The responsibility of educators to “do no harm”

“Do no harm” is an ethical principle most often regarded in connection with the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors. Essentially, it refers to the idea that professionals have a responsibility as part of their practice to refrain from actions that harm others. Given the growing number of school incidents, I wonder if this doctrine should be considered for educators as well as physicians? After all, the consequences of poor decisions towards students can be just as life altering for kids as doctors’ decisions can be for their patients. Young people spend a significant amount of time at school and are thus subject to the decision-making authority of adults who are not their parents. This places them in a particularly vulnerable position, especially when there is little to no oversight of administrative decisions.

As I reflect on the number of juvenile cases resulting from school infractions, it is evident that communities need to start paying more attention. Whether for truancy, disrespecting teachers, or minor school fights, zero-tolerance and other school policies often fail to adequately differentiate based on level of severity. Decisions are made by school administrators every day whether to resolve misbehavior themselves, or involve the police and subject our children to unnecessary court proceedings. A lawsuit reported this week underscores this very issue.

Parents of four African American youth filed an action against a school district in Ohio due to the expulsion of their children for making rap music videos. As with any court case, there are of course differing versions of the facts. The families assert that their children were unfairly targeted and accused of gang membership because they referred to themselves as the “money gang” and made “hand signs” in a self-made music video that they then posted online. The school district contends that the students were expelled due to “threats” made. The former defense attorney in me can’t help but distrust the school’s claim of “threats” as well as the characterization of adolescent expression as “gang related.” Either version of the story is problematic and calls into question school policies as well as the manner in which school administrations govern.

When parents send their children to school, they are entrusting educators with their most precious gifts. With this gift comes an important responsibility for a student’s well-being. In addition to teaching, school professionals are charged with care-taking as well as holding youth accountable. Because we all vary in our personal beliefs and customs in these areas, it is essential that communities reach some consensus on the expectations for and limitations of discipline. At a minimum, I would hope that we could all agree that educational professionals should at least be held to a standard of “doing no harm.”

The Ohio news story also brought to mind a report earlier this year concerning preschoolers. A parent of 3 and 4-year-old boys shared that her children had been suspended from pre-school eight times this year. I could not imagine what toddlers could do that warrants suspension? The 4-year threw a chair (but it did not hit anyone), the 3-year old hit a staff member on the arm and was labeled a “danger to the staff.” And yes, these kids are African American.

That report called attention to just how early a negative paper trail can be started and the implications on students’ educational future as a result of it. The story also highlighted the difference in treatment of the African American children in that jurisdiction based on information shared by other parents. During a birthday party, one mom revealed how the school had responded to her son in a more serious incident. Apparently her child intentionally threw something at another student who then had to be taken to the hospital, and yet her child was not suspended — “all [she] got was a phone call.” Her child was white. Other white parents shared similar experiences.

Although I mention only two stories, they are illustrative in that they raise a number of questions and red flags – some about appropriate response to expected youth misbehavior, and others about the impact of race and cultural competency (topics that I intend to explore in greater detail at a later time).

For today I offer this thought: shouldn’t schools have an obligation to resolve non-violent incidents in a way that provides appropriate consequence but without causing damage? The impact of disrupting a young person’s education with suspension, expulsion, or juvenile court involvement cannot be ignored. And shouldn’t such decisions if nothing else be equitable – similar consequences for similar behavior?

Whether pre-school tantrums or adolescent disruptiveness, there is a certain amount of misbehavior that is normal and age-appropriate and therefore to be expected. I’m not suggesting that the conduct be overlooked or go un-addressed, but rather that educators should be trained in appropriate and non-harmful responses. If you don’t want to deal with tantrums, perhaps you shouldn’t work with 3-year olds? And if you don’t want to deal with bad attitudes, teenage egos and playfulness, or a bit of rough-housing, then a career working with youth may not be for you?

I have the utmost respect for those who choose to work with our most valuable resources – our children. And I understand how challenging it can be. But for those who make that choice, communities should have the right to expect that these professionals are careful and responsible with their decisions. After all vulnerable lives are in their hands, and while no one should expect perfection, can we at least agree that they should do no harm? What do you think?

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq