ON MARCH 19TH LAST YEAR, the day the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, 11-year-old Susie Tucker was asked by a school official to go the nurse's office. She was one of 59 sixth-grade girls at J.T. Lambert Intermediate School in East Stroudsburg, Penn., who were required that day to undergo a genital exam.
When asked to disrobe, Susie claims she told the school nurse that she wanted to call her mother to make sure it was OK. She claims she was denied access to a phone. The newspaper reports in the Pocono Record indicate that several of the girls cried and asked to leave, but that the exit was blocked and they were required to submit to an exam searching for genital warts and lesions. (The exam was performed by a female physician.)
The Deeper Meaning
Here's what I think is the deeper meaning of the East Stroudsburg incident: The real horror is that those girls remain in a school under the authority of people whom the parents believe violated their children. They have knowingly left them in harm's way.
The real horror is that those girls remain in a school under the authority of people whom the parents believe violated their own children. The parents have knowingly left them in harm's way.
World Magazine (Aug. 17, 1996) catches Susie's father's lament. "'I have always told her I would take care of her,' he said, knowing he had somehow failed to protect her."
Yet, in a way, East Stroudsburg is a microcosm of the situation throughout America.
The reports are somewhat conflicting as to whether the parents gave consent or not. Sorting out some of the details may not be possible for a while because of a gag order by the judge of the Tuckers' lawsuit, and the natural inclination of children, parents, and school officials to put their own "spin" on the facts as they recall them.
Let me share a concern I have about any such reported horror story: Sometimes edu-dissidents (those who dissent from mainstream government-run, tax-funded "public schools") blow an incident out of proportion, or even deliberately hide some of the truth so they can make the event seem horrible. It's good for fundraising, you know, to regale your reader with the atrocities of your mutual adversary. I've personally followed up enough stories to find some real lulus of deceit from "our side," so I am wary of being snookered.
The Visit to East Stroudsburg
After phoning a friend in East Stroudsburg, reading the newspaper reports, reading the state police report, and watching some of the Internet exchanges, I felt queasy about my grasp of the situation. So I went there on the first anniversary of the genital exam incident. I sat in a Perkins coffee shop and chatted with one of the school board members and his wife, plus Ray Masters (the friend in E. Stroudsburg I'd called) and Ken Sturzenacker, the Penn. state coordinator for the Separation Alliance. Then I visited the school and had a short but pleasant visit with the principal. (Because of a law suit, she's under a gag order). The school is as nice and tidy a school as you'd want, in a lovely hillside setting. The principal is the sort of person you immediately trust as decent, intelligent, and good for children.
The next day I had breakfast with a resident who was appalled by the incident, then decided to help by setting up a small school to give parents another option. Fourteen children attend her school, but none of the 59 girls.
Susie Tucker wrote this at her psychologist's suggestion. He encouraged her to express her anger after she read the Pocono Record May 2, 1996 column by Bob Groff, "Protests Continue over Physicals at Lambert School, but Why?" The letter was provided by Mrs. Paul Tucker to Pamela Hobbs Hoffecker on May 24, 1996.
I DON'T HAVE HYSTERIA
How dare you call my family and I liars. The only liars in this situation are you and anyone else who believes you. My information is first hand information because I was there. Your information is second hand. If you were in that room, if you had to go through that torture, if you were so scared that you cried, your accusations would be against the nurses, doctor, and the school board. For your information, I would die before I would ever apologize; and answering your question why the protests continue, because I want justice, I want to stop the insomnia, the waking up at 2 a.m. and not being able to get back to sleep, I want to stop the nightmares, the feeling of being violated, I want to get my power back and most of all I want to give them my shame. So until you become a fragile, sixth grade girl and you have your rights taken away from you, you shouldn't accuse people of anything you know nothing about.
The Key QuestionThe fact that none of the 59 girls were in this new school prompted the next question, which turned out to be the key to the deeper meaning of the incident: How many of the girls' parents removed their daughters from the system that allegedly violated them?
