How to look like an idiot

A friend of mine posted an interesting note on Facebook this week. Her daughter is getting ready to start the school year, and as every parent of a school-age child knows, there are forms to be filled out. Emergency contacts, medical info, etc. There was also an “acceptable use agreement” regarding use of the Internet. It is pretty standard, right down to the “I understand that unauthorized copying of software is illegal and is subject to substantial civic and criminal penalties.” The student signs, the forms get turned in, and all is well, right? Just another start to the school year. Except in this case.

The student is starting kindergarten.

Yes, that’s right. Some administrator somewhere (quite possibly with the recommendation of legal counsel) has decided that all students, including those not old enough to even know how to sign their names yet, must execute an acceptable use agreement that states that the student has read and understood the agreement.

I will try to keep the use of legal jargon to a minimum here, but there’s one term that describes this decision perfectly: horsecrap.

First, the law in most jurisdictions says that a five-year-old lacks the legal capacity to enter into a contract. Indeed, if you want to get technical, a lot of high school students lack the legal capacity to enter into a contract (eighteen being the magic age in many states). Second, this particular child has not been through the reading education program in the school yet (although knowing her parents, I’m betting she is ahead of her peers). Thus, the “I’ve read and understood this” is a legal farce.

What’s most disturbing about this form, however, is what it might be used for: the basis for disciplinary action arising out of an innocent act. Let’s say a second-grader is using a computer connected to the Internet. He sees a link referring to Ridemakerz (think Build-A-Bear for the radio control car enthusiast), remembers he liked the store at Disney World, so he clicks on it. Little does he know that the link goes to some malware that infects the computer. Red lights flash, klaxons sound, and the anti-virus team bursts into the room wearing yellow hazmat suits. A quick inquiry of the confused lad reveals what he did. Boom, his rear end is suspended, maybe even expelled.

Think I’m being alarmist? School administrators are notorious for their “zero tolerance” policies, even when they mandate absurd results. One case I worked on involved a student in her freshman year of high school. As a cheerleader, she attended one of the school’s basketball games. During a break, she ate a piece of hard candy or something. Somehow, she swallowed it and started choking. A friend next to her grabbed a bottle of some sports drink and gave it to her to help her get the offending item down.

The student glugged the drink—which someone else had spiked with Everclear, a high-potency liquor (at least 75% alcohol). The student got sick, a police officer administered a portable breathalyzer, and she was kicked out. The school administration accepted and believed her explanation that she had no idea the beverage had been spiked and that her ingestion of the alcohol was entirely unintentional. But that didn’t matter: under the school system’s zero-tolerance policy, she had to be expelled. No exceptions, no excuses, just a “we hate to do this but we have to enforce our policy against students consuming alcohol.”

As a parent myself, I cannot wait to see what kinds of ridiculous “agreements” my son will be expected to enter into. I’m also looking forward to asking school administrators what they were thinking when they concluded it would be a good idea for a kindergartener to be introduced to concepts like “civil and criminal penalties.” Maybe I’ll ask if they should have been given a portable breathalyzer test at the time.

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