shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting and the district wasn’t allowing parents inside the school anymore (because they are such a threat!?!). I had been walking my son to his classroom each day previously, because he had a lot of anxiety at this school.

It was a Monday, I was late to work, and he was crying and holding on to my pant leg, and I had to close the school door between us to get him inside the school. As I left, I watched one of the hall monitors wrangle him physically in her arms to carry him off to his class. I called his dad in the parking lot, crying, and said This is it! I will not bring him here tomorrow. That’s when we found Sudbury.

Children in our culture are given the most amount of responsibility and the least amount of rights. They are expected to work 40 plus hours a week with little time to socialize or spend outside. They are expected to excel at every subject, wake earlier than most adults, and perform under extreme pressure.

Most of us adults wouldn’t put up with these conditions at work, so why do we force our children to do so? I believe it is the parents’ egos, and families striving to meet the impossible expectations of the “perfect” life that people in mainstream society in America believe they need to reach, that are to blame. The children are slaves to the social norms of Keeping up with the Joneses.

Left to their own devices, at a Sudbury school for example, children are intelligent, charismatic, creative individuals with opinions and ideas that matter. They are innovators, team workers, teachers. They carry themselves with balanced egos and respect for other children and adults alike. They have a healthy value system that stems on equality and diversity that will carry them in any situation, in any part of the world. We need to raise balanced, fair, reasoning individuals — that is why children’s rights are so important, beyond the needs of the individual. It is a matter of a healthy society.

~ Kersten, Hudson Valley Sudbury School

“I can see why it happens this way, but I don’t find that I can accept the dehumanization that is actuated when an adult is required to deprive a group of children of these basic and essential freedoms.”

My two children, ages 8 and 11, have been attending the Hudson Valley Sudbury School since age 5 and have never attended a traditional school. The decision to send them to a school based on the Sudbury model was largely a decision to provide them with an environment where they could experience freedom.

My children have the right to eat and drink when they choose. They have the right to use the bathroom when they choose. They have the right to move their bodies comfortably — to sit, stand, lay down, fidget, walk about, run, jump, climb, tumble and roll as they choose (provided they don’t violate the rights of others). They have the right to go outside or remain inside when they choose. They have the right to talk, laugh, and play with others of any age as they choose. They have the right to receive attention and care whenever emotionally needed.

In a public school setting, these freedoms are limited throughout the day, for reasons that can be understood and appreciated without being accepted. I can see exactly why I can’t, as a teacher in a classroom, allow the children to snack, drink beverages, walk around, lay on the floor, go outside, and visit the bathroom any old time. The furniture, facilities and infrastructure don’t support that sort of behavior, to say nothing of all the other components of a school that also don’t support it. I can see why it happens this way, but I don’t find that I can accept the dehumanization that is actuated when an adult is required to deprive a group of children of these basic and essential freedoms.

My older child is quiet around groups of people and prefers to socialize one-on-one. She doesn’t talk to strangers and prefers not to talk to people she doesn’t feel comfortable with or doesn’t know well. Her rate of development regarding social communication is very different from her age-mates, and probably very different from a lot of people. It’s important to me that she be granted her right to choose when and how she communicates at school. Without this right, she would be expected to speak when told to do so. If she did not, there would be something wrong with her, and she would be treated accordingly.

My younger child is a gregarious chatterbox. He thrives on conversation and social interactions, and is constantly moving, as an extension of his effusive stream of verbal communication. It’s important to me that he also be allowed to choose when and how he communicates at school. Without this right, he would be expected to be still and silent when told to do so. If he did not, there would be something wrong with him, and he would be treated accordingly.

~ Anonymous, Hudson Valley Sudbury School

“I expect them to stand up for their rights now in all the spaces and institutions they attend, and to grow into adults that fight for human rights.”

My kids had only a brief experience with conventional education. I think that conventional schooling can’t respect children’s rights because of its inherent structure. Behavior problems, for example, were always addressed by school authorities, without space for the students to figure out solutions for themselves. But this kind of thing never seemed a violation of kids’ rights. They do it out of “necessity”.

Because my kids are people, they must have rights everywhere! If I expect them to recognize their own rights and the rights of others, now and in the future, they must live in spaces that allow them to have this experience as soon as possible.

Here they have the right of free expression, to decide what to do with their own time, to defend themselves, to decide the rules that will mediate their relations inside the community, to be part of school governance, and so on. I expect them to stand up for their rights now in all the spaces and institutions they attend, and to grow into adults that fight for human rights.

~ Luis, Casa da Árvore (Brazil)

Since schools are places of living for children, and not just places of learning, we have to make sure that schools first and foremost are safeguarding the human rights of children.

“Rights” doesn’t mean we should be nicer to children. It doesn’t mean we should keep them safe, or provide them with a good education. Schools are already full of well-meaning adults who are violating children’s rights “for their own good”, either for their educations or for their safety. Instead, “rights” means we can’t do anything to children without their consent. We can’t force them to sit in class and pay attention to the teacher. We can’t force them to talk or force them to keep quiet. We can’t shame or humiliate them.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The only way to preserve children’s rights is to give up control over them, to let them decide what happens with their own bodies, minds, and time.