If we'll just listen, students know what schools need

Amy reminded me last week that lost in the shadows of Columbine and other campus tragedies is the 99.9 percent good that is happening in our schools each and every day.

I met Amy a couple of weeks ago. She called me after I penned a column bemoaning the fact that our schools were becoming prisons, complete with security cameras, fences and armed guards. I wondered if we won't soon be spending more to protect our students than we are spending to educate them. I wondered, in general, what in the name of sanity was going on in this country of ours that prides itself in having it better than most.

And all of this wondering was done before a first-grader shot and killed another first-grader in a Michigan elementary school.

Amy said she had read my column and wondered if she could use it as subject matter for her debate class at Dayton High where she is a sophomore.

She went on to ask if I wouldn't mind taking time from what she assumed was a busy schedule to attend the debate, just in case she needed some reinforcement. I told her that I was thrilled to hear they still read newspapers in high school. I thought they stopped doing that with the advent of MTV. I said I'd be honored to come to the debate class and give her all the support I could muster. You've got to take time for your fans when you only have one.

Amy is a thorough student, so she dropped by my office to review her notes. I'm certain she also wanted to make sure I wasn't as crazy as her friends and family probably suggested I might me. It's one thing to know a crazy person and quite another to drag him in front of your debate class peers.

We talked about school violence and about possible solutions. It was great to hear things from a student's perspective because we don't regularly ask what students think when discussing them.

"Sometimes it's tough to find someone to talk to," Amy told me. "Rather than pay for security cameras and guards, maybe we should pay for professional counselors who will actually listen and be trained to identify the signs that someone is having problems."

Anyone who was ever 15 or 16 will probably admit that being 15 or 16 is a real mind bender. If memory serves me well, my dad wondered when I was going to make something of myself. My teachers wanted to know where I planned to attend college. My buddies wanted to know if I wanted to help sell some pot. My enemies wanted to know where I'd be after school so they could kick my fanny. And I wanted to know why there was no hair on my chest.

Amy said she'd been struggling with some identity issues of her own. It's difficult, she said, to find your individuality in a world of followers.

She said she felt safe at Dayton High. They have no security cameras, no guards, no ID badges, no uniforms. At least not yet. She believes it's only a very small fraction of the student body causing most of the problems and that it was disturbing that they get so much of the attention.

Amy's debate class teacher is Phil Brady, who probably hadn't been born when I was in high school. It's pitiful when the teachers start looking like the students.

Mr. Brady, as he is known to the students, did a wonderful job of trying to keep the speakers focused as they discussed their various topics. That's what debate is all about. You make a point and people poke holes in it. Point. Counterpoint.

Since it was my column they were poking holes in, they asked me to respond from time to time, although I thought Amy was handling herself just fine.

I had suggested, for example, that we need to get rid of the bad apples in our schools and focus instead on the 99 percent of the good apples. One student wondered where the bad apples go once you've gotten rid of them.

I responded by suggesting that perhaps the bad apples who had screwed up their shot at the public school system were no longer the school system's responsibility.

This business of raising of our children is something that needs to spread around a bit. Why do we always want to put it in the school system's lap? Teach our kids to read, to write, the subtract, to have sex, to not have sex, to not smoke, to not drink, to not do drugs and to not hit one another with baseball bats. And do it all from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, except during the summer.

Amy suggested a student hotline, where peer counseling could happen with some anonymity. Dayton High's principal, Dave Regalado, was attending the debate and jotted that note.

Another student challenged the notion that school uniforms will help ease the peer pressure. "Even with uniforms individuality will stand out," she said. "Some of us are skinny. Some are fat. Some have short hair. Some have long hair. None of us are the same and uniforms won't change that."

All in all, it was a great hour of lively discussion. I left Dayton High feeling pretty good about the state of our youth. I was overjoyed to hear them discuss the issues of the day with such passion and insight.

And I thought perhaps that's really what we need most today; more listening. These young people such as Amy have something very important to contribute to this debate we call life and maybe all we need to do is take time to listen.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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