The best I can find out is that only one has been removed--a daughter of a New Yorker who, for personal reasons, had sent the girl to live with her aunt in the Poconos.
Now wait, you say. Maybe the school district apologized and assured the parents it would never happen again! Not hardly. Teachers wore blue ribbons in support of the district. The local physicians and the paper stood behind the inspection. The state police and local district attorney investigations said no Pennsylvania law had been broken. Rather than hearing a mea culpa from the system, what the parents received was more like a spanking.
"Long term group hysteria" is the accusation of Pocono Record columnist Bob Groff in his May 2, 1996, column. He even posits venal motives to the parents, suspecting some "hidden agenda... to pick up a few bucks." See sidebar for Susie's response.
I tried another possible explanation: Maybe there was no "violation." I remember my mom taking me to the doctor who would put his finger awfully close to my private parts and tell me to cough. It was uncomfortable, but even if they had lined up a bunch of us boys at my school and had some doctor do it, I wouldn't have felt "violated."
So I've asked several women if maybe there is a difference with girls. If their labia get probed a bit at age 11 without their mom having told them that it's OK and standing nearby, is that different from a guy's hernia check? All, including my wife and both my daughters who have daughters tell me there is a BIG difference and that it would be quite a violation. Most told me they would remove their daughters "in a heartbeat" from a system that would do that to them.
When imagining what happened to the parents of E. Stroudsburg, I pondered what if it were two decades ago when my daughters were that age? I get home from a two-hour bus commute to NYC. My wife is upset and tells me that Missy came home from school and was in the shower for 30 minutes and actually bruised herself scrubbing so hard, and then finally, tearfully, told her what happened in school that day. I'm furious that somebody would do this to my little girl, plus I ask, "What the heck are genital warts anyway?" When told, I bellow, "Why does the school think a bunch of 11-year-olds have VD in a nice town like this?"
I would express my outrage at a special school meeting a couple days later, and probably be semi-mollified by the promises of a "full investigation." When the investigation shows that the school officials did nothing wrong, I land between a rock and a hard place. My thinking might go like this:
- I love my children.
- I am a strong dad who protects his children.
- My daughter was violated by the school system.
- The school system has not repented and even denies it was a violation.
- It would cost me $780 per month to put Missy and her two sisters in a private school.
- I am up to my ears in payments and can't afford $780.
How do I resolve this dilemma? Maybe I say to my wife: "Look, honey, all women have to undergo this type of exam. I'll admit that the school was really clumsy in the way they handled this, but there is nothing we can do about the past and for sure they'll give us good warning in the future. We can have the exam done by our own physician, or at least prepare the girls so they aren't surprised." In summary, I might have had a lack of courage if it had happened to my daughters.
In trying to answer the real puzzle of why more children have not been removed from harm's way. Separationist Virgil Swearingen suggested three other possible factors:
- We Americans have been gulled by a century of government-run schooling to believe that mistreatment by a government agency is an exception, not the rule. (Economist Jim Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for his insight, called "Public Choice Theory," that government workers don't really intend to help us so much as to help themselves.) Color us gullible.
- The government has taken away, by taxes, money that the East Stroudsburg families would have had at their disposal for school expenses. Since the money is not available to the families, they have less capacity to solve their schooling problem. If the government people had not taken the money from them, the families would have been providing schooling for their children. Then when bad incidents occurred (and they do in schools across the country on a daily basis), they could immediately solve the problem by going to a competitor. Seems families are "financially impotent."
- Because the families have been coerced against their will to turn over some of their money to the government to pay for schooling, they automatically see the government schooling as what they have paid for. They want to get their money's worth. It seems bad enough to be forced to pay for something, but then not to use the schools would add insult to injury. It's a sort of stubborn pride that all of us have, eh?
Another reason was added by an East Stroudsburg resident, something I never would have guessed: fear. Some people fear they could lose their jobs for telling the truth. The seven largest employers are the four school districts, the local state college, the county hospital, and the county government.
