The War on Kids
There will probably be two responses to the first story in this week's issue: 1) I was too hard on the public library/librarian, and 2) I wasn't hard enough on her. To be sure, my tagline was judging her based on the standards of the American Library Association.
But first the story, from True's 10 May 2009 issue:
Weekly Weird News
Freedom of Information
An unidentified 11th-grade student in Pelham Manor, N.Y., was called into the office for a chat with the assistant principal -- and the police. The boy was reportedly researching how to conceal a gun. After interviewing the student, the police and the principal determined that there was absolutely no threat, and in fact the report was wrong: the teen was actually researching the state's laws on guns. A school spokeswoman said the boy was not disciplined, and remains in school. So who turned him in? The Pelham Public Library. "It is not our procedure to notify somebody" about patrons' book choices, said library Director Patricia Perito, but she "had to" look into the matter by informing the school. (White Plains Journal News) ...In other news, Perito has set up a security camera on the library's copy of the Constitution, so she can catch anyone who wants to research their rights as a citizen.
The ALA was founded in 1876 "to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all." (from their Mission Statement -- emphasis added.)
So Librarian = professional, and it's their job to ensure access to everyone to the vast and diverse information in their custody. Noble goals and a noble calling to be sure.
In 1948, the ALA adopted the Library Bill of Rights, which has been amended several times since, to declare that "libraries are forums for information and ideas" for all, and "not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views."
That "age" bit is discussed quite a bit by the ALA. "The American Library Association opposes all attempts to restrict access to library services, materials, and facilities based on the age of library users," they say in a policy paper. "Librarians and library governing bodies cannot assume the role of parents or the functions of parental authority in the private relationship between parent and child. Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that only parents and guardians have the right and the responsibility to determine their children's -- and only their children's -- access to library resources."
"The ethical responsibilities of librarians, as well as statutes in most states and the District of Columbia," the ALA's Policy Manual (Section 52.4) dictates, "protect the privacy of library users. Confidentiality extends to 'information sought or received, and materials consulted, borrowed, acquired'." Should there be a legitimate legal reason for such records to be given to law enforcement, it is "strongly recommended" that "such records shall not be made available to any agency of state, federal, or local government except pursuant to such process, order, or subpoena as may be authorized under the authority of, and pursuant to, federal, state, or local law relating to civil, criminal, or administrative discovery procedures or legislative investigatory power."
Librarians, perhaps better than all people, should know the importance of reading to the development of responsible citizens. "The freedom to read is essential to our democracy," the ALA says in its Freedom to Read Statement, but "It is continuously under attack." The obvious way to attack it is to ban or burn books in an attempt to suppress ideas. A less obvious way is to make it known that there are people watching what you read, and calling the authorities if you dare to read something unusual. That's called a "chilling effect" and certainly we would rightly be outraged to have government agents watching us in a library. So what in hell was a library professional doing acting in that capacity, informing government agents of what one of her patrons, no matter his age, was reading?
It's different because it's guns, you might say.
I don't particularly care if you're pro- or anti-gun. Let's say you're anti-gun. Do you know for a fact that the kid in the story isn't too? Maybe he was researching a school paper to argue against guns. He could certainly argue his points better if he knew and understood the laws. Let's say you're pro-gun; maybe he was researching the state's laws so he could engage in sport shooting, and ensure that he complied with all legal and safety requirements so he could do it properly. You don't know which is the case here, do you? Neither did the librarian, who violated not just the policy of her profession, but every standard of her profession to inform on the boy to government agents.
And how interesting it is that I wrote that story yesterday, and today I received a DVD in the mail of a documentary that was six years in the making. I was interviewed for it four years ago, and the movie just came out.
"In 95 minutes," the film's promo material says, "THE WAR ON KIDS exposes the many ways the public school system has failed children and our future by robbing students of all freedoms due largely to irrational fears. Children are subjected to endure prison-like security, arbitrary punishments, and pharmacological abuse through the forced prescription of dangerous drugs. Even with these measures, schools not only fail to educate students, but the drive to teach has become secondary to the need to control children."
Strong words indeed. And sure enough, the film starts with zero tolerance, which I've been railing about in True since 1995. My hour-plus of on-camera interviewing was distilled down to just 41 seconds of screen time, but there are plenty of experts interviewed that really flesh things out; a lot of parents will be horrified at what they see, and what has been kept quiet or glossed over. (For example, did you know that Columbine High School massacre shooter Eric Harris was taking the antidepressant Luvox at the time of the shootings? He was ordered to, even though it had been shown in pediatric use, a significant number of patients taking it become manic (Source; PDF file). Violent tendencies -- he was ordered to take the drug because of his anger issues -- plus mania is not a good combination. It could lead to -- oh, I don't know... -- say, a frenzy of mass murder?)
I don't agree with every aspect of the film, but I can tell you one thing: it sure made me think. And you know how I like that! In any case I believe their bottom line is correct: schools are terribly broken, yet society blames the kids for the problems, rather than even think about reforming the entire educational system. Hence their title, "The War on Kids".
Yes, I realize the irony of the story being about a kid researching gun laws and talking about the Columbine massacre. I don't doubt the librarian had just that scenario in mind when she chose to disregard her professional standards, and it's possible she could have been right, the kid might have been planning such an attack. Well, that's exactly what the film is about: kids are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent, and the education of children "has become secondary to the need to control children." We've seen in my zero tolerance stories so many cases of kids presumed to be guilty until proven innocent -- and even then punished, because the wheels were set into motion. Frankly, I applaud the school and police in Pelham Manor, N.Y., for doing the right thing once they were forced into talking to the kid. They talked with him, got the straight story, and sent him on his way without any disciplinary action.
Yet you can still be sure that he will forever be "chilled" from too much curiosity as to where he as a citizen stands when it comes to the law, since he'll never know who is watching him, and who they're reporting to.
Too hard on the librarian? No way: I was too easy on her.
And keep your eye open for "The War on Kids". It has already won "Best Educational Documentary" at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. The web site is not quite ready for prime time, but it's at http://www.TheWarOnKids.com.