Police in schools – for broken windows or buying shares?

The police have always been involved in schools as irregular visitors for one reason or another.

In my time teaching they have taken part in driving instruction, talked to an assembly about student safety on their way to and from school after a local flasher was sighted and given talks about drugs and crime.

All these are valid, sensible reasons for police to be in schools but there is now a very dangerous proposal to station police permanently in ten secondary schools in South Auckland. It’s a plan fraught with problems and should be abandoned.

The police say they want to be permanently in schools to gain the trust and confidence of students and hear from them about youth gangs, youth crime and anti-social activity generally associated with teenagers.

Most of the schools themselves are decile one, meaning their students come from families whose incomes are in the lowest 10% of incomes across New Zealand. These are called “troubled areas” with “troubled teens” as though the problem lies within these schools and within these communities. It doesn’t. It lies instead at the heart of the economic policies of successive governments.

We know from eight years of Labour that the much needed policy changes won’t come from Helen Clark and have even less chance of emerging from the “smiling assassin” John Key.

However instead of confronting the problem at the top of the cliff we continue to build a large infrastructure at the bottom. Each one of us knows that interventions like this don’t address the real problems but presumably make enough of us feel like we care or that we are doing something meaningful. Putting police in schools is a delusional activity. We may just as well chase after rainbows.

Setting aside for a moment the policy issue, what are the problems with the proposal?

The police desire to build trust and confidence in teenagers is shorthand for getting kids to nark on their friends and families.

This strategy has the potential to create much greater social problems for the very people it is trying to help. In middle-class areas parents would insist they are present when police interview their children for any reason. This legal right will be easily side-stepped in the playground where an innocent conversation with a fellow student or police officer could turn into family chaos or social tragedy for the students.

Schools are educational institutions and must be uncompromising in their focus on lifting student achievement. This is most especially true for schools in low-income areas where the long tail of underachievement is most obvious. Police in a school are just another distraction from this critical job. Schools are not there to provide captive audiences of children informing on their friends and families.

There is an important step all our schools could take to discourage anti-social behaviour by students and help build healthy communities. It’s called civics education.

It used to be a part of the teaching in our schools but has become lost as curricula have become more functional and less encouraging of critical thinking.

Civics education is education about our society and its institutions. It’s education about our democracy – how it works and how it might be improved; the history of struggle for people to get the vote; why we have MMP instead of first past the post. It would also examine our social and economic structures and encourage discussion about where they are failing and what policies might bring positive change. It would look at the ideas of people such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx while comparing and contrasting capitalism and socialism.

From all this comes the understanding that we are all interdependent human beings and why anti-social behaviour can be so destructive. The goal would be informed discussion where students see their roles as active participants in a civil society rather than passive, disconnected consumers.

It has the potential to benefit the whole community and encourage students to take greater responsibility within their communities for the benefit of everyone. It will be opposed by some for this very reason. They are doing well with things as they are.

In their list of ten South Auckland schools the police have left out the wealthiest private school in the country – Kings College in Otahuhu. One would have thought with the prevalence of corporate fraud and professional dishonesty in the business world, made evident by recent finance and property company crashes, the police would have been very keen to station officers permanently here as well.

Crime for some starts with broken windows, for others it starts with buying shares.

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Don’t muzzle our athletes at the Beijing Olympics

It is time our sports officials gave up trying to say politics and sport do not mix.

It is precisely because they do mix that our Olympic officials are requiring New Zealand athletes at the Beijing Olympics to sign contracts by which they must “not make statements or demonstrations (whether verbally, in writing or by any act or omission) regarding political, religious or racial matters”.

This is an outrage. Why should New Zealanders’ freedom of speech be constrained when they travel to represent this country? Why should they be gagged because the host country for the Games has such little respect for human rights? Must we lower our democratic standards to the Chinese level?

Our Olympic officials say the ban has been in place for the last eight years and in any case, it is consistent with the Olympic charter. The ban attracted no controversy at the time of the last Games in Athens because the host country has an uncontroversial human rights record. But it seems clear the policy was put in place eight years ago for the very reason that Olympic officials looked ahead and saw the China human rights disaster looming.

It is a piece of verbal gymnastics for our Olympic officials to say the contract is consistent with the Olympic charter. The International Olympic Committee does not see it this way.

“Should a journalist ask an athlete a question, the athlete should respond as he or she sees fit,” says the IOC spokesperson, Giselle Davies.

Under criticism, the New Zealand Olympic Committee has begun one of those embarrassing backdowns. Instead of saying it made a mistake, NZOC communications manager Ashley Abbott is reported as saying athletes will not be muzzled. She says they will be allowed to express views on the regime in China if they want to.

