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Board’s new visitor policy doesn’t just boil down to safety

POSTED: August 21, 2012 5:00 p.m.

A great deal of controversy has arisen in the wake of a policy put into place by the Liberty County School System. This policy affects a parent’s ability to access his or her child’s classroom for the purpose of observation.

Those behind the policy maintain that its sole purpose is to protect children and teachers from outside dangers. They argue the policy is about limiting school access in the interest of safety. However, the people being limited are not unknown people. They are the parents who registered their children for school, met with teachers and administrators and pay taxes into the school system.

The same policy that removes nearly all parental observational access from the classroom also has school-visit requirements, including sign-ins, student legal-guardianship guidelines and a provision to require the presentation of photo identification upon entering school property.

The only exception to these requirements occurs during special events, in which parents and community residents — meaning anyone — can enter the building unescorted and walk unnoticed into a crowd of students. If this policy is about safety, this issue should be addressed. The likelihood a stranger will walk into the crowd is greater than the likelihood a stranger will enter school grounds, and especially a classroom, on any given day.

Our children must be protected in the classroom, and the school system is tasked with ensuring their safety. The board of education is presenting this policy as a safety precaution, yet it does little to address real safety. It does, however, protect teachers from unannounced observation by a concerned parent. Calling it a safety policy damages the system’s credibility and the trust between parents and teachers. It makes it more difficult to deal with both issues.

Today’s teachers are limited in how they can maintain discipline and order in a classroom. As a result, things occur that can hinder a child’s ability to learn. Teachers might resort to raised voices and, occasionally, the classroom environment may become unruly — even chaotic, which can be confusing and damaging to a child. Such an environment can promote misgivings or even fear in a child, paralyzing that child and preventing him or her from performing and producing in the classroom. This results in greater failure, not only academically, but in the child’s ability to relate to a teacher as an authority figure.

A child’s greatest hope in that moment is for his or her parent to have a real understanding of what is occurring in the classroom, not what is occurring in a preplanned 20-minute observation period. Should a parent have unfettered access? No. But a parent should be able to address an immediate concern, approach an administrator and, with that administrator, enter a classroom if there is reason to believe the classroom environment is detrimental to the child. This is no different than the policy that the Division of Family and Children’s Services imposes on a household if even one concern about a child’s welfare is raised.

If the classroom environment is as it should be, you have the reinforcement in the form of what the administrator witnesses. If the classroom environment is jeopardizing the learning process, that problem has a greater chance of being recognized and addressed by the administrator.

Over the course of a year, a child will spend the better part of 180 days at school. Assuming the school day lasts seven hours — aside from extracurricular activities — this means that a child will spend in excess of 1,200 hours in the authority of his or her teachers and school administrative staff. Under this policy, unless federally mandated, a parent only is allowed to observe a child in a learning environment for 40 minutes of those 1,200 hours. That’s 72,000 minutes of school and only 40 minutes of observation — preplanned, pre-prepared observation. That is a ratio of 1/1,800 minutes.

The school system claims it wants parents to be involved in the education process but, in reality, its policy only allows parents to observe the classroom environment — the most important environment — for one minute per 30 hours of school.

I respectfully ask the Liberty County Board of Education to reconsider this policy. Parents need greater access than this to our children’s classrooms and teachers. Board members need to consider that they are sending the message that this policy is not simply about security and protecting students and staff, but also about protecting staff from a child’s voiced concerns and about limiting a parent’s access to ascertain true information regarding that child’s concerns.

Byler is the senior pastor of Bethesda “The Amazing Life” Church in Hinesville.

 

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