Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Incapacity, Part Deux

I had another row today with a student in the SAVE room; not an unpleasant one, necessarily, but an exasperating one nonetheless. This one was with a student who refused to hand over her cell phone, which when I see students using them in class I ask them to place in a small cardboard box to retrieve at the end of the period. When she refused to place the phone (a Blackberry, actually) in the box, I immediately informed the school's head Dean of Security, who was standing just outside the door, and he immediately imposed a three-day suspension.

I don't want to go through the whole incident, not that it was terribly upsetting (it wasn't) but it involved a rather protracted and ultimately unproductive conversation between myself and the student about the nature of her rights and my authority. I really made an effort here to have a calm, rational discussion about this and demonstrate to the student why she was wrong without resorting to "because-I-said-so" scolding. It did not devolve into a shouting match and the tenor of the discussion was generally civil, and the other students in the room seemed genuinely intrigued. (The ones who knew me warned her not to debate me...)

Her argument, essentially, was that her rights were unlimited and my authority was nil. Who am I, she asked, to take her cell phone away? I'm just a teacher; I'm no better than she and I can't tell her what to do just because I have a title and somebody made up a rule. I, naturally, being a law student and what-not, tried to explain how rights and authority work, how and why teachers and other school officials derive the authority to make and enforce school rules, how a person's autonomy does not always trump every other interest, etc. In the process I went through a great many of the points I've made in previous posts about these issues, both in general and with particular respect to cell phones. No matter what I told her, she returned time and time again to either or both of two fundamentally-flawed arguments: (1.) That laws, rules and regulations are entirely arbitrary ("some person" just "made them up"); and (2.) that her own rights are unlimited, not derived from anything, and not subject to any authority.

I don't want to start a lengthy dissertation here about the law- and rule-making process, the reciprocity of rights and obligations, the meaning of minority status, or the various analogies to traffic and criminal laws I used in a conscientious attempt to illustrate the fallacy of what she was saying. The bottom line is, at the end of the day, there were two simple facts that she could not and would not accept: (1.) the Chancellor has authority to make school rules and I, as a teacher, have authority to enforce those rules; and (2.) she does not have the right to carry or use a cell phone in school.

I wonder sometimes why I expend the time, not to mention the physical and intellectual energy, to explain legal principles such as the fundamental nature of rights and authority to these self-indulgent, nihilistic children. Maybe there's some small flicker of idealism left in me which still believes that somehow, logic and reason will prevail. This child clearly preferred to be suspended from school for three days, and have that suspension become part of her record, than give up her cell phone for 45 minutes. And why? She kept talking about "not giving [me] the satisfaction" of taking and holding her cell phone. Whether and to what degree such action would actually satisfy me is unworthy of discussion, but even if it was, this seems at best to be a wholly irrational choice.

One of the things I told her during our discussion was that "a person has only those rights which he can enforce." This student claimed an absolute, unlimited right to use her cell phone in school. Of course, this "right" cannot be enforced because it doesn't exist; Judge Stone declared as much in Price v. N.Y. City Bd. of Educ., 2007 N.Y. Slip. Op. 27214, 16 Misc. 3d 543; 837 N.Y.S.2d 507 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2007) (see this entry). It cannot be enforced because no court or other authority will enforce it. The student is therefore left with only two choices: Obey the rule, or risk and accept the consequences of not doing so. Yet despite the disciplinary result of her action, she still insisted that she had the right. Her idea of "enforcing" the right was simply to ignore the rule and do it anyway. (I'm certain she didn't think of it that way; after all, one can't believe one is "enforcing" a right without acknowledging the authority against which one is enforcing it, let alone that from which it derives). Accepting a three-day suspension seems like a peculiar way to enforce a "right."

As I said, I don't know why I try so hard to explain these things to kids. I really want them to understand why things are the way they are, which I suppose is the ultimate purpose of education. A futile as it is, I expect I'll continue to try.

No comments: