In an almost unfathomable display of human inaction, Jim Garcia died in a Veterans Administration hospital cafeteria, just five hundred yards from the emergency room. It’s almost unfathomable but it is actually a canary in the coalmine, if we are wise enough to pay attention. The people around Garcia were following policy, written by experts with the best intentions, based on data, with the assurance that a positive outcome would follow. Yet something went tragically wrong. The kind of mindless tragedy that happened in this Albuquerque New Mexico VA hospital is being repeated every week in a school around the country. Is it at all reasonable to expect that the kind of outcome Garcia had will not also be repeated in our schools?

Everyone has read the stories of the 5 year old who was forced to sign a statement saying he was responsible for sexual harassment because he pulled down his pants on the playground. Or the elementary student who was suspended for chewing his pop tart into a shape similar to a gun. Or the father who was being threatened with loss of custody of his son because he refused further psychological testing after his son was accused by another child of spinning a pencil in a manner like a gun. These stories seem absurd, and they are, but the reason they happened is no different than the reason behind the unnecessary death of James Garcia in the V.A. hospital cafeteria. All of the otherwise normal thinking adults were just following procedure.

I spent the past week running a Vacation Liberty School for middle schoolers. The purpose of the school is to teach these children our country’s founding principals of personal and economic liberty in a way that you just don’t find public schools teaching any more. We use source documents as much as possible and this year were fortunate enough to have historian Dan Ford come in with his private collection of original documents showing the numerous places where our founders not only mentioned God, but called upon the people to have a day of fasting and prayer to God for the sake of the state or the nation. Confronted with their own writing on government documents, it is hard to continue to deny we are a nation founded on Christian principles that owes its existence to divine providence.

We teach the political spectrum from tyranny to anarchy and show where our constitution puts us on that continuum. Assuming that most children are experiential learners, we place them under tyrannical rule and into pure anarchy using different games so that they may experience both systems. In the anarchy game they sit on the floor in a large circle with a box marked on the floor in tape which represents an immovable hole in front of each of them. During the game candy nuggets (which they can use to buy things at the school store) are dropped in the center of the circle. Their mission is to collect those nuggets and put them into their hole. There are no other rules which means that they can steal from each other any time a hole is left unguarded. Most children find this terribly disturbing, having lived in a world where property rights are generally adhered to.

The reason I mention this game is that the children have already become so used to having rights and following rules that, even though we tell them there are no rules in the game, they initially conduct themselves as if the rule not to take each other’s candy were in effect. Many have to be prodded with suggestions that their neighbor’s candy is unguarded and nothing prevents them from taking it. The pace of the game usually picks up at this point. The game is stopped when children either become rooted to their hole in order to protect their candy so they no longer can gather new candy or, they form alliances to guard each others candy and share what is gathered. The former shows the paralyzing effects of anarchy while the latter is the rudimentary foundations of government, an agreement among the people to recognize and protect our rights.

Anarchy is one end of the spectrum where there are no rules and no rights. No one wants to live there and I am not advocating for a world without any procedures or policies. But the other end of spectrum, closer to tyranny, is where there are hundreds or thousands of rules that are enforced at the whim of whoever is in charge. The average person does their best to follow the rules because you never know when the king is going to enforce them. The sheer volume of rules becomes literally mind numbing. People turn off their critical thinking brain because of the fear of punishment for not following all the rules.

This is the “I was just following orders” defense of the Nazi soldiers but on a more mundane basis. Having rules, like property rights makes us feel safer and calmer. Rules suggest a predictable pattern of behavior and a way for us to live with each other in relative harmony. As the children in the anarchy game showed, it is relatively easy to get children to accept rules and harder to extinguish them by the time they are ten or eleven. So far most of the rules they have followed have proven useful and calming. We all recognize this effect of having rules or procedures, even if only at a subconscious level.

I’m sure there were some people in that VA cafeteria who were suggesting they do something themselves to get Mr. Garcia to the emergency room rather than wait for an ambulance, which was the policy. Others were there to block action because there was a policy in place to address this kind of situation, sort of. Many probably even left the cafeteria mid-crisis with a totally clear conscience because they believed the policy would lead to a positive outcome. Having policies in place forced others to remain inactive and turn off their high order thinking skills. No doubt that VA hospital is now reviewing their policies to improve them so this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. This of course ignores the fact that having these policies in place in the first place was one of the root causes of the tragedy. The policies encouraged people not to think independently and, more unfortunately for Garcia, not to act. Blind adherence to policy turns us into unthinking zombies.

There is a private school here in the St. Louis area that has very few rules. Behavioral problems are addressed individually at the discretion of the principal and vice principal. The cause of the behavior is examined with the student in a one on one scenario. The impact of the behavior on the student, the teacher and other students is discussed and corrective action is mutually agreed upon. The knee jerk reaction many people have to hearing this is often, “Well most school administrators don’t have the kind of time you need to address behavior problems in this way.” This is true in large public schools, but we should at least consider these two important points. This school has an almost 0% recidivism rate. Instead of a blanket policy like “No cheating” which the principal or teacher could enforce with various punishments, the time is taken to talk through the motivation to cheat. “You didn’t know the answer and didn’t want a low score,” to the effect of cheating “You don’t actually know the material which means you won’t be able to do the more advanced things that rely on that foundational knowledge and no one will know this because your test makes it look like you do understand the material or concept.” The principal could even talk about the purpose of a test being to help identify areas where you might need a little more help to “get it” and not being a rating tool to determine your worth as a student.

The parents are very happy with the limited rules because thought is involved in addressing each case individually. Parents do not perceive the administrators to be applying rules (like sexual harassment) inappropriately. The administrators primary directive is not to make sure the rules are applied uniformly.

It is a fine line to walk between the anarchy of no rules and the zombifying effect of too many rules. Beware the false comfort promised by policy. We are, much to my son’s chagrin, about a month away from starting school again and I can look forward to the large policy manual coming home from the district filled with policies developed over time to address various infractions that have occurred in an attempt to have a prescribed set of responses ready for any and all situations. The policies will have been recommended and developed by “experts,” based on data gathered from past experience, and will promise to keep the schools running smoothly. Each and every policy sets up the possibility for another event where the adults in the room won’t be required to think and may not even act.





Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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