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Taking safety to extremes

By Michael Zwaagstra
web posted November 28, 2011

Safety first, common sense last. That seems to be the motto when it comes to public schools these days. Earlier this month, the principal of Earl Beatty Public School in Toronto sent a letter to parents informing them that hard balls such as soccer balls, volleyballs, tennis balls, and footballs were now banned from school property.

"Any balls brought will be confiscated and may be retrieved by parents from the office. The only kind of ball allowed with be nerf balls or sponge balls," explained the letter.

Although the Earl Beatty principal's decision is extreme, it is typical of the lack of common sense in public schools. Such an overarching emphasis on student safety makes little allowance for any activity that involves some level of risk and results in nonsensical decisions such as the one described above.

The trend toward safer but blander school playgrounds reflects an obsession with safety. Most adults today probably remember playing on the merry-go-round and teeter totter when they attended school. Unfortunately, these devices have been removed from most playgrounds over concerns that they are too dangerous. Swings, slides, and monkey bars have not been spared.  While they still remain at some schools, they have been redesigned to be safer and more boring.

The exaggerated emphasis on safety has unhealthy consequences.  A recent article by psychologists Ellen Sandseter and Leif Kennair argues that experiencing moderate levels of risk and danger helps children overcome their natural fears. These psychologists suggest that we can expect "an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play."

There are legitimate health concerns. The focus on safety also affects what students may eat in school. Given the prevalence of allergies to peanuts among students, many schools have been declared "nut-free." In these schools, parents are told to make sure their children do not bring to school lunches that contain peanuts or peanut products. While such rule can be frustrating for those who like peanut butter sandwiches, the life threatening nature of some nut allergies makes it understandable to enact this ban.

However, the decision of a school board in London, Ontario, last month to ban peanut butter substitutes is simply ridiculous. Although it tastes exactly like peanut butter, WowButter is a product developed by Hilton Soy Foods that has no peanuts in it. Nevertheless, the school board decided to ban WowButter from schools because students and teachers might mistake it for real peanut butter.

It's one thing to ban peanut products from a school out of a desire to protect allergic students from exposure to peanuts. It's another thing entirely to ban a peanut-free product from the school because it looks like peanut butter. This type of ban does nothing to make anyone safer and frustrates parents who simply want to provide healthy lunches for their children.

While it would be nice if the situations I just described were merely isolated examples, the overemphasis on safety can be found at schools right across North America.   

The Manitoba government has joined in. It has expanded the scope of the Workplace Safety and Health Act so that it now applies to all school divisions in the province. As a result, every school division must establish a workplace health and safety committee with representation from each of its employee groups. At least four health and safety inspections of each workplace must take place every year.

Along with their many other responsibilities, Manitoba school principals are now swamped in safety rules regulating everything from the proper placement of extension cords in classrooms to the use of microwaves during lunch. Apparently, students can no longer be trusted to do something as simple as heat up their own lunch in the microwave without an adult supervisor standing right next to them.

There seems to be no end to examples of safety silliness. Some elementary schools in the United States have banned playing tag because students might get injured if they bump into each other. Even skipping ropes have been subjected to bans in some schools.

When students aren't allowed to kick a soccer ball, play a game of tag, heat their lunch in the microwave, or use a skipping rope, then we know that a safety-obsessed culture has gone off the rails.

While safety is important, so is common sense. It's time we bring some common sense back to our schools. ESR

Michael Zwaagstra is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a Manitoba high school teacher. He is co-author of What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.





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