The Magazine

Something New for Schools to Fail At

L.A.’s misbegotten teen dating curriculum.

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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If you wonder why American students rank poorly among industrialized nations on academic skills, here’s part of the explanation, from a seventh-grade classroom in the Los Angeles Unified School District: 

On a recent morning, [reports the Los Angeles Times,] Trina Greene, manager of Peace Over Violence’s Start Strong program, faced a class at Berendo Middle School in Pico-Union and dived into matters of love and control.

She took students through an exercise in which they had to decide whether to leave a relationship. Under one scenario, a girl pinched a boy for looking at another girl. The students said they would end the relationship. But when she bought him a gold chain for his birthday, a number of them wavered, saying they might stay.

Only 35 percent of Hispanic seventh-graders at this overwhelmingly Hispanic middle school were deemed proficient in California’s English Language Arts test in 2010-11, and only 43 percent were deemed proficient in Math. Yet Berendo’s students are spending precious class time role-playing dating scenarios rather than studying the grammar of dependent clauses or poring over algebra work sheets. (The purchase of a gold chain in this dating scenario is interesting, since we can safely assume that the Start Strong program has been rigorously vetted for “cultural appropriateness.” Taxpayers subsidize lunch for 96 percent of Berendo’s students.) 

Now comes a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education who wants every school in the Los Angeles public school system to teach students “how to recognize when a relationship is becoming abusive,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Over the last several months, L.A. Board of Education member Steve Zimmer, a former teacher and activist, has been working closely with the anti-dating-violence program Peace Over Violence on how to expand its services district-wide. The proposed expansion, estimated to cost $2 million in its first year and approximately $600,000 a year thereafter, would hire a new central district administrator and four full-time assistants who would coordinate each school’s anti-dating-violence programs and would train a teacher or staff member on each campus to “help students identify when they may be veering toward physical, emotional, or verbal abuse and to raise awareness of these issues.”

Zimmer got a boost for his effort in late September when an 18-year-old student, Abraham Lopez, fatally stabbed his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend, Cindi Santana, during lunch at South East High School. If any politician were inclined to oppose Zimmer’s proposal, it will be harder to do so in the wake of the Santana stabbing. Nevertheless, a few questions about this symbol of our dysfunctional schools present themselves:

• Why is a school program necessary to teach students to recognize if they are in an abusive relationship? Here’s a simple test: If you are being mentally or physically abused, you are in an abusive relationship. 

• Why are seventh-graders dating?

• Isn’t teaching about dating the family’s responsibility? The all-purpose justification for the takeover of schools by the social work bureaucracy is: “Parents are not doing their jobs.” But the causality here works both ways. The more that schools purport to take on the functions of parents, the more marginalized those parents become and the less class time is devoted to the academic material that could help propel students out of underclass culture. 

• How can a government employee hope to instill in a child the subtle understanding of self, usually built up over years of interactions with parents, that would insulate someone from an abusive relationship? If government social workers could stem social breakdown, inner-city family structure would be the healthiest in the world. 

Schools have been piling on social services for decades, yet the illegitimacy rate continues to rise, most cataclysmically among blacks (73 percent) and Latinos (53 percent). (Teen birth rates have gone down since the early 1990s, though they are still magnitudes higher than in Europe and Asia.) The social dysfunction that results from this spiraling illegitimacy rate provides the pretext for further increasing the school social work bureaucracy.

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