Sounding Off: Children's emotional safety matters most

Regarding the Jan. 29 editorial "School board should investigate Hubbard": A man from Mars might wonder why some people can call for suspending the school superintendent over unproved allegations when they know about America's well-known presumption of "innocent until proven guilty."

It appears that more than a few people are puzzled by discussions in print with such a broad and seemingly unfair range of rational and emotional arguments. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the Board of Education that voted unanimously to hire Jeffrey Hubbard as superintendent of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District after Supt. Rob Barbot retired.)

I think the fundamental issues have little to do with legalities and everything to do with three little words: "in loco parentis." When parents and guardians trust a school district to serve "in place of a parent," they expect much more than that their children get an education.

It goes without saying that they want to get their kids back at the end of the day, so physical safety is an overarching expectation. A related, but usually unstated, concern has to do with emotional safety. Parents and guardians work hard to see that their kids grow up in a stable environment. To support that goal, they want the school environment to be at least as emotionally safe as the home environment.

In order to foster such stability, parents and school boards have taken extremely conservative steps in matters of the emotional environment. For example, in the 1800s when compulsory, free, public schooling in America was just beginning, school boards — especially rural ones — were restrictive about a teacher's behavior both inside and outside of the schoolhouse. A typical school board would prohibit a teacher from dating, would mandate modest, spinsterish attire, would prohibit makeup and would require that she live in someone's home, not on her own.

In the past 170 years, of course, we've loosened the corset strings quite a bit. But parents will still get spooked, understandably so, by anything they think might harm their children's well being.

So, while stockholders of a $260-million for-profit business might not demand purity from its chief executive, parents in an equally large school district have a different take for their superintendent based on their belief that their kids' futures are vulnerable in some degree to anything and everything that goes on in the school district. This encourages them to put their children's welfare above that of teacher, principal and superintendent. They would rather be safe than sorry, and they're not reluctant to talk about it.

Consequently, my explanation for Mr. Man-From-Mars starts with this recognition: Because of in loco parentis, schools occupy a unique place in American life. The school system is a hybrid system … an extension of the family, but an extension that is peopled with paid employees. As such, school issues can frequently be a blend of squishy irrationalities and crisp legalities.

In politics, as in families, people will make unfair and hurtful comments for a variety of reasons. But the education system contains an additional wrinkle — members of the school district are lawful employees — that requires the Board of Education to scrupulously and methodically follow the requirements of state employment laws, such as honoring contracts and not discussing personnel matters in public.

TOM EGAN is a Costa Mesa resident.

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