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Compulsory Attendance in a War Zone

We are all familiar with news reports depicting the sad circumstances which are the daily reality of children in war-torn countries. Parents caught in these armed conflicts do not lose the desire for their children to be educated in basic skills. But they recognize that survival comes first, and they take whatever measures are appropriate to keep their children out of the zone of combat.

Unfortunately, statistics indicate that American public schools have become a lot like combat zones. The Center for Disease Control has a regular publication entitled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In the March 24, 1995, edition of this ominously titled journal, the CDC released a wave of statistics that compel the inescapable conclusion that public schools are an extraordinarily unsafe place for children.

An astonishing 41.8% of all high school students, male and female, were in a physical fight in the preceding twelve-month period. More than half (51.2) of the male high school students were in a fight, while an incredible 31.7% of all female students got into a physical fight. Many of these fights were on school property (16.2% of all students had fights on school grounds). One can reasonably assume that many of the remaining fights were near school grounds and were related to conflicts arising in the schools.

The seriousness of these fights is brought home by the fact that just under a quarter (22.1%) of all high school students carried a weapon (gun, club, or knife) in a thirty-day period prior to the survey. Measured another way, there were 92 weapon-carrying incidents for every 100 students in public high schools. When other weapons are eliminated and one considers only guns, 10.1% of high school students carried guns in the previous thirty days.

If you think weapons are carried much less frequently in some states than others, think again. The lowest states reported (not all states participated in the survey) in the weapons-carrying categories were Hawaii (18.4% carried weapons) and Wisconsin (18.9% of students carried weapons).

Even in the "safest states" in the country, nearly one in five students carries a weapon. This is not a far cry from high crime areas, where one in three have weapons.

A third of students (32.7%) suffered a loss of property by theft or deliberate damage while on school grounds. And 4.4% of students concluded that it was too unsafe to attend school. The rates were higher in some areas.

This report also contained very discouraging statistics on other aspects, such as teenage sexual behavior (68.3% of all high school seniors had engaged in sexual intercourse), suicide (24.1% of all students thought seriously about suicide, 19% made a suicide plan, and 8.6% attempted suicide), tobacco use (24.7% are regular smokers and 11.5% use smokeless tobacco), alcohol use (80.9% consumed alcohol at some point in time, 48% used alcohol currently) marijuana use (32.8% ever, 17.7% current users), and other drugs (4.9% cocaine use, for example).

A cursory examination of public school curriculum could lead to the conclusion that suicidal and sexual behaviors are related to the instruction students receive in high schools on these subjects. But we need not resolve that debate to conclude, as many students have, that public schools have become unacceptably dangerous—just look at the fights, weapons, injuries, and deaths.

It is time for the policy makers of this country to ask themselves some rather disturbing questions:

  • Can we force students to attend schools that are unsafe?
  • Can we coerce students to enter an environment where guns, knives, and clubs are commonplace?
  • Can we enforce compulsory attendance in a war zone?

It appears that neither of the twin goals of compulsory attendance laws have been satisfied. Our societal literacy rates and the safety of children have both gone down in recent years. Children are probably in greater danger of assault and illiteracy now than they were in the days before compulsory attendance laws.

When safety becomes a dominating issue in the life of a school, how much substantive education can really happen? Many families have asked this question and turned to home schooling for an answer.

It takes only a meager dose of common sense to realize that something must be done to make public schools safer. Maybe it is time for bureaucrats to step aside and let parents and teachers run the schools.

Compulsory attendance laws were originally enacted as a means of promoting the education and safety of children. Children commonly worked long hours in farms and factories. And while in those days our society was reluctant to enact child labor laws, it was willing to enact laws "forcing" parents to protect their children.

Many home schoolers have asked about challenging the constitutionality of compulsory attendance laws on grounds of parental rights or religious freedom. This is an impossible dream given the dominant judicial philosophy.

However, arguing against compulsory attendance laws for the safety of children may be more effective. Until the children's safety can be ensured, how can any court in good conscience enforce a compulsory attendance law which pushes innocent children into the crossfire of a war zone?

— Mike Farris