From what we read, the Bonny Eagle High School graduation was marred this year by school and police officials overreacting to the exuberance of youth. Told not to bounce beach balls during the ceremony, some boisterous graduates did anyway; one (who claims not to have participated) got bounced and another was refused a diploma. Friends and family booed and cursed. What a shame. What a sham.

There is a certain personality type that insists on doing things by the book. The ranks of school administration and law enforcement tend to be filled with folks for whom respect for authority is an inviolable principle. But, for most of us, respect is something you have to earn, and you don’t do it by cracking down on kids in a celebratory mood on what is supposed to be their day.

A graduation should be what the students want it to be, not what school officials insist it must be. Unusual dress and harmless demonstrations of high spirits are standard at lots of graduation ceremonies around the country. There are exceptions to every rule. Where there is no harm there is no foul.

The harm in this case was done by the superintendent of schools and the sheriff’s deputy who did her bidding. They could have and should have laughed off a big inflatable rubber duck bouncing around the auditorium, but instead they saw red. How dare these kids defy their authority!?

I read many of the almost 500 comments on the newspaper account of the Bonny Eagle graduation fiasco. Students argued that the kids who got punished were not, in fact, the ones who were acting up. Predictably, however, a lot of the anonymous comments played that stale old tune about kids knowing what the rules were and therefore should expect to pay the consequences.

What a croc-o-doodoo! Kids will obey reasonable rules, but unreasonable rules simply breed contempt for authority. That’s the side of public education I have always found most disturbing – the insistence on trying to control every facet of a student’s life.

Oh, but the Bonny Eagle students signed a contract that they would behave themselves. Yes, well thousands of students and parents also sign honor codes at local schools every year, and every year hundreds of students violate those codes. They just sign them to keep school officials happy.

From what I’ve observed, student-athletes for the most part obeyed honor codes back when they were in force only during a particular sports season. They did it for themselves and for their teammates. Since many schools have put honor codes in force year-round, they have been broken with much greater frequency. Why? Because kids recognize injustice when they see it. If, for instance, an athlete is reported to have been at a party where alcohol was consumed over summer vacation and he or she doesn’t play a sport until the following spring, a suspension will go into effect almost a year after the infraction. That’s just plain vindictiveness.

In their zeal to control students, many schools have now added a “knowingly being present” clause to their honor codes. But you can’t tell kids they can’t go to a party just because someone else might be drinking or smoking without undermining respect for authority. It’s just not a realistic expectation.

As long as students are not representing their schools at the time, whatever they do outside of school is none of the school’s business. The business of schools is education, not health care, not law enforcement, not parenting. If a student misbehaves, it’s up to parents (and police if a law has been broken) to deal with it. Cracking down, as the Bonny Eagle superintendent did, just breeds defiance. Or haven’t you noticed that the worst behaved kids tend to have the strictest parents?

What’s the matter with kids today? Too many adults trying to enforce too many rules.

As the song says, “Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!”

Sidebar Elements

beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.