Security Theatre, Junior Level

I am seriously annoyed.

Alex’s school is doing a “Keeping Myself Safe” unit, and he brought the first book from it home today. It’s entitled “Laura Goes Home”.

In it, because her mother is late, Laura is left at school. She decides to walk home on her own, but she’s frightened and crying. A man walking his dog stops to ask if she is lost. End of book.

The homework exercise that came with it was a half sheet of paper that said only:

Please read and discuss this book – Laura Goes Home – with your child and then tick the outcome chosen by your child.
1.   Left open ended.
2. a. The man takes Laura away.
    b. Laura’s mummy comes up at that moment.
    c. Laura screams, “I don’t know you” and runs back to school to tell Mrs Smith

We have included the following letter in Alex’s homework folder back.

We have decided to excuse Alex from doing this piece of homework, for two reasons.

1. It’s unclear what he’s supposed to do. He puzzled and stewed over the various options, but we couldn’t figure out whether this is what he would do, what he thinks happened next, or some other answer. He was quite upset by his inability to figure out what the exercise was about.

2. We strongly object to the high level of paranoia that the exercise is designed to build. Although children do need to be told not to talk to strangers, we both found the idea of ending this story with “The man takes Laura away” really repugnant. And the third option, to have the child scream and make a scene, is also inappropriate when the man has does nothing more than crouch down and ask if she is lost, with no contact or menace whatsoever.

Although we appreciate the teaching on well being and safety, we are concerned that this goes too far. Children need to be taught to be cautious – but not to be afraid all of the time.

Would you be available to talk about this at some point on Friday afternoon?

I think I need to review the materials for this unit, because I really don’t agree with the tone they’re taking.

The fact is that stranger abduction is extremely rare (see, for instance, the statistics for England and Wales here – I couldn’t find the equivalent Scottish statistics, but they will be smaller due to the lower population here.) Our fictional Laura was in much more danger from crossing the road than from the man who saw her crying and asked if she was lost. She was in more danger of violence or sexual abuse from people she knew than from strangers as well – the vast majority of these crimes occur in the home. But I seriously doubt that the next book in the series will address those issues – parents would riot, for one thing.

And Martin and I both really object to raising our children in irrational fear. They will have to adopt realistic threat assessment strategies when they go out alone in public, which won’t be for some time. (To go back to the book, I would teach Laura to stay on school grounds and get the office to call her mother. She’d never have gotten to page 3 until she was old enough to make the walk home without her mother.)

But if we tell them that every stranger is out to get them, and they find out that we were exaggerating, then where will our credibility be? How, then, will they believe us when we say not to go out at night, or through bad neighbourhoods, or with an ostentatious display of wealth? How can I teach Fiona the caution necessary for a woman to be safe, if she’s been immunised by cheap scare tactics now?

And what does that do for their fellow feeling with mankind? Are we really trying to build Margaret Thatcher’s world, where there is “No such thing as society”, one isolated child at a time? There are ways for a child to react to – and reject the assistance of, if appropriate – a strange adult that don’t involve screaming and running away, for instance.

I was annoyed enough that the nursery discussed Madeline McCann’s abduction with the kids (as though there was any cautionary or educational element to it – are they not to sleep with the windows open, perhaps?). But to hear this same message of fear from the school, from the official educational channels, really gets my goat.

It seems like we’re protecting our kids from everything but irrational terror. It’s almost like going to the airport these days.

13 thoughts on “Security Theatre, Junior Level”

  1. Well, I’m sorry to hear that the miasma of irrational fear has gotten to Scotland. We have the same attitude here in the States these days, and it is very disheartening to see the kids being deprived of the adventurous spirit that children should have, in the name of paranoia.

    Even though our kids are long since out of the house we tend to follow what’s going on in the school district and wrt kids in general in our community. We had a Block House sign for many years, and only took it down when people started to tell their kids not to stop at a house with the sign even if they were in trouble (apparently a police background check isn’t good enough)

    There are occasional stranger abductions of children here in the States, but the number is very much lower than the figures for abuse by neighbors and relatives. I’ve been trying to figure out where all this fear is coming from, and I haven’t been able to. It’s not just the fear of terrorism leaking over, because this trend started well before 9-11. I suspect that some of it comes from a very cynical manipulation of the news by (especially local) television stations, which want to use fear to improve ratings. There’s one news show here I won’t watch anymore because the first five minutes or so is always about allegations of sex abuse, or how convicted sex offenders are living near a school.

  2. What was the school’s reaction to what you said? I hope for their sake that they didn’t tsk-tsk you or else they might find themselves face-to-face with Nightmare Abi and her bowling ball.

    Say, have you heard what the attitude is in Amsterdam?

  3. We put the letter into the school this morning (so, about half an hour ago). I don’t know what the reaction will be.

    This book is put out by Edinburgh City Council, so perhaps this particular amateurish and exasperating bit is a very local phenomenon. The general problem, that of children (and parents – how much of this is aimed at me as well?) being taught to fear until normal life is completely stifled, is wider than Edinburgh.

