The wrong end of the stick

The Victorian Government has generated heated comments on talkback radio and in the papers with its proposal to authorise principals and teachers to search parents’ cars at school activities.

As a policy response to violence in schools, it’s pretty extreme and more than a little misguided.

It is extreme because it confers pseudo-police powers on professionals whose core business is to educate. It simply should not be part of a principal’s job description to ascertain the existence of potential weapons in a private vehicle, nor should he act on ‘reasonable belief’ of possible danger by confronting its owner. Though a principal somewhere might be secretly thrilled at the prospect of flashing a silver badge at the guy in the doof-doof car, this really only belongs in fantasy.

In the schoolyard and classroom, where responsibility for minors is an obvious legal and pastoral obligation, school staff may be enabled to inspect bags and lockers to ensure safety. In circumstances where a student’s act may constitute a crime, the appropriate action is to call the police.

Indeed, it is puzzling how the Coalition arrived at this proposal. While it authorises principals to do a car search, it is unclear whether parents and other drivers would be legally compelled to submit to it. Surely it would be a breach of privacy, otherwise. But then if a parent complies and it was a false alarm, wouldn’t the encounter sour an important relationship and stigmatise the student?

In addition, there are serious concerns about how staff are supposed to deal with a parent who refuses to have the contents of his vehicle examined. Education Minister Martin Dixon has said that principals and teachers would undergo extra training for this. He seems to be under the impression that these people do not already have enough to do.

Of course, the irony in undertaking these car searches in the name of student safety is that principals themselves could become vulnerable. Though only the ones in government schools, for that is where the legislation applies. This goes to show that amongst its many flaws, this proposal really is not a nice way for a newly-installed Education Minister to start.

Whichever way you look, it seems to be the wrong end of the stick. It narrowly focuses on the idea of ‘potential weapons’, which all airport personnel know is a slippery slope. The problem of violence in schools is not solved by inspecting for weapons. By the time you decide to do so, it is already too late because it means the conditions have warranted it. The more visionary aim is for violence to not even be an agenda item. The more sensible approach then is to address the sources of violent behaviour in school settings.

And there’s the rub. Violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum and indeed takes oxygen from a variety of interlinked sources. Some of these are impossible to legislate. How would we mandate parents to teach their children about self-control and non violent resolution of conflict? How do we get teenagers to be more sensible when their brain is developmentally wired to be hyper-emotional? How do we keep their petty spats from being magnified and inflamed online when that is precisely the effect of social media? How do we quell their prejudices when they are tribal by nature? Does our wider community reflect the values that we wish to see in them, such as compassion and acceptance?

This is the complexity that the Coalition’s proposed legislation utterly fails to encompass and indeed ignores. Apart from giving the unfortunate impression that Victorian state schools have somehow become lawless dens of violence, reducing the issue to a ‘crackdown’ on weapons distracts us irresponsibly from a frank and honest discussion of why our kids are hurting each other.

Categories: Education, Politics and Governance

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