Malicious Compliance

Texas has a new policy about what food schools can serve in their cafeterias. Based on that policy, an elementary school there gave a third-grader a week of detention for possessing a Jolly Rancher candy. Here’s the superintendent’s take:

“Whether or not I agree with the guidelines, we have to follow the rules,” he said.

Of course, the rules said that parents could send whatever shitty food they desired to school with their kids — the school just couldn’t sell it to them. This idiot clearly doesn’t agree with the guidelines, so he decided to make a 10 year-old girl miserable to prove his point.

I learned the term “malicious compliance” from a friend who worked in a Fortune 500 company. Mid-level managers who are butthurt over some new policy will often apply it in the most obtuse manner imaginable, with the aim of undermining the goals of company leadership. In the business world, malicious compliance gets managers fired. In the world of education and government, it gets you a Reason piece about creeping government intervention.






52 replies
  1. 1
    Phyllis says:

    Gee, wonder why more and more kids hate to go to school.

  2. 2
    Hunter Gathers says:

    I really don’t want to have to home school my kid, but I refuse to let my child be educated in a place where job number one is not actually, you know, teaching, but covering one’s ass. Seems to be the only thing these administators are able to do.

  3. 3
    stevie314159 says:

    Of course, if that kid was packing heat instead of candy, it would be perfectly legal in Texas.

  4. 4
    MikeJ says:

    @Hunter Gathers: The super most likely wasn’t trying to cover his ass. If he was ass covering, the problem is a stupid inflexible rule.

    More likely, the new regs mean that the school had to buy higher quality food, and the super was trying to keep his costs down by undermining the policy.

    It’s the Republican way. Talk about how the government is incapable of doing anything right and then get elected to prove it.

  5. 5
    WereBear says:

    If this had been my child, there would have been metaphorical administrator parts littering the hallways from the smoking edge of my rhetorical disgust.

    And Jolly Rancher… you can’t ditch those things! There’s no crunching it up and drooling on yourself from the sudden onset of intense flavor. They make you take………. a………. loooooooooooooooong time.

  6. 6
    Kirk Spencer says:

    Did you notice the loophole they used to get around the “parents can send” clause? She got it from another student, not her parents.

    Having been through similar with my daughter some years back I can tell you the upcoming consequences. The girl and her friends will have pretty close to zero trust of administrators and (since a teacher is the one who “busted” her) teachers. That constant cynicism will get some of them tagged down the road for being disrespectful and insubordinate, and that’ll get blamed on everything BUT their experiences with the administration.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a good fix. Well, I do, but it would cost a lot of money and effort and way too many people don’t want to spend that money and effort on school children.

  7. 7
    rickstersherpa says:

    I think mistermix has it right that this was an either an example of malicious compliance or some school authority figures on a power trip. Someone at the Texas Department of Education apparently heard the story and quickly dispatched a letter stating that the rationale given by the school principal and superintendant were absurd and the the week of detention was, rescinded. I hope they enjoy their crow, but without ketchup. http://www.khou.com/home/State.....71189.html

  8. 8
    Boudica says:

    Why was she put on detention instead of the girl who provided the candy? (The whole thing is ridiculous, of course.)

  9. 9
    Deb says:

    Sounds like all the kids need to be supplied with Jolly Ranchers. What are the idiots going to do then, suspend the whole school? Get the parents’ permission then let some other adult pass them out.

  10. 10
    satby says:

    Just one correction:

    In the business world, malicious compliance gets managers fired promoted.

  11. 11
    Ash Can says:

    @MikeJ:

    More likely, the new regs mean that the school had to buy higher quality food, and the super was trying to keep his costs down by undermining the policy.

    This sounds right on target to me. This super obviously cares squat about the kids in his district, so I’m guessing that the “lesser penalties weren’t working” song-and-dance was the ass-covering part, and the Jolly Rancher incident was him saying, “We’ll feed our students cheap crap if we want to, and no gubmint meddlers can tell us otherwise.”

    This super needs to be fired yesterday, then thrown in the Gulf to help soak up some oil. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that, in the Texas educational system, supers like this are features rather than bugs.

  12. 12
    Thunderlizard says:

    Not for nothing, but when three kids jumped me with one knife back in the 7th grade and tried to hack off my hair, the two who *didn’t* have the knife got one day of detention. ZERO TOLERANCE, AMIRITE?

