School's job is not to police

If I had a dollar for every time I've been told that New Zealand is a great place to bring up kids I wouldn't be writing columns for a living.

Clean environment, healthy food, fresh air, low crime rate, excellent education system … you know the drill. It's become a cliche of course, but like many cliches it's become one because it's (mostly) true.

Ask any recent migrant, particularly middle-class ones from China or the UK, why they moved here and that's almost certainly the answer you will get.

The fact is that New Zealand is cleaner and healthier with a lower crime rate and a better education system than many other parts of the world. But, to misquote Einstein, it's all relative. We're not particularly clean, green, or safe - we're just more so than the UK, or China, or the United States.

And that's an important distinction, because we risk treading the same path if we're not careful.

The almost daily diet of horror news stories from the US about shootings in schools, for example, has us shaking our heads and giving thanks that New Zealand doesn't have a gun culture.

But if you listen to what school principals are saying, that's just about the only thing saving us from bloodshed in the school playground.

Secondary principals last week renewed their call for teachers to have the power of search and seizure over their students, claiming they feared weapons were being brought to school and hidden in clothing or bags.

This issue was first raised in 2010, following what appeared to be a spike in the numbers of reported assaults at schools. In response to media inquiries, the ACC released figures showing 442 teachers had reported injuries sustained at work during the past two years. But no breakdown of the type of injuries sustained by teachers was provided - leading to reports that children were running amok in schools.

The Education Ministry later published data on its website showing 64 of the ACC claims were for insect and animal bites while the single biggest cause of injury was an accidental knock. A further 12 teachers were bitten, kicked, or scratched and one sustained an injury from a deliberate punch.

Since then, both the ACC and the ministry have been reluctant to release data on school assaults, claiming they don't collect information in this form. Last year ACC said 280 teachers were "struck by a person or an animal", which could mean almost anything.

The Post-Primary Teachers Association says there is a "conspiracy of silence" around assaults on teachers, however. The union claims many teachers don't report assaults because they don't want to harm the reputation of the school and are under pressure to keep a lid on suspension and expulsion numbers.

The past president of the Secondary Principals Association, John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh, has been particularly vocal over this, claiming a "breakdown of values", the influence of "dysfunctional families" and a lack of respect for one's elders is leading to violence in schools.

Paul College is a Catholic school and Walsh is a committed Christian so some may take issue with his views on the moral decay of our youth. But other school principals from across the country are also voicing concern over the potential for violence in the classroom and the playing fields and also want the power to search their students.

Should they get it? It's a fraught issue. The Education Ministry has already announced it is relaxing the law around cellphones and tablets, allowing teachers to both confiscate and view these items if they believe there is inappropriate content on them.

This could include text messages and video where students were being bullied or harassed, through to assaults and even, at the extreme end, the sort of content filmed by members of the so-called Roast Busters gang, who were still at school when they allegedly raped girls as young as 13.

So far the Government has resisted calls for teachers to be able to search their students. This is because it would essentially give schools the same powers of search and seizure as the police. From there it's only a small step to the metal detectors that have become a fact of life in many American schools.

There is a privacy issue at stake here. Children and young people have the same core human rights as adults. While they may be forced to attend school until they are 16, they do not have to submit to a random search by a member of the public any more than you or I do. Any move to diminish those rights would have to be very carefully thought through, and would require better evidence than has been furnished to date about the extent of the problem.

There's also the question of whether it's the school's job to ensure students don't bring weapons to school. There seems to be a trend at the moment toward schools being asked to pick up a greater share of the load for bringing up our young people as responsible citizens with at least some sort of moral compass. They're even being asked to feed their students to stop them going hungry.

They should not have to do these things. They are the responsibility of parents. Schools have enough to do without having to feed students, teach them right from wrong, or frisk them for weapons.

Sunday Star Times