Bessemer, AL Public Library: If You Are 17, Bring a Guardian

Today I paid my first and what I hope will be my last visit to the town of Bessemer, Alabama, 12  miles southwest of Birmingham. I visited its public library and was appalled before I walked through the door. Oh, it’s a lovely site, perhaps the nicest in town. The 1908  building dates from the town’s era of  prosperity, long before its iron ore deposits were depleted and its steel mills closed. Inside and out, the Bessemer Public Library looks fully restored and refurbished, inviting, and yes, even prosperous, in a near-dead downtown bordered on every side by dilapidation and grime.

On the library’s pristine door is a stern announcement.

No one under the age of 18 is admitted without a guardian. No exceptions.

Can you imagine? I’ve seen other library policies asking that children under say 10 not be left alone routinely for extended periods at the library, or that pre-schoolers be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

But this is quite different, isn’t it?

Every summer afternoon when I was 12 I went to the library, alone, and shelved books for a couple of hours, and when I was a teen, my parents often dropped me at the library’s door on Saturday mornings. I don’t remember either ever coming in with me. Nothing unusual about that. Of course, I wasn’t living in Bessemer in 2009.

Why do people put up with this? Can this be legal?

Let’s have a look at Bessemer for the answers.

This is what tells us (2007):

  • Median household income below state average. [And keep in mind that Alabama came in 47th in the nation for median income.]
  • Median house value significantly below state average.
  • Black race population percentage significantly above state average.
  • Hispanic race population percentage significantly below state average.
  • Foreign-born population percentage significantly below state average.
  • Institutionalized population percentage above state average.
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree or higher significantly below state average.

Unemployment in June 2009 was 15.5%; the local paper estimates that 30% may truly be out of an income, if those whose benefits have run out, or who are underemployed are taken into account.

A couple of comments come to mind:

  • Who wants to bet that you would never see this policy in a predominantly white community with an income at or above state average?
  • And while such a policy would be wrong any place, is it not especially reprehensible and outrageous that it exists in the only public library within an impoverished town? The next closest library is 4.4 miles away.
  • What does the — who? — city council? mayor? library trustees? library administration? — think that the under 18s are going to do to their library? Mind you, there is a security guard at the door. Why? To make sure that a 17-year-old doesn’t sneak in? He watches the entrance door, it seems to me, not the interior of the library.

I wanted to see if I could find any references to the Bessemer policy online. No luck, but I did learn:

  • that its director was fired this last month
  • that the front page of  the July 22, 2009 Western Tribune (the local paper) featured a photo of  a man sprawled asleep in a chair under the headline, “Bessemer Library’s Problems Continue. Troubled director goes AWOL as basement floods;  top staff member sleeps on the job”
  • that in 2007 a part-time bookkeeper was charged with embezzling $400,000 from the library but died before the case went to trial.

I live more than a 100 miles from Bessemer, and I am not a resident of Jefferson County, so I’m not in a position to badger its board live and in person. But that doesn’t mean I’m finished with this talk.

“Don’t Tell Your Parents,” Part 6: When They Do Tell, Then What?

I’m intimidated by this post’s topic. I know it has to be addressed and I have no good answers.

If the child is in imminent danger, you get him or her out of harm’s way, and if the relationship is one-on-one, I’d be inclined to act decisively, even if the particular situation seems relatively benign. Even if what the child has been told not to tell you is trivial and harmless, the injunction is not because it shows poor judgment on the adult’s part and implicitly undermines the security children should feel in their ability to always tell their parents what troubles them. Moreover, the adult could well be testing the child’s ability to keep secrets,  and next time, the secret might be a sinister one.

The more problematic situations, I believe,  involve classrooms and sports teams.

My assumption is that you trust your child, that you believe what he or she says.  I’m in agreement with bookwitch, who commented on yesterday’s post,

 I made a point of telling my children that I would always be on their side. I may shout and criticise, but I’m theirs, against the others. And these days I ask what I’m allowed to say to whom, so that I’m supportive but don’t make it worse.

I’ll say it again: what makes “Don’t tell your parents” so  sinister is that even if the occasion is trivial, the command undermines the child’s ability to entrust her parents with her concerns. If she then pleads that they not contact the forbidder, and the parents do so anyway, her trust is undermined as well, and the bully scores a double hit.

But this doesn’t mean doing nothing is the only option. I’d want to know if this incident were an isolated one or part of a pattern. If it is an isolated one, depending on its nature and the child’s distress, I might adopt a wait and see stance, telling my child to let me know if it happens again.