  13. 13
    Napoleon says:

    The best example of malicious compliance I can think of in the political areana is Grover Norquest and his Rep cronies alledgedly blocking the Feds from instituting the e-z tax form program where your 1040 comes to you filled in with the info already submitted to the government so all you need to do is to verify they included everything.

  14. 14
    Joey Maloney says:

    @rickstersherpa: It’s even worse than the worse. That letter came from the Texas Department of Fucking Agriculture, not Education. Take a second and read it; to someone with experience of Life Under Bureaucracy, it’s pretty funny. It explains in little bitty words so that the school superintendent will understand that the Department of Agriculture does not actually set school disciplinary policy, surprise surprise, and that unauthorized possession of candy by students cannot possibly be a violation of the nutrition guidelines.

    In a pitch-perfect application of bureaucratic sarcasm, the letter ends with “Thank you for your commitment to providing a positive nutrition environment at Brazos ISD.”

  15. 15
    Jude says:

    Yeah, since when does doing this kind of shit in the corporate world get you fired?

    I’ve worked for several businesses who were chockablock full of middle-manager letter-of-the-law-not-the-spirit assholes. They do just fine in the private sector.

    They’re kind of like restroom bacteria and cockroaches. They’re always around, and impossible to eliminate.

  16. 16

    and here in Arizona Malicious Compliance has been codified into the new Immigration Law. The people sworn to protect and serve can be sued if they are not sufficiently malicious in demanding to see papers.

  17. 17
    Scott says:

    The schools nowadays seem to be run top to bottom by bullies. The kids are abused by classmate bullies, teacher bullies, and especially principal/administrator bullies.

    I think homeschooling is a damn stupid activity, but if I had kids, I’d be hard-pressed not to do it, just to keep ’em out of the hands of those lunatics. I’ll never understand why the hell there aren’t more beaten-into-a-pulp principals out there…

  18. 18
    Brandon says:

    @Joey Maloney: Exactly. There is no “parents can send” clause because the policy actually has nothing whatsoever to do with students. The actual policy stipulates what school districts can and cannot do and what the penalties that exist in the policy are solely for school districts that fail to comply. This is not a case of “malicious compliance”, because no reading of the policy could ever bring one to this result. This is about a Principal on a power trip and being a total dick. It looks like he’s been finally found out, but as we know and as this post shows, only the first story gets covered and when the truth finally comes out it barely gets a mention.

    Read the policy yourselves and tell me where this fuckwit Principal gets from A to B in his ever so sound logic.

    http://info.sos.state.tx.us/pl.....&rl=Y

  19. 19
    JKC says:

    Sometimes I wish Texas would secede.

  20. 20
    Original Lee says:

    @Boudica: The child who provided the candy might have gotten punished, also too, but since the crime is in *consuming* the candy, not providing it, the parents probably just found a note in the backpack. And since the child probably wasn’t blonde, it didn’t make the news.

  21. 21
    jrg says:

    @Kirk Spencer:
    Agreed. Those idiots couldn’t do a better job instilling contempt for authority if they tried.

  22. 22
    Phoebe says:

    @Kirk Spencer: @jrg: And this is a good thing. The sooner you figure it out that they don’t all have your best interests at heart, and that you just need to trust the ones who prove themselves, and not because they’re the grownups or the authority figure, the better. It really helps if your parents are halfway decent and back you up in this, because it’s important to have someone you can trust. But it’s not going to be the school. Or the church. Or the cops.

  23. 23
    ericvsthem says:

    “Malicious compliance” is just another word for “work-to-rule.” Sometimes, in a workplace, it is a worthwhile strategy. But employing this tactic at the expense of a 10 year old girl.. that dude should be penalized for that shit.

  24. 24
    Sour Kraut says:

    Sometimes I wish Texas would secede.

    The quality of America’s educational materials would immediately improve.

  25. 25
    Keith G says:

    This is not malicious compliance. It is small town (actually small person) narrow mindedness.

    Twenty-five years of working in Texas public education leads me to understand that all superintendents are not made equal. This dude simply screwed the pooch. Unfortunately, he will not receive a detention and as intellectually isolated as superintendents can become, he may not even appreciate the folly of his thinking.

    @JKC: Phfft!!

  26. 26
    kay says:

    I wonder if they’re still bent out of shape about the loss of revenue. I know beverage companies were buying “pouring rights” in high schools, so they could hook kids early and create brand loyalty. They needed to train them to drink a soda at 7 in the morning.

