Why Do Schools Sabotage Students?

I am fortunate to work with some very dedicated teachers who are strong advocates for their students. Today one of them, a woman you’d never guess is only in her second year teaching, came to me in anger and distress. Here’s the story.

There’s a girl in her self-contained special education sixth grade class, let’s call her J, who is hard-working, polite, helpful and persistent; in short, a great student to have in one’s class.

J is the oldest of four children in her family. Last week J’s mother lost their apartment, rendering the family homeless.

J moved in with her aunt.

When she still had a home, J lived close enough to walk to school. Not anymore. J’s aunt lives a long bus ride away from the school. Because she is a special education student J qualifies for door-to-door school bus transportation to and from school, but it being June, the city is not about to alter the complex bus routes and schedules to include her.

Our district covers a lot of territory and many students in our school commute on city busses. That’s how J has been coming to school since becoming homeless. While all of the other commuters ride for free with a bus pass, J’s aunt has been paying the daily $4.00 round trip fare.

J’s teacher has been trying to arrange a bus pass for the girl.

She had J’s aunt write a letter telling how J now lives with her and providing her new address. The letter asked that a bus pass be provided.

The woman in charge of giving out bus passes, a kind and friendly school aide, said no.

The letter was not notarized. We need to see a copy of the aunt’s lease. We can’t just issue bus passes, there are rules we have to follow.

J’s teacher pointed out that the woman has a desk drawer full of bus passes and could easily pull one out and sign it.

No. I can’t just give bus passes out because I feel like it. Paperwork needs to be done.

Meanwhile, another day passes, another $4 spent, and J’s teacher is not confident in the aunt’s financial situation. She comes to me to vent and enlist my support.

“I told Mrs. Z that she regularly gives out new bus passes to students who say they lost theirs when we both know they’ve sold it to another student. Why can’t she give one to J?”

“This girl is going through hell but comes to school ready to learn every day and we’re throwing road blocks in her way.”

“Why can’t she just issue the bus pass now to help J stay in school and get the paperwork fixed after that?”

“What is wrong with this system. Why do we say we want students to come to school every day and then make it so hard for this one to get here?



There are 18 days left in the school year. 18 X $4=$72. I start to reach for my wallet to make a contribution.

“I’m not going to let you pay for this. And I’m not going to pay either. That’s what they want us to do, reach into our pockets again and again to solve the system’s problems. Why should we have to do that when this problem is so easy to solve by just signing a bus pass?”

Why indeed.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

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10 Responses to Why Do Schools Sabotage Students?

  1. Kate Olson says:

    This hurts me and I see situations like it again and again. Why do we make life harder for kids whose lives are already many times harder than ours ever have been or ever will be? I’m sorry to only offer questions instead of solutions, but I guess if I had an answer I’d have this fixed by now….Keep on keepin’ on….

  2. Deven Black says:

    Questions are important, too. If no one asks the questions, no one answers them. The more we ask the greater the pressure for a satisfactory answer.

  3. Dan Callahan says:

    When people need an example of everything that’s wrong with school bureaucracies today, I’ll just point them to this post from now on.

  4. Samantha says:

    Has this school never heard of Mikenney-Vento?? This child is HOMELESS for godsake, and is entitled to HELP. Quick – grab your closest social worker and get the paperwork filed!!!!!

  5. kmfully says:

    thank you for telling us this story. In some of my days which consist of putting out multiple fires while gasoline seems to pour from the ceiling, I find that the more autonomy I’ve put in the hands of my teachers and staff the better things work. The more they trust me to “protect them” the more they can stay focused on the job at hand. To that end, I look for scenarios that will allow me to stretch my reality which I might encounter. In my world then, if two teachers with the obvious purchase that you and your colleague possess (as I’ve come to believe from your thoughtful and insightful blog) came to me with this the answer would be “issue the pass; give me the paperwork”. Is this not a possibility to go beyond the person who has such draconian control over the bus passes? We cannot continue to allow such obvious and damaging impediments in the lives of our most vulnerable students or any of our students for that matter.

    • Deven Black says:

      Part of the reason J’s teacher approached me was to seek advice about going to our principal with another fire to put out. I said absolutely go to him and I know he will issue the pass. We couldn’t catch up with him yesterday, but we will today and get this solved.

      The person who issues the passes is not mean or petty. She, like all of us, is under seemingly ever-increasing pressure for accountability and, like many, is scared of being caught not toeing the line. Also, like most of us, has an over-full plate of responsibilities and the pressure on her increases dramatically as the end of the school year approaches. If this were November the pass would have been issued immediately, I am sure.

      This issue will resolve today, but the extra time this has taken has hurt J, the one person who has absolutely no control over anything happening that affects her.

      • kmfully says:

        I hear you. Glad to know the option is there and that YOU are there to give advise to this teacher. I didn’t think the person was petty or mean, but maybe acting in that fashion for all the reasons you mention. This provides good insight for me to make sure that staff does NOT feel scared and that they can use me for a first line of defense as they try to perform their jobs. And that now staff know that no matter how many fires there may seem to be I can always handle one more and perform the “triage” necessary to help them get it solved

  6. Ira Socol says:

    I once leapt (I was younger) over the counter of a Bronx Social Services Office when some clerk told me that they couldn’t give a Motel Voucher to a homeless family (they had been living in a van, the van had been stolen) because the father did not “have his paperwork right.” I think the “man with a gun” jumping at them forced the staff into action.

    Years later, in Grand Rapids, MI, the Catholic Diocese gave the homeless support agency I worked for a stash of “no questions asked” cash. We spent it on bus passes, diapers, motel overnights, whatever we needed to save people’s lives. I liked working there.

    The kind of Soviet bureaucracy you describe wrecks the lives of actual people. In fact, it kills people. And yet the bureaucracy rolls along.

    Our goal should always be to solve the problem. If we understood that as our job, so many actions would be different.

    • Deven Black says:

      Just to clarify for anyone reading along, at the time he was a gun-toting hazard to officious social service clerks Ira was a NYC police officer.

      I like the way that Catholic Diocese operates.

  7. Becky Johnson says:

    I once transported a student to and from school in my own car for the last three months of the school year in a similar situation. At that time, there was no public transportation of any sort in my community and the school bus refused to transport to my school because he had moved out of my school’s boundries (I guess a tent under a bridge is not considered a legitimate address). When are educational policies going to have as their purpose the success and support of students rather than the convenience of beaurocrats?

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