Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Problem with Rules and Policy

             Imagine this question on a standardized test:
You are a lifeguard at a crowded beach. Suddenly you are alerted that a man is drowning. You see the man is in an area marked “Swim at own risk.” Policy says you should not leave your zone. Do you rescue the man?
               I’m not an anarchist, and I fully understand and appreciate the need for clear rules and policies. After all, I run a school. When I began in that role here, one of the first tasks we took on was to clean up the employee handbook and our board policy manual. It helps to create a degree of clarity and consistency and legal safety. As humans, we also draw some comfort from having such guidelines.
                This morning I came across the story of Tomas Lopez, a teen lifeguard near Miami. Recently Tomas became a hero when he saved the life of a drowning man. Then Tomas was fired. Why? He had gone past his assigned perimeter when he saved the drowning man. Now the city of Hallandale Beach has given him a key to the city, and the lifeguard company has offered him his job back. Tomas has decided to do something else. (full story)
                I can guess why the policy is in place: by vacating his area, Tomas created a lack of supervision and thus greater danger in his zone. But he determined that immediate, very real danger should override any potential danger. I can’t think of any reasonable argument against that. Tomas did what a lifeguard ultimately is there to do. Yet I’m sure policy also dictated the punishment for any violation, which means essentially that Tomas lost his job for doing his job.  It reminds me of one of those classic ethical dilemmas such as “If your child is starving, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread?”
                The problem with policies and rules is essentially one of user error.  On the front end, we try to craft policies that can cover every possibility that we can see, which is impossible and only reveals our myopia. On the back end, we feel the need to point to and enforce policy no matter what because, well, it’s policy. Then people become upset because, well, this care shows the problem with the policy. And so forth and so on…We want black and white in a Technicolor world.
                Once again we see why the more valuable lessons of an education can’t be captured on a fill-in-the-bubble test. They are about critical thinking, decision making, real-life application, and relationships.
                An A+ for Tomas Lopez.

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