Courant Blogger: How I Think About Sheff v. O’Neill
How I Think About Sheff v. O’Neill
from Colin McEnroe’s ‘To Wit’ Blog
April 8, 2008
©The Hartford Courant
The testimony that still haunts me came from an elementary school teacher at Barnard Brown. Her name was Gladys Hernandez. She was taking her students on their one yearly field trip; and, as the bus crossed the bridge over the Connecticut River, the students stood, gasped, cheered. They had never seen this river before, even though it flowed less than a mile or two, probably, from their homes. Most of them lived with single moms who didn’t have much access to transportation. They lived in a dangerous neighborhood, and they hadn’t been anywhere else.
In that sense, Sheff v. O’Neill was about so much more than the windless sailboat of Hartford education. It was about “experiential poverty,” about an 18-square-mile game preserve of very, very poor people whose children have never been to a movie theater or ridden a pony.
And, in that sense, the lawsuit wasn’t really about fixing the schools. It’s probably more truthful to say that schools provided a fulcrum, because the right to public education is guaranteed in Connecticut’s state constitition. The right to fall asleep without hearing gunfire is not. Neither is the right to nutritious food or the right to speak with somebody who notices that you can throw a softball well or that you have a gift for playing stringed instruments. The Constitution does not guarantee you the right to winter coat or say anything about what happens when you show up for school shivering.
So you can sue the state over substandard education, over the schools where the cafeteria floods every time it rains and where the ceiling has collapsed four times in a few years, on one occasion raining down the decayed carcasses of hundreds of pigeons were were trapped in the rafters during a previous shoddy repair.
But what you’re really litigating about is something deeper, more upsetting. It’s about a level of despair so deep and black that school principals become accustomed to dealing with multiple attempted suicides … among their third graders.
That was the essence of Sheff v. O’Neill. Its basic argument was about a class of 30 kids, 28 or 29 or 30 0f whom were piled high, like overburdened pack animals, with poverty, poor medical care, drugs, violence, neglect, family discord, no family at all. Kids who show up late and tired and hungry and depressed and angry.
You can maybe teach a class of 30 if you’ve got four kids like that. But not if you’ve got 28.
So those kids sued the rest of us, and the court sided with them.
I’ve decided that Sheff v. O’Neill is not really a legal case and that none of settlements or proposed forms of redress will ever work, unless we change. It’s a moral case. It makes a moral argument. The problem is that we don’t listen to moral arguments anymore, so you’ve got to dress them up as lawsuits.
The thing that broke down worst of all was us — the people with hope and resources — and our supposed Judeo-Christian values. Those values are unambiguous about what we’re supposed be be doing for others who are poor, who are sick, who are helpless. We can do it through our churches or through Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs or Big Brothers Big Sisters or through some other mentoring or intervention. But we’re supposed to do it. Those values are supposed to be the spine of this country.
But if we lived them — even just a little — there would have been no compelling case to make in Sheff v. O’Neill, because each of use would have identified those children as our moral responsibility, a long time ago.
It’s sick that the government and the courts had to be involved and had to tell us what we should have known anyway — that those kids are our kin.