Playground Safety: The Principal Investigates the Mystery at Homeplate

by Bill Rich

For many young parents, the school choice era made the point clear that just any school wouldn’t do, and just any teacher wouldn’t do. The parents had to advocate for their children to get into the best school and be assigned to the classrooms of the best teachers. All this new personal responsibility as a parent added to family anxiety.

For young parents whose children were just starting school, a big issue was playground safety. This was especially important to the parents of First Grade boys since they were the ones who got into the most trouble once they left the confines of the Kindergarten playground, and entered the vast and relatively unstructured world of the big school wide playground. Many of the boys knew how to play games such as tag, nerf football, softball, tetherball, jump rope, and they also knew how to play with indoor-outdoor toys such as trucks and action figures. But the kids from poverty backgrounds didn’t do very well at these pursuits. They knew how to fight and curse if a disagreement took place, and they knew how to throw rocks.

Now this didn’t mean the mothers of the kids in poverty didn’t want their kids safe on the big playground. On the contrary, they were the first to come in to the office, yell and curse and threaten me if their son got into a fight or was bonked on the foot with a rock.

As I gained experience being a principal I also was able to develop ways to improve the structure and safety of the playground. This basically involved seeing it as a teaching and learning environment just as important as the classroom. The big difference was recess was actually scheduled into the day as a contractual labor break for teachers. This meant there weren’t any teachers assigned to the recess curriculum. So it was up to me, and any interested parents and school staff.

The most successful changes included putting older kids in charge of stations for an activity or game where the younger kids could become involved in a kind of sheltered way. They could learn the games, the ropes of playground life from the experts, the older successful kids.

Teacher-aides, a classification of school workers who helped with children in and outside the classroom, took care of playground supervision. Since this was prior to cell phones, we developed a safety protocol that really helped the playground organization for everyone. Each playground aide wore a kind of apron with big pockets. The pockets contained whistle, band aids and special envelope of colored cards. If a situation took place where the aide needed to communicate with the principal’s office, she grabbed a kid and gave him a card to take to the office. A yellow card meant the principal should come immediately. A green card meant the child had been hurt in some way and he had permission to come to the office to get help (usually an ice pack). A red card meant, just call 911 since an accident and injury had taken place.

This system worked very well, especially when new parents came to visit and check out the school. They would typically ask, “How is your playground for safety?” I would say, “Let’s just walk out there now and see what’s going on. We can talk to one of the supervising aides and see what she tells us about safety plans.” I also enjoyed just walking around the playground when holding any kind of meeting with teachers, parents or central office folk. It was such a healthy outdoor environment that we continually improved with benches, play equipment, trees and every expanding fields.

But sometimes, bad things happened. One day, Shane, a first grade boy carrying a green card came crying into the office accompanied by another child as helper. He had been hit in the hand by a rock. The secretary gave him a bag of ice and I called the parent to come and see her child. In what seemed like a matter of minutes a car screeched and skidded into the bus zone at the front of the school and Tammy, the mother came flying towards the office, yelling and cursing and crying all at the same time. When she got to the office she began threatening as well.

“You goddamn assholes, son of a bitch what did you do to my baby? I’ll kick all your assess!” Her son began howling now as well since this seemed to be their ritual when he was hurt. She held him in her lap and rocked him in our office chair (small office) until they both seemed to calm down while the secretary and I stepped away to give them some room. But she was still outraged.

“Who done this?” she demanded. Was it one of those God damned Murphy boys? I’ll kick their asses. Was it one of those fucking Indians? Mexicans? I’ll gut ‘em. That’ll show em.”

“Oh my goodness,” I said. “Why don’t you and Shane come into my office and take some time together.”

My plan with parents like Tammy was simply to relate to her as a parent. I told her a story about my ‘Doctor Strangler” day, a story I made up about when my kid was sick and I put my hands around a doctor’s neck and threatened him, “If you don’t fix my kid, I’m going to break your neck!” The doctor told me to take my hands off his neck so he could work on my kid.

The parent usually laughed and I could begin to help them see that we were all on the same team. Tammy didn’t laugh but had calmed down and smiled, so I knew were getting somewhere. I let Tammy know that I would find out who threw the rock and punish him or her. The punishment was usually a week banned from the playground with trash duty during recess since this was such a dangerous act. An eye could have been put out and I was mad about it. Matching emotions, being mad with the parent always helped improve communications. I also said that she would never know who the child was who threw the rock since that was my job to handle at school. She nodded and after a while she and Shane were calm enough to send Shane back to class without the ice and Tammy drove her car home.