 It may be possible in some cases, perhaps with a verbally abusive or unjust forbidder, to get the child to see that such people do not improve on their own,  that no one has the right to abuse his position of power over another, that people who do abuse their power shouldn’t be allowed to work with children, that their bosses should know what is going on, and that we could try to talk with the forbidder, making quite clear to him that he best not even think about exacting revenge, but finally she would be better off in another classroom, on another team, whatever.

Three times I changed schools to get my kids away from teachers/coaches who abused their power. In the first case, my son was never in trouble with his teacher but was so distressed by the way she carried on towards other children that he was miserable.  When I told him we had other choices, that there were other schools he could go to, he wanted to leave. The principal and others just didn’t get it: why would a second grader who made all A’s and never got in trouble want to change schools?

Question: why do adults assume children have no empathy for other kids?

The second time, again, my child had no particular conflict with a bully authority figure, but I had stood up to him when I saw how he treated kids in general and was promptly banned from his school’s campus. I didn’t pull my son out immediately, but I advised him to watch very carefully how this guy behaved. By the end of the year Son was ready to leave.

The third time my daughter pleaded to be moved.

In each case, it was the right thing to do.

I’ll tell you what I learned along the way:

1. Don’t count on the forbidder’s boss’s help. Sometimes they don’t care but always they are in the position of having to balance three loyalties: to parents (low), to child, to employee. As parents we know what should be their highest priority, but…

2. Don’t count on the help or support of other parents. In the second of my three experiences, I had listened to parent after parent complain about this coach/teacher — to each other. Much whining and gnashing of teeth — in the parking lot, well away from the problem. I tried to get these people to join me and together sign a letter outlining our concerns.  Guess how many were willing to do that.  None, nada, zilch, zero.   But as time passed, I watched as kid after kid transferred out.

In an ideal world…

1. There would be a change of consciousness. There would be a prohibition, zero tolerance, by administrators of teachers or coaches who said “Don’t tell your parents.”

2. In the meantime, I’d like to see realtime webcam or CCTV  in every classroom and playing field available for download or streaming and archived for a month at least. It would be essential that any parent could see it without asking the school for the tapes or files. Let’s see what they don’t want us to know about. And then there would be no point in forbidding kids to tell their parents about something they can see for themselves: at least we’d achieve an end to the nasty undermining of kids’ security in knowing they can always confide their troubles to their parents. 

This isn’t Big Brother-dom; this is ensuring the rights of the powerless. Is it Big Brother-dom to videotape interrogations of suspects? I don’t think so, and every child has fewer rights than any criminal suspect, if we are honest. Children have fewer rights than convicts in many US states. Wardens the same size as their prisoners can’t beat miscreants with boards. Adults, 3, 4, 5, 6, you name it times the size of a boy or girl who misbehaves in school can hit these kids. Something is so wrong here.

In the real world:

What would you do? What has worked for you?

“Don’t Tell Your Parents,” Part 5: Why Kids Don’t Tell

 If you are just joining us, have a look at the earlier posts in the series [1, 2, 3, 4].

Why do kids comply when an authority commands, “Don’t tell your parents”? Simple obedience? I don’t think so. 

I think generally they keep silent out of  fear:  fear of what their parents will do and, in turn, fear of retribution from the forbidder.

There are other reasons of course.

Mixed loyalties might be involved in some cases: the child likes the forbidder and doesn’t want him to get in trouble. Say the forbidder is a teacher who has gotten a hot new sports car. He invites some of the girls to take a spin during their lunch period. No real harm is done, as far as the girls can see, but they know their parents wouldn’t understand that their teacher is just a fun guy.

Or perhaps the injunction is a relief to the child.  I imagine this might be why some of the Duke lacrosse players went along with the dean’s and in turn their coach’s instructions not to call home. After all, what kid wants to tell mom and dad he was at a party with a stripper who claims several of his teammates raped her? Even if they suspect sooner or later the story is bound to come out, later feels better, and in the meantime they can hope that somehow the Duke administration can fix the problem and make it go away. In group situations like these there is also the  peer reaction to consider, especially if parents know one another.

But then there are cases where the command is accompanied by a threat –sometimes explicit (remember  the shaving episode teacher who threatened his class that those who told their parents couldn’t attend the Christmas party) and sometimes not.  

