Permissiveness Costs

Dr. Amyim Palmer is the founder and headmaster of Marcus Garvey School. After several invitations to tour the school, I finally managed a visit on one of my trips to Los Angeles. Marcus Garvey School exemplifies black academic excellence and Dr. Palmer, and I think I would too, is willing to match his students against any other students in the country.

As Dr. Palmer was escorting me from class to class, a kid hip-hopped by us. Dr. Palmer, telling me the kid was new in the school, excused himself and approached the kid and in just a few seconds the kid walked away normally, sans hip-hop. Dr. Palmer had asked the kid whether his legs were hurting. When the kid responded no, Dr. Palmer told the kid, "We don't walk that way at Marcus Garvey." The case was closed.

Knowing Dr. Palmer, I'm sure had the kid disobeyed, and after parental consultation to gain compliance, expulsion would have followed. But what might have happened in a public school? The kid might have warned Dr. Palmer about his constitutional rights. Had Dr. Palmer persisted, the kid's parents might have summoned some ACLU lawyers to sue the school alleging the kids' First Amendment rights to freedom of expression were violated.

Forget the hip-hopping at Marcus Garvey for a moment and turn to last week's tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado where 14 students and one teacher died. According to news reports, teachers and students were well aware of the atypical behavior by the two murderers. They donned black dusters, openly expressed hatred for athletes and admiration for Hitler and belonged to an organization known as the "Trench Coat Mafia."

Suppose the school principal harbored suspicions about the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, what could he have done? Could he have called the boys into his office to discuss their behavior and attitude without risking a suit alleging violation of privacy rights? Suppose he suspected their lockers contained contraband or unsavory material, could he have inspected their lockers without worrying about some ACLU lawyers suing him for violating Fourth Amendment protections against "unreasonable" search and seizure?

Today's, kids have rights and teachers and principals must heed due process. But, rights and due process cost. Let's return to the hip-hopping at Marcus Garvey to ask: if Dr. Palmer had to spend time and effort documenting the kid's hip-hopping, consult with legal counsel and take other "due process" measures, would he have approached the kid, or said to himself, "It's not worth the grief" and let it slide? I'm guessing the latter. The same human response applies to teachers' suspicions about student locker contents, gang membership, foul language and bizarre dress. A lot of student behavior that teachers know is not quite kosher goes unsanctioned and uninvestigated and it degrades the school ambiance because "it's not worth it."

What are Americans really concerned about? We're concerned about whether children smoke cigarettes. Education is going to rot. Children are making babies. They use foul language to and in the presence of adults. And every now and then kill one another. And from the White House to the outhouse, the nation's top concern is children smoking. I'm 63. When I was young, a lot of kids smoked. But they didn't use foul language to and in the presence of adults, make a bunch of babies, murder and assault one another and could read and write. Plus, we dressed civilized for school (sneakers were no-no's and so were jeans for girls). I'll take cigarette smoking civilized kids any day.

Walter E. Williams


April 26, 1999

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