Modern-Day 3 R's: Rules, Rules, Rules

A Spirit Week theme was vetoed at the school of Lenise Phillips, with mom Kim. But just why?
A Spirit Week theme was vetoed at the school of Lenise Phillips, with mom Kim. But just why? (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, students can't just randomly stroll out to their cars to fetch a textbook or some other forgotten item. They need a pass because authorities worry about what might be stashed in the parking lot.

At McKinley Technology High School in the District, students are banned from listening to iPods during lunch. But much to their mystification, they are allowed to watch ESPN or "The Maury Show" on the television hanging from the cafeteria ceiling.

"We can watch people fight on TV about who's the baby's father, but we just can't listen to our music. That's kind of weird," said Letia Childs, 15, a McKinley sophomore. "When we listen to our iPod, that's our world. It's calming. Everyone gets rowdy when they watch Maury. Sometimes, in our own way, we just want to do our own thing, but we're limited."

A culture of control has Washington area campuses in an ever-tightening grip, many students say, extending beyond the long-standing restrictions on provocative clothing, cellphone use and class-time bathroom visits. Akin to the omnipresent "helicopter parents," these students say, are helicopter administrators who home in on their smallest moves, no matter how guileless or mundane.

Some administrators acknowledge that the list of rules meant to ban, limit or deter potentially inappropriate or dangerous actions is steadily growing.

"Where to start? It's getting huge," said Linda Wanner, a Blair assistant principal. "The word of the day is prevention. We're on high alert all the time." It's a result, experts say, of the many pressures on those who lead a modern campus with anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 teenagers and the potential for violence or a lawsuit around every hallway corner.

But teenagers, nothing if not skilled in the art of asserting their adulthood, say the accumulation of these little laws can be the most frustrating part of their high school experience. They feel micromanaged and nitpicked at every turn.

The rules are especially maddening when one school prohibits something that another allows. Or when the rules contradict themselves and students can't tell which one they should obey. Jerome DeMarchi, a McKinley assistant principal, said iPods are forbidden because they are easily stolen valuables.

At Forest Park Senior High School in Prince William County, students sought to rejuvenate Spirit Week with funky themes. They were over Twin Day, so they proposed Bling Day, which gave school officials visions of property -- i.e., pricey necklaces -- getting snatched at school. So that idea was a bust. Then students dreamed up Salad Dressing Day -- cowboy garb for ranch, togas for Caesar, Hawaiian shirts for Thousand Island.

Yes, even Salad Dressing Day was cut, for reasons that remain mysterious to some students.

School officials say they are more risk-averse than ever in a security-conscious era. They can face wrathful parents, legal threats and, worst of all, the specter of a school shooting.

Compounding the pressure, the federal No Child Left Behind law holds schools accountable for not only performance but also safety, requiring states to report the number of "persistently dangerous" schools. Even when there's only slight potential for harm, schools implement ordinances that seem inexplicable to students. At Blair, students hate being ordered to remove backpacks from cafeteria tables at lunch. "I can't think of a reason for it," said Spencer Bonar, 16.

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