Maybe no punishment is threatened, but from past experience the kid knows that sooner or later, the forbidder will get back at him, should the kid’s parents complain. I once asked a class who felt they were being unjustly harshly punished for minor infractions why none of them complained to their parents. Silence. Finally, one boy said several months back he told his mom about something similar that the same teacher had done, and she came in to talk to the teacher, and afterwards things weren’t better for him, they were worse. The rest of the class nodded their understanding and agreement. I too knew he was telling me the truth, and I was helpless to tell him that this time — or the next, or the next– things would go differently.

I suspect that most of the time when kids don’t tell this is the reason why — and it is a good reason.

So how do parents find out?
Continue reading ““Don’t Tell Your Parents,” Part 5: Why Kids Don’t Tell”

“Don’t Tell Your Parents” Part 4: Cowering Before Coaches

It’s been a while since Part 3 of this series. The big question remains to be addressed: what do you do when your child does tell. But first I think it is instructive to look at one of the most bizarre behaviors I’ve seen parents exhibit, and that is cowering before coaches. If parents won’t stand up for their children when they witness verbal abuse firsthand, what can be expected of them when they are asked to trust their child’s reports of behavior they haven’t seen?

In the Huntsville Times, a married couple, Dr. Margaret Bibb and Dr. Patrick Quirk, both clinical psychologists, write a weekly advice column about family life issues. I wish I could give you a link to their March 12, 2009 column, “Volatile Coach Concerns Mom,”  so you could read it for yourself. It is archived, but to get to it would cost you $2.95, so I’ll skip it. Usually the pair gives fairly sensible advice. Not this time.

Concerned Mom is wondering about the effect on her son of his coach’s behavior [emphasis added]:

The coach will blow up and be really verbally abusive to my son and others. Often their offense is something very small or they haven’t done anything wrong at all. On other occasions you will see him acting very affectionately with the boys, although his expressions of affection are often laced with teasing insults. The team does well and everybody seems pleased with the coach, including the school principal. When I make reference to other parents about how volatile the coach can be, they agree, but seem willing to accept the way things are.

Let’s look at a few things here:

  1. Coach is described as “verbally abusive” without provocation.
  2. Coach is insulting even when expressing affection.
  3. Team wins. 
  4. Other parents agree coach is volatile but won’t complain.

Think about it:

  1. If we weren’t talking about a coach but instead any other faculty member — and I assume this man is a teacher, since he has his principal’s approval –, would we even be having this talk? Maybe, but it is a lot less likely that a classroom teacher who blew up without provocation in the presence of her students’ parents would remain in the classroom very long. I hope so, anyway.
  2. Continue reading ““Don’t Tell Your Parents” Part 4: Cowering Before Coaches”

The 4-word Phrase No Child Should Hear: Part I

If you think about it, you’ll know what it is:  Don’t tell your parents.

It’s the command issued by the pedophiliac relative, the sociopathic primary teacher, and the sadistic middle school coach, and its purpose is to intimidate and isolate.

I don’t recall being warned as a child about what to do if I ever heard it. I don’t think I warned my own kids until it came to my attention that it was among the repertoire of intimidation used by an odious grown-up playground bully. I’ve been to workshops for adults on child safety and I’ve witnessed children being taught about good and bad touches and so on. But I don’t think that the use of this phrase, which may well be the most obvious behavior shared in common among perpetrators of all types of abuse — physical, emotional, or sexual — of children, has received the attention it deserves.

I have to wonder how often a superintendent tells her principals and a principal his teachers that if he ever hears  an adult under his supervision say, “Don’t tell your parents” to an individual child or a classroom, he will ask for her resignation.

I wonder how many parents think that one of the first warnings their child needs to hear is if they ever hear an adult say, “Don’t tell your parents,” they should do exactly that, and that when an adult says “Don’t tell your parents” to a child, it means the adult is doing something he or she knows is wrong.

Saying, “Don’t tell your parents” – even if the occasion of the command itself is innocuous — is a nasty, brutish thing to do to a child. The commanding authority figure is trying to exclude the parents from some aspect of the child’s life. If the child obeys the command, he becomes a co-conspirator of sorts. If she doesn’t, she is being disobedient to the commander and must fear his or her vengeance, and you can be sure that those who use the phrase will retaliate: kids know this too. The commander has thus succeeded in isolating the child  and forbidding her access to the people who she should expect to be able to rely on for help.

For the child to be able to summon the courage to tell her parents what the teacher says not to tell, she has to be able to trust that her parents can insure that she will not be punished. This is why it is essential that the phrase simply is not part of acceptable discourse any more than the N-word is.