The Big Picture
Sometimes liberty-oriented folks focus so much on the liberty part of life that they seem to go a little light on the responsibility part. Perry Willis, National Director of the Libertarian Party, brought this home to me a few years ago when he said that if HE got to rename the Libertarian Party, he'd call it the Responsibility Party.
We need a three-way fusion of the liberty-orientation of the libertarians, with the responsibility-orientation of the conservatives, and the caring impulse for the underdog of the liberals, however misguided it has become by the use of state coercion. With this fusion we can bring down the linchpin of the welfare state, government-run tax-funded "public schools."
Thereby lies the key to the future success of The Separation of School & State Alliance.
How can we ever get people to give up their "free" government-run schools if they're unwilling to shoulder the financial and decision-making burdens of their children's education?
East Stroudsburg is a microcosm of America because it shines a 25,000 candle-power headlight on the financially impotent, responsibility impaired, stubbornly gullible condition of too many American families.
Four decades ago, the Ozzie Nelson TV character was weak and dippy. What has happened in the last 40 years? TV fatherhood, ever the exaggeration, has degraded to Homer Simpson or the oaf on "Married with Children." Rosanne and Murphy Brown are caricatures of the Standard American Mom. For most families, Bill Cosby's Dr. Huxtable is an unreachable fantasy.
So, properly understood, the burgeoning movement to separate school and state is really part of a much larger movement to "responsibilize" parents. That's what the Million Man March, Promise Keepers, the Fatherhood Initiative, the home schooling movement, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, Focus on the Family, and dozens of aspects of recent American culture are all about. In the words of Separationist Fr. Charles Fiore of Wisc., "We're seeing a reaction to the me-Me-ME self-indulgence of the last quarter-century or more."
The liberty movement is part of this. What we need is a three-way fusion of the liberty-orientation of the libertarians, the responsibility-orientation of the conservatives, and the caring impulse for the underdog of the liberals, however misguided it has become by the use of state coercion.
The movement to separate school and state is the ideal nexus for this cooperation because it deals with an area of major import and strong opinion and emotion, the raising of children.
Further, each of these segments of society can see Separation as serving their important needs. With this fusion of people with different perspectives and motives we can bring down the linchpin of the welfare state, government-run tax-funded "public schools."
LET'S MAKE NO MISTAKE about it. Tax-funded schools are welfare, pure and simple. If a free lunch at noon is welfare, so is a free math lesson at ten a.m. One is food for the body, the other for the mind. Forty-six million children attend "welfare schools." When I'm feeling nasty, I refer to the children as "welfare brats" and their parents as "welfare Kings and Queens." (By the way, I can't get too ornery because, I regret to say, I "public schooled" my four children, so I qualify as a welfare king myself.) (One more By The Way: Strictly speaking, because tax-funded schools are not means tested, they are an entitlement, not welfare. Same difference, though, when it comes to the corrosive effect on the human spirit of self-reliance.)
When you're on welfare, you pay attention to what your caseworker--and we can substitute "teacher" or "school nurse" here--tells you to do. You do it no matter how much you hate it, no matter how much you and your fellow welfare recipients gripe about it. You do it even if it means surrendering your 11-year-old daughter to a genital exam that some say borders on sexual assault.
Or do you?
Surely there is some line beyond which no parent can be pushed, or is there? Romans practiced infanticide, Aztecs sacrificed their virgin daughters, and the aborigines of Tasmania had a word for a man who had killed his son. The word had no hint of moral reprobation.
How many East Stroudsburgs must occur before parents realize that no government entitlement is worth the loss of self-respect that comes from powerlessness to protect their own children?
I have no way to predict when some sort of moral reawakening will occur in our culture. But I know that I am called (driven?) to work for that reawakening, and that my satisfaction comes from the process of working on it, of being part of something bigger than myself, and of being part of something that is important. My satisfaction does not come from an expectation that I'll see victory in the next few months.
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