“If one of our athletes were asked their feelings on an important issue, it would be absolutely their prerogative to answer as they see fit,” she says.

So why is the ban written into the athletes’ contract? The NZOC is reported as saying the contract simply offers athletes protection from comment on issues they felt would detract from their performance in Beijing. If anyone can work out what that piece of double-speak means, please let me know.

The question remains as to why athletes from around the world will be free to speak their minds, but New Zealand athletes will sign censorship contracts. Why is it that the sensitivities of the Chinese regime resonate so strongly in New Zealand? Why are we virtually alone in gagging our athletes?

It seems clear that one of the reasons is that among the crowd of countries attending the games, only New Zealand is negotiating a free-trade agreement with China.

This agreement is seen as a coup by the Clark government. It has been several years in the making, with negotiations finally ended and just a couple of months remaining while all the complex details are checked and rechecked before a classic photo opportunity is organised for Helen Clark to sign away yet more quality New Zealand jobs at the altar of the free market with the Chinese Premier.

It would be a disaster from the Government’s point of view if this went off the rails because a Kiwi athlete stirred controversy by pointing to the elephant in the room which is China’s abuse of human rights.

Politics have always mixed with sport at the Olympics. This year marks the 40th anniversary of possibly the most famous political statement made at any Games.

It was 1968 in Mexico at the height of the civil rights struggle in the United States. Black US athlete Tommie Smith won the 200m sprint in a world record time. When he stood on the winner’s podium alongside bronze medal winner John Carlos, they raised black gloved fists in a powerful symbol of resistance to racial oppression. Smith also wore a black scarf to represent black pride and black socks (no shoes) to represent the poverty of blacks in racist America. The iconic image of this brave duo will resonate down the centuries after their athletic prowess is long forgotten.

It may well be that Chinese organisations seize the opportunity, with the world spotlight on Beijing, to protest in the struggle for free speech and trade union rights.

If that happens, we should encourage our athletes to use their freedom of speech to actively support those in China who are denied the same rights. That is what we should expect a good athlete to do.

Mining plan beyond the pale

I have never been to Happy Valley, but I am delighted there is a campaign to protect this beautiful West Coast valley from an open-cast coal mine.

Two weeks ago, the campaign celebrated its two-year occupation of the site as the longest environmental occupation in our history. Bravo!

Coal is one of the dirtiest, most climate-destroying fuels and despite Government rhetoric for New Zealand to become carbon neutral, the state-owned enterprise Solid Energy has an aggressive growth strategy for coal production which includes a new mine at Happy Valley.

The area is about 20km north-east of Westport and by all accounts is an outstanding example of the biodiversity of New Zealand. In 1998 the Department of Conservation recommended much of it be protected under DOC’s Protected Natural Areas Programme. Alas, the proposal did not get off the ground, with Solid Energy applying to destroy the area.

It is a bold plan and the figures must have impressed government ministers when they no doubt saw a power-point presentation from Solid Energy at the Beehive.

The government company plans a 256-hectare mine (about 350 football fields) which would involve removing 29 million cubic metres of rock and soil covering the coal and then digging two enormous pits up to 100 metres deep. Half-a-million tonnes of coal would be extracted each year for 10 years, most of which would be shipped offshore to fuel foreign industries. After all this, they say they will rehabilitate the site, at which even the least cynical of us will say – yeah, right!

Just across from Happy Valley is Solid Energy’s Stockton mine which has been seriously polluting local waterways for many years. The Greenpeace submission opposing the Happy Valley mine summed it up like this: “Acid mine drainage, coal fines and other sediments from the Stockton mine have virtually destroyed the ecology of the Mangatini Stream and severely degraded the lower Ngakawau River. Seepage from a diversion channel from Mount Frederick Mine and from the nearby water treatment lake contains aluminium, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, nickel, iron and zinc.”

Mining exposes all types of chemicals to air and water whereby acids are formed, which in turn release heavy metals from other rock material. These highly acidic waterways and dangerous metals create ecological havoc downstream. It is not safe to drink even after boiling.

Pete Lusk, from the Buller Conservation group, observed a couple of years back that the Mangatini Stream is so polluted it acts like a herbicide, with the mist rising from the Mangatini Falls killing the surrounding rainforest.

So what does Solid Energy plan to destroy? Aside from the obvious physical beauty of the area, many endangered species, habitats and ecological areas are caught up in the plan. Reading the detailed reports, you don’t need to be a tree-hugger to appreciate the depth of devastation the mine would leave in its wake.

Take just the wetland component for example. These areas were regarded as wasteland and early European settlers drained them for farmland. We are now only just beginning to understand their huge ecological significance. Put simply, they are important for the health of the planet and its ecology. In New Zealand, where 90 per cent of our wetlands have been destroyed, we are down to the dregs.

