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Sticks and stones and the Supreme Court

By Connie Marshner
web posted April 8, 2002

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

That bit of American folk wisdom evidently was not part of the cultural patrimony of Kristja Falvo, a mother in Oklahoma. When her little boy Philip came home from sixth grade and said the other kids made fun of him, she was so eager to soothe his feelings that she made a federal case out of it. Literally.

I bet when Philip was first toddling around, and bumped into a table, she spanked the table and scolded it too. "Did the table hit you? Bad table!" And when Philip gets a job and fails at that, it will be the boss's fault.

Some background: Philip evidently scored a 47 on a quiz. The quiz was graded by a classmate, with whom he had traded papers. You know the routine: pop quiz, the teacher wants to find out fast whether the class has gotten the basic idea, so she says: "That's it; trade papers with the person across the aisle." Then the class goes through the questions, the students mark each other's paper, and the teacher collects the papers.

Education jargon calls this "peer grading."

If a youngster fails a test, and his friends notice it, of course one gets embarrassed. Is that necessarily bad? No. A little externally-imposed humility can produce beneficial changes in behavior, such as: "I better do my homework from now on," or "I better study before the test next time, " or, "I better remember to pay more attention next time."

Apparently, some classmate in Philip's Sixth Grade class laughed at his grade. So much so that Philip, according to his mother, became afraid to take tests any more.

So Mama sued the school system.

Now, I would not have minded in the least if she had sued the school for failure to discipline the kids who taunted Philip. In fact, I would have commended her for that.

Sixth grade is the cusp of adolescence. Teachers can easily lose control of their students around that time, and anti-intellectual peer pressure in an environment like that can be part of the reason kids stop learning in public schools.

So if Mama had sued the school system because the teacher failed to control the other kids, I would have been cheering her on. If Mama had sued the parents of the bullies, for their failure to raise their kids to be decent human beings, I would have applauded that too. Because that is the real source of Philip's difficulty.

But instead, Kristja Falvo sued the Owasso School District for violating Philip's right to privacy.


Let me try to follow the logic here.

Sixth grader John Doe is a bully. John Doe bullies Philip about his grade. Therefore deprive John Doe of that information, and he will cease to be a bully? Huh?

What's wrong with this instead: John Doe is a bully. John Doe bullies Philip. Therefore, punish John Doe. What's wrong with that logic?

What's wrong with that logic is that it would ascribe responsibility to the individual responsible. How positively retrograde. How old-fashioned.

Nowadays, in our litigious society, we have to blame some "system" for individual failings. And so, the case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. Praise the Lord, it turns out the Supreme Court can do something right once in a while. It ruled unanimously, no less, in Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo, that peer grading does not violate federal education privacy law.

So teachers are safe, at least for the time being, to save themselves a little time by having kids trade papers to correct quizzes.

In the meantime, I feel sorry for poor Philip. He may be in danger of growing up doomed to never be able to think for himself. If he couldn't stand the ridicule of his peers in sixth grade, he will never be able to hold an unpopular idea. If he goes to college, he will be the kind of student who runs crying to the administration if someone laughs at his opinions.

Imagine if John Adams had suffered Philip's affliction. Or Robert Fulton. Or Thomas Edison. Or Wilbur or Orville Wright. Or William F. Buckley, Jr. Or Barry Goldwater. Or Ronald Reagan.

Whatever problems Philip had with his peers before are as naught compared to the teasing he will get in the future, if he grows up not knowing that sticks and stones may break his bones, but words will never hurt him.

Connie Marshner is director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Governance.

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