Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Incidents in the Library: What to Do?

I was going to continue on today with my in-depth reading notes from The Evolution of God, but something happened to me a few hours ago that is filling my mind with thoughts and questions. I want to hear from both librarians and non-librarians on how you think these situations should be handled while also considering, "Is there a right answer?"

Here's what happened: I've been volunteering twice a week for the past four weeks for an enhanced summer reading library program. This public library branch is in a low-income neighborhood, and the kids that use the library—ranging from Kindergarten to late high school—spend all day there, everyday. They're latchkey kids to the extreme; every day of their summer is spent in the "homework room" where there are computers, board games, craft projects, movies, etc. At any given time, there can be over 30 kids in this room with maybe one or two adults in there with them.

Usually, in my experience, they behave very well. They tend to self-regulate and have a good rapport with the children's librarian. Today, though, two of the older boys (aged 13 or 14) got in a heated argument and started threatening to fight. It never escalated too far (a couple shoves back and forth), and another boy broke between them, laughing because they were literally throwing insults about each other's mother. Everyone thought the confrontation had dissipated and returned to what they were doing. One kid, though, must've wanted the proverbial last hit and chucked his phone at the other kid, only he missed and it hit me straight in the head.

Me. A volunteer, in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving my post with a bleeding head and a black eye.

The result of this incident: This phone-thrower and accomplice, whose names are known and are regular patrons, are banned from the library for a year (though they probably don't know it yet because they bolted). I was questioned/treated by paramedics, declining a hospital visit, and questioned by the police, where I also declined to press charges against a 13-year-old kid who wrongly, but accidentally, hit me in the head with an iPhone.

The questions an incident such as this raises are numerous, and the issues and problems are far from easy to solve. One question, the more minor one, is: What responsibility does the library have to its volunteers in terms of workplace safety? Any? [For me, I signed a waiver agreeing to the following language: "I acknowledge and agree that as consideration for the Library allowing me to serve as a volunteer I waive any rights or claims that I may have against the Library, its employees and volunteers and the [redacted], and release the Library, its employees and volunteers and the [redacted] from any potential liability arising during my volunteer activities." Does this cover such a situation? Should it?]

The more important question, though, is: What power do we have as librarians to handle non-library issues with or about our patrons? The "latchkey kid" issue is a huge one for many public libraries, and many have policies in place that establish zero liability for the library regarding unsupervised children; the library does not provide full- or part-time childcare. Of course, kids still come to the library without their parents, because it's probably safer than other options. Without the level of responsibility that's inherent in schools, how can a public library provide a level of structure, discipline, and consequence that prevents an incident like today along with other behavioral problems?

This library system's behavioral policy states a 1- to 5-year ban for an incident of assault, but there is no specific policy regarding unsupervised children. The Brooklyn Public Library will attempt to contact a parent or guardian in the case of incident (or other city agencies of the parent/guardian is unreachable) but there is nothing else in regards to specific consequence. Same goes for the Chicago Public Library; children may be asked to leave, but no more severe consequences are listed.

In the recent classes I've been taking for my teaching license on classroom management, I've learned how important it is to establish a strict set of rules, procedures, expectations, and consequences to handle behavior. The public library is not a classroom, but does that mean, for its young patrons and especially its latchkey kids, it should be run without these things? After all, the library isn't really responsible for any of them. Is a behavior plan necessary? Realistic? What do you think?

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