What We Teach

This story is sadly, I think, more than an isolated incident.

 A seventh grader from Calgary who stopped a bully from stabbing a classmate was reprimanded by the school for his act of bravery and sent home. Briar MacLean told the National Post he was sitting in study class last Tuesday, when the bully began “poking and prodding” his victim. Briar recalled seeing the bully putting his classmate in a headlock, and hearing the unmistakable “flick” of a pocket knife.

“I heard them say there was a knife,” said the 13-year-old, who instinctively tackled the bully, prompting the teacher, who was on the opposite side of the room at the time, to take notice. Briar thought he had done the right thing until three periods later when he was called into the vice principal’s office to be reprimanded.

The boy’s mother, Leah O’Donnell, was called and told that her son had been involved in an incident and was trying to “play hero.” She was further informed that Sir John A. Macdonald junior high school does not “condone heroics,” and her son should have sought out a teacher instead.

“In the time it would have taken him to go get a teacher, could that kid’s throat have been slit?” O’Donnell recalled asking the vice principal. “She said yes, but that’s beside the point. That we ‘don’t condone heroics in this school.'” In the aftermath of the incident, the bully was suspended and Briar was sent home.

In a statement released after the story appeared on the front page of The Calgary Sun, the school’s principal Michael Bester insisted Briar was not disciplined, but reiterated that he should have asked a teacher for help and that “it s not recommended that students intervene in incidents such as this to ensure their own safety.”

There are two possible bases for the principal’s apparent position – a happy story and a cynical one. The happy, public interest story is that, while this case turned out ok, allowing “heroes” might lead to more children being harmed – whether the bullies, the victims, or the heroes. The cynical, public choice story is that the principal does not want “heroes” intervening because it creates problems for the school administration and lessens their control. Obviously, there is a close analogy here to disputes about private self defense and gun control/police issues. 

What the public interest story misses is how this policy treats people without respect. The teachers cannot always be where they need to be to protect children. What’s more, children don’t always feel comfortable “telling on” other children, and we should not necessarily encourage them to do so. In a world where bullying is a concern, it seems problematic to discourage a child from helping to deal with a bully.

Some might respond, while it is wrong to treat people like children, these are, after all, children. While a fair point, there is a strong counterargument: in a school setting, we are teaching children how to behave and what virtues – yes virtues – to exhibit. If we criticize or punish children  for attempting to protect someone in peril, we are teaching them to behave like cowards or incompetents. That is probably the worst part of this scheme – it teaches children the wrong message.

This whole incident reminded me of an experience with one of my sons. In 5th grade, another boy had hit him and my son defended himself by hitting him back. The school sent my son home for fighting. While he was waiting in the principal’s office, my son was scared that his parents would be angry with him. After all, we had always been demanding and strict about school. But he was shocked that we were not mad at him at all. We explained that it was wrong to prevent someone from defending himself and that the school rule was a bad one. We did warn him, however, that he needed to consider what the consequences were for violating a rule, but that was largely a matter of prudence.