Sunscreen: Mom challenges school over kids' sunburn. Who's fault?

Sunscreen pros and cons aside, institutions, individuals, moms, dads, and kids have to start thinking more, and passing the buck less. There's a bigger social question about responsibility behind the story of two girls who got sunburned on a school field trip.

Reza A. Marvashti/The Free Lance-Star/AP
Sunscreen is at the center of a controversy in Washington State, where two kids were badly sunburned on a school field trip because they hadn't lathered up in sunblock. Their mom forgot to do it, the school wouldn't for liability reasons. Here, John Law, 10, applied sunscreen at summer camp in Fredericksburg, Va., last week.

Welcome to the land of bizarre summertime news.

If bus monitors-turned-almost-millionaires and ponytail-chopping judges weren’t enough, we also have this tidbit from Washington State: a mom irate about her children getting badly burned on a school field trip after school officials refused to give them sunscreen.

Because sunscreen, according to school policy, is dangerous. And a liability. All those additives and potential allergens, they explained.

And school district policy is clear that no medication – even sunscreen – can be applied without a physician’s consent.  (One teacher apparently even applied sunscreen in front of the girls, but said that she couldn’t share.)

So, mom Jesse Michener ends up rushing daughters Violet and Zoe to the hospital because they look about the same color as lobsters when they get home, while the principal apologizes for not having been able to do anything to protect them.

Um … where does one even start with this one?

Leaving the pros and cons of sunscreen aside (I wonder what the school district thinks about, I don’t know, soap), it seems to me that the whole story reflects a bigger social question about personal agency and responsibility. 

I mean, it seems pretty backwards for a school – you know, an institution ostensibly designed to promote independent thought – to have a culture where individual actors have lost the ability to make reasonable, case-by-case judgments. 

But it’s hardly rare. Talk to any number of teachers or administrators and you’ll hear similar stories.

And it’s not just schools. Remember that story of the airport monitors hauling a toddler off a plane for being on the terrorism “no fly” list? The sort of non-thinking rule following, often at the expense of logic, and often molded by some sort of liability fear, is pretty commonplace in American officialdom.

But it’s not, I might venture, particularly helpful.

Because I think it impacts, among other things, parenting.  

I certainly don’t want to pass judgment here – goodness knows how many times I’ve taken Baby M into town forgetting hat, sunscreen, diapers, even pants – but it’s hard not to wonder why, knowing her daughters were particularly sensitive to sun, Ms. Michener wasn’t a bit more proactive pre Field Day.

Now, a perfectly reasonable answer to this is “I forgot, but I expected the school – to whom I entrust my kids every day – would provide a little backup.”  I’d be sympathetic to that.

But instead, there’s widespread, accusatory outrage – the sort that suggests the harm is totally someone else’s fault.

And that, also, seems unhelpful.

Maybe the real lesson in this is that all of us – institutions, individuals, moms, dads, kids – have to start thinking more, and passing the buck less.

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