  27. 27
    Keith G says:

    @Sour Kraut: No. The market would still exist.

  28. 28
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @ericvsthem:

    “Malicious compliance” is just another word for “work-to-rule.”

    I have to disagree. Malicious compliance requires looking for the stupidest, least helpful way of interpreting and applying a rule. Work-to-rule requires doing exactly what is required by the rule, no more or no less. MC is method of obstruction (it can be used for good or ill). WTR, on the other hand, is generally used as a teaching tool. Workers use it to show the many things that they normally do in the course of a day that are not covered in their job descriptions and thus not considered in setting wage and salary levels.

  29. 29
    Donald G says:

    @Keith G:

    This is not malicious compliance. It is small town (actually small person) narrow mindedness.
    __
    Twenty-five years of working in Texas public education leads me to understand that all superintendents are not made equal. This dude simply screwed the pooch. Unfortunately, he will not receive a detention and as intellectually isolated as superintendents can become, he may not even appreciate the folly of his thinking.

    While I don’t have the benefits of 25 years of working in public education in Texas, the comments of Keith G (no relation) reflect my experience as a parent of school-aged children. In cases like this one, it’s usually an administrator who applies certain rules in manners or circumstances in which they were not intended, whether (to be charitable) through misreading or misunderstanding, or through the malicious exercise of power and authority.

    I’ve seen representatives of state departments of educations despair at how state policies were implemented at the local level . [“That’s not what we want them to do at all. This (insert whatever regulation) is supposed to help and support, not hurt and punish the kids.”]

    However, implementation is in the hands of superintendents, who too often have their own agendas and managerial and educational philosophies and principals and teachers who either agree with or can’t or won;t jeopardize their own positions by antagonizing the superintendent.

    Our local school system has just come out of a reign of terror by our previous superintendent in which teacher and student morale plummeted, increasingly authoritarian measures and policies were adopted in the interest of improving student performance… and test scores did not improve. In fact, we’re worse off now than we were before the previous regime.

    We got one gifted child through the system, although it was a near thing. His talents lie more in math and sciences rather than interpersonal communication, shares many behavior traits with people diagnosed with Aspberger’s syndrome, has a strong sense of justice and doesn’t suffer fools and bullies gladly. You can probably see the problems, there.

    The second child, also intelligent and gifted, but much more artistic, socially adept and aware than the first child, has had enough of the environment and has taken steps to get out of her current school by seeking out and enrolling in a nearby artsy charter school which is directly chartered by the state, thus bypassing control of the local superintendent.

    Sorry I went on so long. I’m part-Appalachian; we tend to illustrate through personal narrative.

  30. 30
    Leonard Stiltskin says:

    Definitely a fucked up story, but what’s going on there that 3rd graders are 10 years old? My 3rd grader is only 8.

  31. 31
    frankdawg says:

    moron admins are the death of any organization.

    My son stepped between 2 kids & stopped a fight in middle school. He was suspended for a week because he had “put his hands” on the two kids to hold them apart (he pushed them apart, one hand on each chest). The fighters? no problem they never landed a blow so they were good to go!

    A lot of this stems for the stupid zero tolerance rules. A lot of it stems from people who’s brains do not function in any normally recognized manner.

  32. 32
    twiffer says:

    imagine if she’d had tweezers too! kid would have gotten expelled.

    just as stupid as all those moronic “zero-tolerance” policies that are so loved these days.

  33. 33
    twiffer says:

    @frankdawg: zero-tolerance is idiotic for kids. kids need to screw up. mistakes are the best way of learning.

    zero-tolerance is the epitome of CYA policies. it allows admins to not have to think and to claim they had no choice. counter-productive and harmful.

  34. 34

    Malicious compliance has been the norm in Texas schools ever since “zero tolerance” came along. Kids have been expelled or sent to Alternative School (read: reform school) for possession of an Advil, or a plastic knife in the lunchbox.

    Opposed as I am to homeschooling in principle, as my Peanut approaches school age, it’s something we contemplate more seriously than we ever thought we would. This place scares me sometimes.

  35. 35
    ThresherK says:

    After the Oprah cheeseburger lawsuit, I take it that Jolly Ranchers are not a Texas agricultural product. otherwise their presence would not only be allowed in public schools there, but perhaps mandatory.

  36. 36
    grandpajohn says:

    zero-tolerance is the epitome of CYA policies. it allows admins to not have to think and to claim they had no choice.

    As a retired teacher with 28 years experience in the classroom, I agree with this completely. Zero tolerance is one of the worst policies to ever hit the educational system.
    As a retired teacher I can also say that in my 28 years it was amazing how many teachers and administrators I saw who sense of rational thinking or logical reasoning, in other words , what is normally called “common sense” was virtually non-existent when it came to handling problems

  37. 37
    grandpajohn says:

    @ fergus

    It’s not just in Texas it’s also here in SC and most everywhere else that “zero tolerance” is practiced, too many administrators and teachers with no common sense and with the zero tolerance the ones that do have it ,many times are prevented from using it.

  38. 38
    Brachiator says:

    Detention over a freakin’ candy bar?

    Malicious compliance just about nails it. And it’s also another case of the highway to hell being paved with the best intentions. The official nutrition guidelines notes,

    The obesity epidemic that has brought so much public attention to the foods that are available to students has prompted an unprecedented response from local, state and national leaders. You can be confident that your children are the beneficiaries of the most responsive nutrition policies in the world.

    What we really need to deal with is the stoopidity epidemic that has broken out in bonehead school administrators.

  39. 39
    YellowJournalism says:

    @grandpajohn: It’s not just SC and Texas, it’s pretty much everywhere. My favorite reason for not getting rid of such ridiculous policies is that schools and school districts are afraid of the all-mighty lawsuit, rather than the real reason, which is people in administrative positions don’t want to have to use their brains to solve a problem. It’s just easier to label a child for the rest of their academic life as a troublemaker or dangerous than put down that she brought Advil to class.

  40. 40
    D0n Camillo says:

    It sounds to me like this superintendent is an all around douchebag who finally did something so douchebaggy that he managed to make the local news and somehow caught Reason’s attention. Usually little shits like this try to stay under the radar and just make students’ lives miserable without attracting publicity.

  41. 41

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  42. 42
    fucen tarmal says:

    malicious compliance is great for inspiring loyalty. you let them run wild, then you reign them in without major consequence, in exchange for blind loyalty.

  43. 43
    artem1s says:

    @Donald G:

    Sorry I went on so long. I’m part-Appalachian; we tend to illustrate through personal narrative.

    LOL! I thought I was the only one who was a perpetrator of the “I told you that story so I could tell you this one” syndrome.

  44. 44
    JL says:

    Or the superintendent may lack simple common sense. Some years ago, my friend’s 9 year old little boy speared a dead gopher with a stick and proceeded to chase the little girl’s around the schoolyard with it. The principal phoned my friend to let her know what had happened, which was fitting and proper. But instead of sharing a chuckle over it and requesting Patrick be gently admonished, he came on like it was a very, very serious incident that required a full court press from The Authorities.

  45. 45
    sacman701 says:

    I’m inclined to think that this is a case of dumb, lazy bureaucratic behavior as opposed to malevolence. This has been mentioned above, but a lot of people prefer to enforce the letter of the rules instead of the intent, because it allows them to coast without ever having to use their judgment or think anything through.

  46. 46
    artem1s says:

    @YellowJournalism:

    lawsuits are an issue but the reality is that they have to deal with kids who are raiding their parents meds to get high. Advil doesn’t sound like a big deal but 30 years ago I knew a girl in jr. high who regularly experimented with seemingly innocuous, over the counter meds to see which would give her a buzz (maybe 2 is fine, but if you pop 25-30…). I’m still amazed she got through HS without overdosing on something. The availability of seriously dangerous non-scrip meds has only increased and the stuff they can get from their parents/sibs/grandparents is unbelievable. I’m not saying that throwing a kid in detention because they forgot to clean out their pockets is the answer but the school can’t afford to ignore certain behaviors anymore because it can be pretty hard to discern the difference between forgetfulness and outright subterfuge. Kids pretty much haven’t changed much. If they want to get high, they will do their best to hide it and cover up, and too often the parents are deep into denial and won’t pay attention until it inconveniences them.

    candy and meds are completely different problems and need to be dealt with differently. course you might not think so if your kid has a severe allergy to peanuts or type II diabetes.

    these things can be administrative nightmares for a reason. just sayin.

  47. 47
    sacman701 says:

    This story has examples of both malicious compliance and lazy bureaucratic stupidity.
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.c.....8;hpt=Sbin

    The d-bag Monrovia coach who protested is the former. The idiot administrators who ruled in his favor are the latter.

