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We need to teach children respect and responsibility

We have created a society where no one takes any blame for wrongdoing, writes Emer O'Kelly

It's a fair few years since the following event happened. A Dominican nun entered a classroom to take a geography class for eight-year-olds. The between-period mayhem ended instantly, the youngsters came to attention and chorused, as required: "Good morning Sister Angelo." The nun, however, had heard one of the children refer to her as "she". The old cow stalked to the desk, berated the kid for "disrespect that would make Our Lady blush", and told the entire class to remain standing. They did: in silence, for the entire period. The nun seated herself on the dais, and proceeded to read her breviary, accompanying the spiritual improvement with copious mouthfuls of Cadbury's milk chocolate.

My adult judgement on her behaviour, as the guilty party who had called her "she"? A self-important old bitch, with a strong streak of sadism in her make-up. Dishonest also, since the school (and she) were being paid by the Department of Education to teach geography during the 40-minute period, while our parents were paying fees. But it was par for the course for such people to believe they were all-powerful even in minor and unnecessary cruelties.

A few years later, this time at a Sacred Heart Convent, there were rumours that one of the "seniors" had a glamorous foreign boyfriend, and her engagement was going to be announced. Except that there were more rumours: the "boyfriend" was married, with children. I don't know whether she was discovered to have been sleeping with him ... it seems likely ... but she certainly wasn't pregnant. Yet she disappeared speedily from school life.

Contrast this with the recent outraged and almost totally one-sided debate about the need for a teenager to be "supported" in balancing her school life and her pregnancy. It arose when the headmaster of a private Catholic school expelled her as being out of line with the school's ethos. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody that other Catholic schools whose pupils "find themselves" pregnant should do the same thing: Catholics are forbidden to have sex outside marriage, much less to get pregnant. You're in the club, you keep the rules.

Discipline in schools nowadays involves "mutual respect". Translated: rules are there to be abandoned when they get uncomfortable. It's all about "the right to an education" without any responsibilities.

An education is supposed to fit young people for life by developing in them a respect for the rights of others, a strict ethical code for their current and future lives, which includes respect for the law of the land and an understanding that you can't have your own way in everything. And being indulged in every kind of tearaway irresponsibility or even minor thuggery on the basis that "they're only young once" isn't going to do that. (We're not even considering major thuggery.)

Parents regularly take over the national airwaves to moan about their kids being "victimised" by a school after serious rule-breaking. "He/she knows he/she's done wrong," they whinge, demanding that their little brat should escape punishment. "It's time to move on." We have perpetuated an adult society where nobody takes responsibility for wrongdoing and is allowed to get away with it after being found guilty by investigating groups as diverse as judicial tribunals and Oireachtas committees. Did the moral skewing that we see every day begin in school?

Before the growth of the national entitlement industry, parents chastised their kids for wrongdoing. They co-operated with the school in ensuring that whatever punishment was imposed was followed. And they usually added a few sanctions of their own.

Now we have a society where children and young adults have no boundaries, and believe it is an abuse for society or any authorised individual to attempt to impose any. Nobody suggests that you need to learn how to use the glittering toy called freedom.

Was Oatlands School in Stillorgan in Dublin correct in expelling four fifth-year students who posted on Facebook what were apparently vile sexual allegations about two of their teachers, along with spiteful criticisms of the workload of a third? In my opinion, dead right. Seventeen-year-olds are not children: they know that sexual misconduct allegations are serious and degrading. And the excuse that they believed Facebook to be "private" is contemptible.

We middle-aged, bewildered technophobes might get away with that; but a teenager who doesn't understand the range of everything to do with the web? LOL.

Was High School in Rathgar correct to close down sixth form and expel three of its number for having organised a rave on school premises, barricaded themselves in, and then insulted the staff who broke down the doors? The National Education Welfare Board believes not: it has been in touch with the school head "questioning" the decision because it was not taken after a 20-day suspension of the pupils in question, and a full meeting of the school board.

The school may have been wrong procedurally; I think it also over-reacted a bit. The pupils were not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, just over the top and somewhat out of control. If the sanction stands, some parents have protested, they will not be able to sit their Leaving Cert.

Arguably, a sobering and justified punishment would be a suspension beyond the exam dates.

These youngsters need a strong lesson before setting out into adulthood, and having to wait to sit their exams next year would probably do the trick. It would not label them as undesirables the way an expulsion would. But it seems that the expulsion is not uppermost for those involved; it should be.

No sanctions have been made public so far against the sixth formers from St Mary's in Rathmines who reportedly stripped naked one of their number and left him tied to a tree in the grounds of the neighbouring girls' school, Muckross Park. That, I believe, should be a matter for expulsion: the cruel and deliberate humiliation of the young man in a particularly nasty manner was a serious crime against his personal dignity. And that requires the ultimate sanction, whether or not there was alcohol involved.

Driving home from work at 1.30am years ago I came across a naked and plastered man of marriageable age tied to a lamppost. He soggily and cheerfully refused assistance, because he regarded his experience as par for the course on his stag night, and he trusted his mates to return and free him. I could hardly drive for laughing. No humiliation was involved; he was also an adult.

What has been happening in the schools for some time past is described by the current buzz word of "bullying". That is a get-out clause that avoids proper analysis of a deep and serious malaise in our society: the assumption among sections of the rising generation that they are not part of society, and that they can demean others at will. And that must be stopped before we are overwhelmed.

Sunday Independent