A student makes a big mistake. His or her school is thoroughly investigating what has occurred. It is complicated. Meanwhile, other parents hear about it. Pretty soon the media get hold of the story, but not without all the facts. Juicy headlines appear.
Then, someone one has to be blamed – the school, the teachers, the parents, the peer group, the kids’ background, the media, or even the government. In search of even bigger ratings and hence advertising revenue, one media outlet publishes Facebook photos and messages of the students involved. Meanwhile, anonymous online bloggers have their say, often involving zero tolerance.
Fast and easy solutions are called for, like corporal punishment ‘as it never hurt me’, expulsion, body searches, more video surveillance, or public shaming at school assembly. Legal threats are made. Then the online trolls pounce with their bitter, spiteful and anonymous hate messages and death threats against the students. The students involved suffer enormous mental depression and have suicidal thoughts. The students are 14 years old. Yes, I made this story up. But, sadly, similar stories are regularly reported in the media.
At Carey, when a student makes a serious mistake which has a significant impact on the health, safety or wellbeing of others in our community, firstly it will be thoroughly investigated. Sometimes it can be resolved easily amongst the students and staff. But sometimes it requires a meeting to be held in my office or with one of the School section heads, with the student, parents and the pastoral care staff all present.
We clarify what has occurred. Within a restorative justice framework, we discuss how such a poor decision impacted on the wellbeing and safety of others, the School, and the student. We consider the School’s behaviour code and how it must be fairly implemented. We discuss punishment, but also care for the victims and for the perpetrator. Hopefully we can find an educational assignment so more learning can occur.
We ask the student how they can try to rectify the situation and what can be learnt from it. When the School, parents and student are working in alignment, the outcomes are superb. However, sometimes the outcome is poor and not what we hoped for, particularly if the parents or the student cannot accept responsibility and have a blame mentality.
I do not like blame. Blame often deflects people from accepting personal responsibility. Life is full of temptation. Starting with Genesis, should Adam and Eve blame God for the creation, the garden, and the temptation? Just like Adam and Eve, we are constantly tempted. However, we make our own decisions and have to accept the consequences of such decisions, both good and bad. I frequently remind students and, at times, their parents that students have rights. With rights come responsibilities. More important though there are the consequences associated from exercising those rights and responsibilities. Students must accept the consequences, however hard they may appear to be.
We must continue to trust our young people. We must give them the freedom to learn, to take risks, make mistakes, and then learn from the mistakes. As the Irish proverb says, ‘You have got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was’.
Despite the fact when something goes wrong, it might appear easier and safer to ban them, ground them, or not trust them. We must not only allow them the chance to exercise their freedom, but also a chance to live with the consequences of a poor decision.
We hope your values and that of Carey will hold firm, because ultimately the decisions and consequences from exercising rights and responsibilities will be exercised not by you, the staff or me, but by your son or daughter.