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Teacher on Trial

Letting Kids Play Outside Ends with License Yanked


Is it against the law to let kids play outside? This week an area teacher is standing trial for letting kids play outside. Perhaps you have been reading my columns and thinking to yourself, “Yes, yes, we know, children don’t spend enough time in nature. But that’s not really a problem here in fair Santa Barbara. That’s an urban issue. Besides, we all like to go to the beach and ride mountain bikes, so our kids are fine, right?”

Wrong.

A friend of mine runs a preschool during the school year and an outdoor program during the summer. The Department of Social Services only licenses home preschools and daycares, and has no jurisdiction over camps and outdoor programs. In spite of that fact, they yanked her childcare license for “exposing the children to the natural hazard of the ocean front” during her summer program.

Yes friends, it’s true. She let kids play at the beach. They even climbed on the hillside, and splashed in the waves. The state’s case against this teacher says that “letting them climb this hill is conduct inimical to the health, welfare, and safety of children.” In fact, I think we’ve learned enough about the hazards of the indoor childhood to know that this sort of “conduct” is precisely what they need.

I know this woman. She’s one of those magical teacher types with eyes in the back of her head and an uncanny ability to stay calm around gaggles of small children. She’s been working with kids for 20 years, and working with kids outside for more than half of that time.

I happened to hear about the fateful event on the day it occurred. I was with a friend when he received a call from the police. “Your son was climbing the hill at Hendry’s Beach, and somebody called 911.” I think my friend’s response went something like this:

Right, my son was climbing the hill. That’s what he does. That’s why we chose this program, where my kid is actually allowed to be a kid.”

The small group of little ones and the summer program supervisors was gathered at their usual spot at Hendry’s just a bit west of the Boathouse restaurant. Two of the boys, both of whom happen to be masterful little climbers, scrambled up a trail in the shale hillside. Some passersby looked up, got scared, and called the lifeguard and 911.

Nobody got hurt, and no family members complained. In fact, as investigators phoned each of the parents in the school, every one of them re-stated their pleasure with this teacher and her school. Seems like that would be the end of the story, right?

But the story didn’t end there. The investigators decided to revoke this woman’s license, and now she’s spending a pile of money for legal help and standing trial in an attempt to get her license reinstated.

This already sounds like something Orwell would have written, but it gets worse. The current trial is conducted by an “administrative judge,” which means that the decision is not even necessarily binding. The agency essentially gets to choose whether or not they want to listen to the judge’s decision. Now we’re south of Orwell, somewhere in Brazil.

I personally am not a big fan of heights. I like to stand a few feet back from the cliff’s edge, and ever since my high school boyfriend demonstrated his poor judgment by taking me climbing for my first time, without ropes, up a highly technical “pitch,” I confess I’m just a little cowardly about climbing.

But I had to see for myself, so I brought my family and met some friends at “the cliff.” Five kids ranging from four to nine scrambled up the hillside, and I scrambled up right behind them. At most points of the “climb” I could sit down comfortably on a ledge, or stand up. My heart rate never went up. There was a trail, clearly previously traveled by plenty of other semi-adventurous beachgoers.

This is it?” I asked, incredulously. That was it. One small climb for a couple of kids, one giant legal snafu for that teacher, her family, and all of the parents who depended on that preschool. Not to mention the fear this kind of “precedent” strikes in the hearts of aunts, uncles, educators, schools, and any other groups that count on the character building qualities of nature to help shape the next generation.

So the state is practically bankrupt, and this is what we’re spending our tax dollars on? Prosecuting heroic adults who choose a low-earning high-stress profession to try to set a few young children on a good path in life? Who are the real criminals here?

I attended part of the hearing, and was dumbstruck by the goings on. The investigator stated in no uncertain terms that his department has no jurisdiction over outdoor programs or summer camps. His report, which was offered as evidence, contained multiple pages of detailed notes from his telephone interview with the eyewitness who filed the complaint. Apparently he never met her in person, because when she came to the trial she showed up with her seeing-eye dog. She never did get called to take the stand.

In stark contrast with the detailed notes from the complainant, the investigator’s report contained almost no notes from his interviews with my friend or her assistants. He filed a list of questions he planned to ask.

I imagine the passersby that day meant well. I can’t see through the eyes of the woman with the seeing-eye dog. The youngest boy who was climbing has the clearest explanation I’ve heard yet as to what was going through the minds of those strangers who called to complain about kids playing outside. He says: “Mama, I know why those people were afraid. They couldn’t climb the hill themselves.”

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