THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
EMPATHY IN OUR SCHOOLS

Knee-jerk reactions a boon mostly for lawyers and sensitivity trainers

April 11, 2010

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I READ, with some bemusement, Maia Szalavitz’s conclusion that “an educational climate that tolerates relational hostility and marginalization of children is doomed to be an academic as well as a social failure’’ (“School empathy first line against bullies,’’ Op-ed).

Bullying has been with us for just about forever, and it was certainly prevalent when I attended Bogota (N.J.) High School in the class of 1960. But we had this fellow named Raymond Waters, vice principal in charge of administration and discipline, who, with some cooperation from engaged teachers, managed to keep the more savage edges of bullying from ripening into full-scale harassment.

He didn’t need so-called sensitivity training nor professional psychologists to train him to perform this function. He used the trust, tempered with just a bit of fear, that he cultivated with his young charges to run things with a firm but fair hand. Such skills were what qualified him to be hired for the job in the first place.

We’re making far too much of the perceived difficulty of dealing with this problem. One can already see the army of lobbyists lining up to promote more criminal laws and more sensitivity training and bullying-recognition programs to deal with a phenomenon readily redressed by a combination of common sense exercised by school personnel and existing criminal laws available when student misconduct gets too extreme, as it apparently did in South Hadley.

Our knee-jerk reaction, alas, always manages to make the situation worse for students, while creating more employment opportunities for sensitivity trainers, prosecutors, and defense lawyers.

Harvey A. Silverglate
Cambridge
The writer is a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer.

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