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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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Berendo Middle School, located in a gang-ridden section of south Los Angeles County, already has a robust therapeutic staff, including a coordinator of social services who “outreaches” to other social work agencies in the community. In 2006, I visited Berendo’s Violence Intervention Program for children who show signs of gang involvement and their overwhelmingly single mothers. The students’ siblings often came from a dizzying array of different fathers. The Violence Intervention Program’s listless group therapy session did not inspire confidence that students were better off parked there than in front of a math textbook. 

The dominant ethos of the social service lobby guarantees that it will fail to stem family breakdown, even if it had any hope of serving as a viable surrogate for parental oversight to begin with. The lobby is obsessively value-neutral about promiscuity and family structure. It’s fine for teens to have sex, so long as they do so in a nonsexist, non-heteronormative, condom-using way. It’s also fine for women and girls to have children out of wedlock; to suggest otherwise violates the first principle of feminism: “Strong women can do it all.” Children don’t need fathers; they just need good “support systems.”

Of course, the mainstream media and large swaths of the opinion elite are just as nonjudgmental about premature sexual activity and the disappearance of marriage as the social work bureaucracy is. The Los Angeles Times presented Jessica Contreras, an 18-year-old graduate of the Los Angeles Unified School District, as an example of the benefits of anti-dating-violence programs. Contreras says “she wished she had learned more about healthy relationships before she ended up in an abusive one,” according to the Times. (Parental guidance? Not on the radar screen.) When Contreras was 14, her 18-year-old boyfriend slapped her after she “told him off” for hanging out with another girl at school. For a year afterwards, she said, “I didn’t know what to think or how to feel.” Jessica’s bewilderment did not last long: Now 18, she is “raising her one-year-old son from another relationship.” The news gets even better: “With counseling and help from programs like Peace Over Violence, she said, she knows how to define boundaries in a relationship and stand up for herself.” 

Apparently those “boundaries” kick in after granting access to private parts, not before. 

The problems purportedly ad-dressed by school social programs are unquestionably serious. The demise of the norm of sexual modesty has resulted in a grotesquely sexualized culture that many parents do nothing to counter and that the entertainment and consumer industries do everything to accentuate. Dating violence and domestic violence are likely to worsen with the growing Hispanic population, which is already responsible for large increases in domestic violence calls in big-city police departments. 

Schools do have one powerful tool to stem this tide of dysfunction, however: homework. Asian teen pregnancy rates are negligible in part because the Asian family is still strong, but also because the children are studying so single-mindedly that they don’t have time to hang out at the mall, get drunk, and fornicate. 

Every school with a teen pregnancy problem should double its academic requirements and enforce consequences for blowing them off. The $2 million that Los Angeles Unified board member Steve Zimmer wants to spend on a new bureaucracy could instead be used to send the message that school is about gaining precious knowledge of the world; the money could restore lost library hours and stock library shelves with Poe, Conan Doyle, and books conveying the excitement of science and history.

Schools have a second line of defense against social breakdown when families fail to civilize their children: a pervasive ethic of self-discipline and respect for others. Rather than creating specialized classes in various dysfunctions, schools should simply insist on nonnegotiable norms of promptness, neatness, effort, and courtesy. The KIPP schools—high-achieving, inner-city charters whose students sign enforceable pledges to behave responsibly, including following their teacher’s directions—are the best examples of this civilizing environment. Students who are taught to respond respectfully to adults are less likely to abuse each other. But such traditional methods of socialization do not add to school district and union payrolls or to their supporters’ electoral prospects.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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