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Local Elementary School “Debt-Shames” Students [OPINION]

Devin Christopher posted what appears to be an open letter to the Gillis Elementary Administration on November 14, sharply criticizing them for a bizarre policy of debt-shaming by school officials.

According to Christopher, Gillis Elementary has a “Debt Free” Free Dress day, in which only students whose parents aren’t carrying some balance of fees or other debt to the school are allowed to participate. Any kid who owes lunch money or any other school fee isn’t allowed to join in the reindeer games of blue jeans and Minecraft t-shirts.

The problem Christopher has with this is that it’s punishing the children for the “sins” of their parents, and I tend to agree. I’m not sure what country a lot of people seem to be living in, but times are hard for the rest of us in the good ol’ US of A right now. Landlords scalping tenants with ridiculous rental prices, stagnant wages that are actually lower now than they were ten years ago, and ever-increasing taxes have pretty much put most people on a very tight budget. When it comes time to decide between keeping the lights on or paying little Billy’s library fine, I’m sorry Mrs. Crabblesnitch, but the $2 you want for that overdue copy of Mister Brown Can Moo! Can You? is just gonna have to wait.

You don’t need to punish the kids for their parents’ hardship. It’s not the student’s fault that her dad’s hours got cut at the plant, or that his mom was laid off after her company downsized and outsourced her job to a call center in India. Punishing children for their parents’ inability to pay is not a good solution to debt collection problems.

Yes, I know that in the “real world”, nobody gets anything for free. You either pay your way or get left behind. But the thing is, elementary school is not the “real world”. BECAUSE IT’S ELEMENTARY SCHOOL.

Think about it for a second. We teach elementary students things like the Golden Rule, that sharing is caring, that everything is fair and just in the world, that bad guys lose and good guys always win, and that being a good person who follows all the rules will take you places.

However, in the “real world”, grown-ups tend to throw all of that right out the window. Treat others as you want to be treated? Sure, unless they’re a Republican and you’re a Democrat, or vice versa. Sharing is caring? HA! What’s mine is mine, and what’s not yours isn’t yours because I guess you just didn’t work hard enough, did you? As for following the rules, try telling your boss you’re going to strictly adhere to your company’s HR department policies regarding undocumented overtime, and see how long you keep your job.

The real world kind of sucks. It’s the big con we pull on kids who can’t wait to grow up, and now Gillis Elementary apparently wants to take some of the innocence out of those precious few years kids get before they’re shoved out into the harsh reality of a “real” world that does not care about them.

I think the school should care.

Random House
Random House

Maybe the kids don’t think it’s a big deal, but they probably do. Adults have spent decades demonizing the poor to the point that people are willing to go up to their eyeballs in debt, just to keep up appearances that everything’s fine and they’re not living paycheck-to-paycheck. You can’t tell me kids don’t pick up on that, because – and spoiler alert for all you non-parents – kids hear everything.

Even if, by some miracle, other kids don’t pick on them when they’re stuck in their school uniforms while all the other students whose parents could pay on time get to strut around in whatever the latest horrible clown shoes fashion is these days, the poor kids know why they’re not participating. And they feel shamed by it.

Which I guess is kinda the whole point behind the policy, really: make the kids feel so awful that they’ll beg their parents to please, just please, can they pay that $25 “school fee” that’s somehow mandatory in a public education classroom every child has a right to attend, regardless of their parents financial situation. It’s supposed to be funded by tax dollars, but whatever. Times is hard.

My stepson goes to a great public school in Lake Charles that uses Free Dress Day as a reward for students who’ve shown good behavior, rather than as a tool to punish children for something they have no control over. (However, they did require one of those “school fees”, and have had no fewer than five fundraisers so far this year, after only four months of school. The fact is, schools need this extra money to function, because they’re just not funded properly like they should be.)

But here’s the thing…

If times are hard enough for the schools to the point where they can tack mandatory fees onto a what should be every child’s right to a free public education, then maybe the schools should realize that times are hard all over. For everyone. Even the “deadbeat” parents working two jobs, just to bring home enough money to cover the rent and groceries from the dollar store.

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Stuart Jenner

Debt-shaming children isn’t going to suddenly make money appear in their parents’ bank accounts.

Debt-shaming children isn’t going to teach the students any life lessons other than it’s a crime to be poor.

Debt-shaming children isn’t going to solve anything.

It’s sanctioned bullying by the school administration, because it actively encourages the students whose parents could pay to look down on the students whose parents couldn’t. Or whose parents just forgot, because when you’re busy worrying about all the problems adults have to deal with, sometimes you forget to give your kid milk money. It happens.

I could understand if we were talking about field trips, or really anything “extra” the school might provide that would incur a cost. Nobody is asking for a free ride here. However, educating a kid wearing blue jeans doesn’t cost any more money than it takes to teach one wearing khaki pants.

Whichever way you look at it, penalizing students for things they can’t control rather than rewarding or punishing them for things they can doesn’t teach them anything about personal responsibility. All it does is convict them for the “crime” of having poor parents.

Punish kids for the irresponsible things they do, not the responsible things their parents don’t.

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