But Tammy didn’t really trust me. She and a couple of friends started hanging out at the fence about 50 yards away from the playground. A big church sat next door and they could park in the parking lot and stand at the low chain link fence and look at our playground through field glasses. I didn’t mind this and usually waved at them when I walked around the playground. But one day a yellow card was brought to the office by a breathless 3rd grader about an incident at the baseball diamond. Recess was just ending and I jogged past the kids who were coming in for class, except for one kid who was in trouble and standing with the aide. I looked over towards the church and the parents with field glasses were watching.

I asked the aide what happened and she pointed down to home plate. There lay a large, brown turd. She then elaborated that the other kids had told her that Mikey had struck out (with the plastic safety bat and the plastic safety ball) but wouldn’t leave the batter’s box. When they told him he had to leave, he dropped his pants and laid this turd right there in the middle of the most important base on the diamond. The sun glinted off the lenses of the binoculars at the church fence. “Did you do this Mikey?” I asked gravely. “Yes.” he replied, nervously licking his lips and swaying from foot to foot. “OK, I said. You have to clean it up.” He started to cry and said he didn’t want to touch the turd. I told him we were going to go to the janitors closet and get a shovel.

I sent the aide back to class and Mikey and I walked over to the janitor’s office and returned to the turd with a shovel. I made Mikey scoop up his turd and then walk carefully back to a restroom and dump it in the toilet, and then flush it. I told the janitor to sanitize the shovel and home plate and sent Mikey back to class with a note that he was late with me. I then called the parent who was very embarrassed. She came right to school and we talked about the kind of punishment this bad deed deserved. Writing sentences such as, “I will not take a shit on home plate,” was out because the kid was just starting first grade and couldn’t write yet. So we agreed on Mike spending lunch recess for a week picking up oak leaves and filling small plastic bags with them.

Meanwhile, at the church fence, the safety conscious parents had looked on but did nothing. I’m not sure they understood what was actually happening but being an optimist, I thought they would like it that I was out there on the playground managing safety, or something.

But the next day another bad thing happened. Shane and his buddies were out at the baseball diamond and started throwing rocks. This was not easy since I had assigned the janitors rock duty which meant they (along with me) removed the bigger rocks from the inbounds area to the out of bounds area next to the fence lines at the edge of the playground next the neighborhoods. So Shane had to go out of bounds sneaking away past the watchful eye of the yard duty supervisor and bring back some good sized throwing rocks.

Tammy had dropped by the office during lunch recess, just to say Hello and to tell me she had been watching the playground from the church fence line. She and her friends had come to appreciate what a nice playground it was and she was happy to have Shane at this school. Just about then, Shane came howling through the door, supported by two friends, hand to his head, blood all over one side of his head and face.

Tammy started yelling and the wonderful secretary, Betty, got wet paper towels immediately. As she wiped the blood off with Tammy continuing to yell, I asked the other kids what happened. The blood had stopped running down Shane’s head and he had a good bump on his forehead with a cut that might need stitches. The kids said that Shane and his buddy started trying to throw rocks through the chain link backstop at the baseball diamond. Then they tried to throw the rocks through the chain link at the top of the backstop that curved out over home plate. As they stood at home plate watching to see if their rocks made it through the holes, they were in perfect position to be hit on the head when the big rocks, too big to pass through the chain link, bounced off and came flying back towards them. Shane got hit on the second throw. Tammy heard all this and just stared at me. She was calculating what to do and who to be mad at. I said, “He needs to go to a clinic and see if that cut needs stitches.” I asked Tammy if she was calm enough to drive and told her I would drive her and Shane if she wanted me to. She said she was ok so off she and Shane went.

I called her apartment later that evening but no one answered. But the next morning Tammy and Shane were in my office with Betty and me before school started. Tammy said the doctor scolded Shane for throwing rocks in the air and that she knew this bonk on the head was not our fault. Shane did not need stitches so that was also good news. Tammy also cried and said she just wanted Shane to have a good life, a better one than hers which had been totally “Fucked up,” since she was in many foster placements and was now a single parent on welfare. Betty hugged her and I told her I liked Shane and wanted him in my school. (Rocks are always preferable to a turd on home plate.) I also needed her to help out with any ideas for playground safety in the future. She made Shane say he was sorry to me and I said I accepted his apology. He went to class and Tammy went home after peeking through the classroom window to wave at Shane one more time.