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.
"It's for hygienic purposes," said Wanner, the assistant principal. And about that rule that requires permission and a solid reason to go to the parking lot? "There could be any number of things out there, like alcohol," Principal Phillip Gainous said.
If students feel that the climate is suffocating, so do principals. Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, said school systems are frequently hard-pressed to find candidates for principal openings because those who take on the job are more accountable than ever for test scores, campus safety and much more.
"A lot of principals are on pins and needles. We have one or two school shootings, and suddenly everyone wants zero tolerance. Principals are overly sensitive to the students who are in their charge," Tirozzi said. "You've got one group of parents who want you to be more liberal and another group of parents who want you to be ultra-conservative."
Sometimes, tighter enforcement of old rules creates new controversy. At Blair, students have been steaming this year about a crackdown on tardiness. If they are just a few seconds late for class, they must attend detention or an academic support class during lunch or after school.
Blair students say they are still trying to figure out a way around that rule, but they have perfected strategies for dealing with a slew of others. Annie Ropeik, 16, a junior, hates when a school official asks her whether she used a pay phone or her cellphone to call her mother to pick her up when she's sick. Cellphone calls are verboten.
Telling the truth could get her cellphone confiscated. To avoid a lie, Ropeik said, she says nothing and simply walks out of school and gets into her mom's car.
"But the next morning, you bring in a note with your parents' number and signature, saying 'Please excuse Annie for the afternoon. Yesterday she was ill,' " Ropeik said. "They call the number, talk to your parents and it goes down as an excused absence."
Her mother, Jan Shauer, who volunteers at Blair, would prefer that she follow rules more closely. "I am fine with it, except for that she's breaking the rule," Shauer said. "I say to her, 'You're not supposed to be using your cellphone, and if they take it away, I'm not getting it.' "
Inevitably, students chatter about the injustice of a prohibition and the supposedly unreasonable reasons behind it. But often, the student version of a disputed event is much more sensational than an administrator's explanation.
Take the Salad Dressing Day imbroglio. Students at Forest Park have stewed for several weeks, alleging that administrators rejected the idea this year out of a concern that people would come as ranch dressing, dolled up in western gear and armed with plastic guns, which, of course, are not a permissible accessory.
Administrators say Salad Dressing Day fizzled because the sophomore class was going to wear togas to depict Caesar dressing. That outfit is a perk reserved for seniors on a certain day of the year, said teacher and student council adviser Patricia Walsh; administrators were seeking to preserve the tradition of that senior-only privilege. Walsh waved off other explanations for the veto.
"Kids talk about everything, and they come up their own reasoning," Walsh said, "but they only came up with Thousand Island and ranch, and the sophomores and freshmen couldn't think of other ones."
Students cannot pinpoint how they came to think that administrators were worried about potentially fearsome ranch dressing costumes. But Lenise Phillips, 17, a senior, believed the student theory. "Students, they look for things that make them feel like victims," she said. "After you find out about something like that, you get angry and you talk about how ridiculous it is. It makes good conversation."
Gary Alonso, an administrative assistant at Forest Park, tried to broker a resolution, but his idea fell flat. "I suggested Suit-and-Tie Day," he said.