The spin from Solid Energy and its paid experts should be seen as the green-wash it is. Their highly publicised removal of 6000 endangered snails from the area is meant to improve their public image and convince us the company is really a conservation organisation in disguise.

Most of us accept that damage to the environment will be a consequence of most human activity, but the ecological vandalism proposed at Happy Valley is beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Solid Energy has harassed the campaigners. It employed security firm Thompson and Clarke to infiltrate the Save Happy Valley environmental group and spy on the protest camp. Last October, the police joined in and included the group in its nationwide so-called anti-terror raids.

Despite all this, the campaign continues. Even if most of us never travel to Happy Valley, we should be pleased if the efforts of committed Kiwi conservationists can preserve this part of the country for the future.

More than 30 years ago, I joined thousands of volunteers around New Zealand collecting signatures for the Save Manapouri Campaign. That campaign was successful in spite of the government, and our country is much the better for it. We should all work to get the same result at Happy Valley because ecologically New Zealand is down to the last bite of our clean green apple.

As the protest banner says: Happy Valley is worth more than its weight in coal.

Young New Zealanders deserve better

It’s been a predictable, depressing week in politics. Coinciding with a spate of appalling murders, Helen Clark and John Key gave us their policies on youth education with John Key throwing in a boot camp for good measure.

Bits of both policies won’t work. Labour’s preference for keeping kids in school till they are 18 won’t and neither will National’s forcing alienated youth into military-style camps.

However when the policies are boiled down there is little difference between them and once the policy details are settled there will be even less to distinguish them.

The most worrying aspect of both sets of policies is the focus on education for the needs of employers rather than education for citizenship. Training in specific employment skills should always been paid for by employers but over the past 15 years the cost has been shifting onto taxpayers. The latest moves will see the expansion of “on-job” training with extra government funding to employers like McDonald’s. Coincidently in Britain last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown came under attack for allowing McDonald’s to offer national qualifications of dubious quality. It will be more of the same here. A McJob will now come with a McEducation.

Underlying Key’s proposal is the concept of a voucher for 16 and 17 year olds to leave school for study at a polytech, wanaga or private tertiary establishment. Just at a time when Labour is moving away from this “bums on seats” funding National wants to introduce more of the same. It seems for National anything goes when it comes to expanding the private sector at public expense. The policy also gives the opportunity for National to soften up the public to accept vouchers for schooling which is National’s holy grail in education.

It is important to remember that a 2005 Tertiary Education Commission survey of 480 PTE qualifications found 64% of the courses were of either low quality or low relevance. In other words we don’t need 30 bad hairdressers in Temuka but just as Labour finally begins to tighten up on this waste of public funds National wants to open the purse strings again.

Let’s also remember this policy is not for students from well-heeled families who will continue at school till form seven and then move on to university. Instead it’s for students leaving school in earlier years and disproportionately these will be students from lower income areas such as Maori and Pacifica Students who are already lured out of school onto a merry-go-round of low quality courses. They gain a few credits here and there but no meaningful qualifications. The waste of funding is a disgrace. 

Neither National nor Labour’s proposals deal effectively with alienated students whose greatest risk factor is family income. These are predominantly students from low-income families where there is a cycle of disaffection exacerbated by free-market policies which have increased levels of poverty and encouraged the anti-social attitudes and behaviours which follow. Trying to keep these students in education will not succeed in most cases but getting Labour or National to address the problem honestly seems a hopeless task. They both prefer to pour more money into band-aid programmes at the bottom of the cliff instead of confronting economic policy at the top.

John Key’s “modern” boot camp is the soft face of the violent, authoritarian streak which runs close the surface in many New Zealanders. Christchurch City Councillor Barry Corbett revealed just how close when he commented that if he were a juror in the trial of the man who allegedly stabbed a tagger to death he would probably let him off. The thin veneer was gone. A day later he was softening his stance saying he agreed it was a silly thing to say but in the next breath said he’d had lots of support for his comments.

Here is a man with all the credentials for recognising the causes of poverty and alienation but who is stuck getting angry at the symptoms.

According to his promotional material he is a trustee of the Christchurch Casino Charitable Trust. He helps distribute profit from pokie machines but is blind to the enormous damage they cause to low-income families and youth whose anti-social behaviour he deplores.

Corbett should remember that youth behaviour is a reflection of the society they live in which he helps create. He is a greater part of the problem than the young taggers he so vehemently despises.

Young New Zealanders have had a fair political battering recently. Instead of automatically being seen as problems we should all remember how sensitive and vulnerable they are, despite the bravado and occasional stupidity.