Education Matters: Athletics can be 'touchy' subject

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

A few years ago, an elementary school in Massachusetts made the news by banning games such as tag and dodge ball and other "contact" or "chase" games. Another school somewhere in this great land outdid that by outlawing any touching whatsoever by students.

A school in Georgia addressed the "problem" of physical contact among its students by eliminating recess, figuring that if you cramp children's bodies into chairs long enough with no break time, they will somehow become better learners too.

In these and a growing list of other school districts nationwide, school officials cite injured feelings of children and the increased possibility of a lawsuit if children are physically hurt.

It's a wonder any kid makes it through school without being traumatized for life. The safer course would be to just have the children sit it out on playgrounds and athletic fields like a bunch of field potatoes. But then they could sue anyway because all of the forced inactivity led to obesity.

Way back when I attended school, one of my favorite physical activities was something we called "bombardment" or "war ball." We played it on rainy days in the gym and it was a blast. About 40 kids on each side of the gym chucking volleyballs at each other and trying to survive without being hit. Schools in our district no longer play the game because of the same apprehensions mentioned above. A child might suffer a (gasp) bloody nose or worse, be struck in a sensitive area and be doubled up for a few moments (oh, boo-hoo).

Such dire consequences might just activate some of our vigilant (or should I say opportunistic) parents who are ever on the lookout to reach into deep pockets for some easy money, primed to threaten a lawsuit for the needless physical/emotional harm done to their poor baby. Rather than incur the costs of litigation, school districts (like Glendale) will settle out of court and then take measures to minimize the risk of a reoccurrence. And that's a shame.

It's a classic case of "penny wise and pound foolish." School districts should incur whatever costs come from confronting spurious lawsuits and threadbare claims of damage. It is their best defense against a plague of future litigation.

One of my colleagues has been suggesting for years that our school offer competitive wrestling, but in the present state of affairs, that gets a "fat chance" — way too much touching — even though a significant percentage of our boys come from a part of the world where wrestling is a major sport.

Nevertheless, we do offer football, and if I may digress just a bit, I think it's time to eliminate the sport from the school's athletic program. That may sound un-American to some of you, but consider a high school that hasn't had a winning record in over 20 years. The great majority of losses during that span of time were not just losses, they were annihilations and school spirit, which often rallies around the football team, has all but disappeared from Hoover High School.

Coaches I've talked to over the years have cited as the main reason for the school's dismal record a large segment of spoiled, pampered young men on campus not up to the tough standards of a full contact sport. Maybe it's time to substitute soccer for football at Hoover — less touching.

Finally, and in keeping with this general topic, I am reminded of a certain substitute teacher I wrote about a few years back. He made the mistake, according to district administrators, of putting his hand on the shoulder of an unruly, verbally abusive student. For that "mistake," he was barred permanently from substitute teaching at that school. This action was done apparently to appease the boy's parents who threatened a lawsuit against the district for the "psychological damage" done to their little prince.

The message to all of us adults who work day in and day out with kids is getting louder and clearer: Don't touch!

It is a warning that is appropriate for only a tiny percentage of teachers who don't belong in a job working with children. They manage to make the headlines, they scare a lot of parents and they give the profession a bad name.

They put teachers on the defensive, and I must tell you that their example is an affront to the vast majority of professionals who know the difference between crossing a boundary and bridging a gap — and by that I refer to the distance between people that is instantly closed by a pat on the shoulder, an extended hand, a warm hug, and yes, even a firm grip on a shoulder to add just the right emphasis and command full attention.

The present preoccupation with "harmful or offensive touching" in my profession is misdirected, exaggerated, alarmist and counterproductive to the best interests of our children. We've already been directed to sterilize our instruction by sticking to standardized scripts, so what's next? Children sitting in little cubicles interacting with cyber lessons, holographic images and virtual experiences? Mental connections multiplying, physical intimacy disappearing.

If that is the Brave New World of education, I want nothing to do with it.

DAN KIMBER is a former teacher in the Glendale Unified School District, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@sbcglobal.net.

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