    It reminds me of the George Brett pine tar incident from the 80s, where he got a hit but was initially ruled out because his bat had pine tar going an inch too far up the handle. Eventually common sense prevailed (after a court case).

  48. 48
    JoeK says:

    While dropping my daughter off at her middle school after a Dr appointment this afternoon, I witnessed a kid in the office being dressed down for wearing blue jeans instead of black ones. “Did you read your dress-code handout?” said the busybody administrator. These jeans would have appeared black against any background lighter than Vader’s cloak. No wonder kids hate school.

  49. 49
    Ruckus says:

    @grandpajohn:
    College professor of philosophy –
    “How can you call it common sense when so few seem to have any?”

  50. 50
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Scott:

    I’ll never understand why the hell there aren’t more beaten-into-a-pulp principals out there…

    Because, as per Donald G’s story, the worst offenders have the support of a small but very vocal minority of fReichtard and/or Talibangelical parents & board members whose goals are not about education but about indoctrination. Parents who don’t have the time, money, or social background to follow the machinations behind the local school-board elections, show up at every ‘informational meeting’, or make sure that every one of their kid’s teachers knows from Day One that their precious snowflake will be defended by hordes of ravenous lawyers from any consequences of their own actions or others start with a real disadvantage these days. The exact issue over which ‘malicious compliance’ becomes a news story varies from region to region, but be assured that it’s a problem somewhere in your local school system even if it isn’t a problem in your own particular school.

    Of course there’s a certain amount of “same as it ever was” in action here — humans being pack animals, it has always been easier for the offspring of alpha individuals with access to the best resources to triumph in their age-group clusters over the rest of us betas, much less the gammas and epsilons. But the modern American educational unit is the roccocco product of so years’ refinement of an alloy of parochialism, traditionalism, xenophobia, careerism, and stupidity that it’s approaching some kind of tipping point where it’s impervious to any improvement short of destroying it and starting over. And the problem with that is, of course, that millions of kids don’t have the luxury of suspending their lives while we hammer out something less dysfunctional.

  51. 51
    Donald G says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    Because, as per Donald G’s story, the worst offenders have the support of a small but very vocal minority of fReichtard and/or Talibangelical parents & board members whose goals are not about education but about indoctrination.

    I don’t quite remember putting that in my story, although I do agree with Anne Laurie’s point. There are simply too many authoritarians, would-be authoritarians, and willing enablers of authoritarians who will loudly back anything a strong dictator does, as a quick examination of the comment sections of any news organization telling the public of whatever education-related zero tolerance outrage story of the month will demonstrate.

  52. 52
    Kenneth Almquist says:

    Sorry, mistermix, but you’ve got your facts wrong. Brandon provided a link to the regulations in an earlier comment. In §26.3 we find:

    “FMNV [food of minimal nutritional value] may not be sold or given away to students on school premises by school administrators or staff (principals, coaches, teachers, etc.), students or student groups, parents or parent groups, guest speakers, or any other person, company or organization.”

    Thus, contrary to what you state, the rules cover giving away food as well as selling it. Furthermore, the rules are broad enough to cover food given away by students, not just by “the school.”

    Your statement that, “the rules said that parents could send whatever shitty food they desired to school with their kids,” is misleading because it makes it sound like the candy was provided by the girl’s own parents. The text of the exemption in §26.7 reads:

    “This subchapter does not restrict what parents may provide for their own child’s lunch or snacks. Parents may provide FMNV or candy items for their own child’s consumption, but may not provide restricted items to other children at school.”

    This exemption doesn’t apply to the case at hand because it covers items provided by parent, and in this case the candy was provide to one student to another. If you argue that the student providing the candy was just the delivery agent and that the candy was actually provided by that student’s parent, that doesn’t help because the exemption says that parents can only provide restricted item to their own children and, “may not provide restricted items to other children at school.”

    The regulations don’t discuss enforcement, so they don’t justify the superintendent’s actions. At this distance I’m not in a good position to say what the best way to handle this was, but having the teacher confiscate the candy and letting the matter go at that seems like a reasonable approach. But if the superintendent deserves criticism, he deserves criticism that is based on the facts, not fabrications. There is a big difference between suspending a student based on a non-existent rule and suspending a student as an overreaction to a violation of an actual rule, even if the superintendent is wrong in both cases. I think you’ve made a serious misrepresentation here and should post a correction.

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