    I don’t know about the Netherlands. But when we were there last summer, and Alex had to go to the doctor, Fiona and I found a tiny play park in a green nearby. I saw two or three kids under about 10 playing in the area, with no visible parent attached. And the Dutch have, statistically, greater happiness and emotional security, which are the very things I think we’re stealing from our kids by teaching them such paralysing fear.

    And Bruce, I don’t think it’s about 9/11; I am merely drawing the analogy between airport security (where the visible measures are stupid, delaying, and probably hugely ineffective) and this emphasis on stranger danger over the statistically more likely hazards of youth.

  4. Update:

    I just got a call from the deputy head of the school about this matter.

    Apparently, this is a mandatory part of the curriculum. The book goes with a video, in which the man is shown asking the girl if she would like to go away with him and see his puppy. (This is not part of the book).

    We had a fairly tense discussion, in which I highlighted my concern at the overly fearful nature of the whole scenario. She said that she agreed that screaming was not appropriate, but that after the scene (not in the book), the child should leave the situation and find a trusted adult.

    I agree, but she kept saying, “You know, this does happen,” and using phrases like, “in today’s climate.” I said that I had a serious issue with the entire approach, and asked what the mandatory curriculum said about the much more likely case of abuse by known adults. “You’d have to take that up with the local authority,” was the reply.

    She’s going to look at calendars and find a convenient time for me to review the materials with – at the very least – the deputy head, and possibly the teacher in question (whom, I made it clear, I do not blame). Primarily, I think I need to see what I am going to have to undo in Alex’s teaching.

    I am glad we’re leaving Edinburgh. I just hope that the Netherlands is better about these things.

    (Ian, thank you for your support, by the way.)

  5. I suspect we all agree that kids should be taught not to speak to strangers.

    In a twisted way (and probably with best intentions) that is what the school was trying to get across.

    To my mind, the issue lies in the leading way in which they have presented the question. Education should make kids question everything, with their minds as open as possible. This is where they went wrong, presenting effectively only the negative outcomes.

    I think they would have been a lot more effective simply presenting the scenario and asking the kids to discuss with their parents how they would act in this situation, i.e. would it have been right to leave school in the first place?

    Better if schools and parents are teaching with each other, rather than against each other.

  6. I’m glad I wasn’t in your position, Abi, when you talked to that deputy head. (Is it just me or does ‘deputy head’ beg for a bad joke?) When I’ve had to deal with those types, the tone of my voice would quickly make it clear I thought they were frakking morons.

    Yes, of course, kids have to be taught to be cautious, but there’s got to be a better approach than using a sledgehammer in a porcelain shop.

    Well, my best wishes to you that your family is going away to where this wouldn’t be an issue.

  7. Abi,

    You wouldn’t find the statistics because under Scots Law children are regarding as property of a type, and therefore the Crime is theft of children, which is called plagium. You should be able to get statistics from the Scottish Executive Justice Department or from individual Police Forces. It doesn’t include fathers abducting their children as this is now prosecuted under civil framework after Orr vs. K.

    I agree the lesson here is a bad one. We were always taught simply: “say no to strangers”, without terror-inducing and mind-boggling hypothetical situations. Eventually, we learned that didn’t rule out friendship.

    Sorry to hear the teacher was unsympathetic. I don’t blame you for wanting a better life in the Netherlands.

    Tot siens,

  8. Serge,

    No you’re not the only one; I’d be hard put not to ask “are you the head that does the thinking?


    I’m glad to hear you’re pursuing the issue with the school. One thing we discovered about schools in the States when our kids were growing up, is that if you continue to object to procedures or practices they often will make an exception for you rather than let the debate get more public. This works especially well if the school district has bought into political correctness; I don’t know how that would play in Scotland.

  9. Dear Abi,

    This is not related to the current post, sorry – I’ve been reading a certain website for ages but can never bring myself to comment there as I’d end up with foot-in-mouth for sure, and be wretched. But I really need to thank you in particular for making me laugh so much in those threads, most recently with the lolcatcodewhachamacallit literature thingies. I see the comments over there are heading past 500, surely that’s some sort of record? So here I am, reading your journal, so grateful that such bright lights exist and that I get to lose myself in their wondrousness.

    My gem for today is: “I regarded the entire submission process as being like throwing spaghetti at the wall, just to see if it stuck.”

    Thank you, 🙂

    Audrey, South Africa

  10. I think the level of parental paranoia has reached insane levels. Too many middle-class parents are coccooning their children against a broad array of dangers, real and imagined, and this cannot be good. It’s one thing to tell children to be cautious about strangers, and quite another to make them completely paranoid.

  11. After some discussion with the school on Thursday, we have withdrawn Alex from the entire “Keeping Myself Safe” unit. He’s going across to the other Primary 1 classroom for those times. To give them credit, the school withdrew him from them voluntarily until they could talk it over with me, and have given me no trouble whatsoever about it.

    I am particularly concerned about the lessons because Alex, who is anxious at the best of times, is going to be in such a strange situation from August. He has enough of a challenge, moving to a country where he doesn’t speak the language, without viewing all adults as potential threats.

  12. I believe you’ve made the right decision, Abi. I think that your entire family is going have to deal with a considerable degree of trauma (though children are more resilient than we realise) in shifting from country to country, language to language, and culture to culture. Adding to that unnecessarily is probably not a good idea.

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