Saturday, January 23, 2010

Where is the line????

In my first job as an administrator I was faced with a number of disciplinary issues which were cut and dry expulsion type violations. It was very clear at that school that drugs and weapons were not tolerated. I established off campus learning environments for the students who were expelled and provided them face to face instruction in some topics but primarily these students were served using computer curriculum delivery options. We also had several instances of violent behavior and extremely abusive language towards staff. I think that because these were addressed through expulsion students understood that there was a level of behavior that was expected. It did not solve my problems immediately, but it did reduce each of the five years I held that position. In all I recommended 30 students for expulsion and the board there supported each recommendation. I served all but 1 student with an academic program and while I was there, only 4 of the students withdrew from school or were incarcerated and did not graduate with their peers. Ten of the students did graduate (I was invited to and attended six of their graduation receptions) and the rest had returned to school and were doing better when I left. I rarely raised my voice to a student or a group of students but they understood that I had my expectations and that I did not make empty threats.

In the fall of 2008 I took a job at a larger high school and like any move, struggled with re-establishing my expectations for both students and for staff. The culture in the new building was very similar to that of the previous high school when I started there. The first time I was confronted with a drug possession situation, I followed my previous practice of recommending the student for expulsion with an academic program to be offered at an alternate site. This is where the problem began. It had been the practice of the current school to remove a student possessing drugs on campus from the building and enrolling them at our alternative school. I also serve as the principal for this building. I met with our director of student services and our superintendent to confer with them on the issue. It as decided to follow past practice and enroll the student at the alternative school. This was later followed by a student fainting a punch at a teacher's face in anger. I encouraged the staff member to file assault charges with the police department and she did. We met and a voluntary withdrawl option was offered along with some online coursework. Of course this was eagerly accepted by the child and his father. I was not happy with this decision as it allowed the student to enroll in another school in the area when his father moved into their district. If the student had been expelled it would have given their board a choice as to whether or not to enroll him.
I by no means want to kick kids out of school on a routine basis, but I do believe that when a child chooses to behave in a manner that seriously impacts the overall learning environment they have also chosen to be educated elsewhere.
We are constantly accosted by the media and our constituents for how we run our schools and our students behave. We have test scores posted and are judged by often what is statistically insignificant change caused mainly by comparing one group of students to another. Our graduation rates are also used to judge our school's performance despite the fact that many students do little for themselves to earn the credits necessary to graduate. We are compared to schools in other countries based on average NAEP scores which in our country include students with learning disabilities who are not even given an opportunity to attend schools in the countries we are always being compared to. The terrible thing about all of this is that it has eroded confidence in public schools which provide outstanding services to a great many students. I believe we can make a difference in the lives of our children. I believe all students can learn, but in many cases our beliefs and compassion for students has eroded the line of what is and is not acceptable at school. A safe and orderly environment is key to student learning. I understand that we need to make extreme efforts to keep kids in school, but where is the line that marks when a student's behavior now infringes on another student's opportunity and attempts to learn? Do not teachers and students have a right to attend a school where drugs and weapons are present. Shouldn't the students who have followed the rules get the attention they need which in our current system is often focused on the students who don't make good choices?
Where is the line that marks when a student and parent have had their share of our attention?
In medical facilities there is a profit margin built into the system which allows for facilities to purchase more equipment or staff additional employees when there are excessive needs yet they will still draw the line at some point in terms of how much they can do to save a patient.
I want all kids to learn, but right now I am concerned about loosing some due to trying to save some others.


  1. Life would be great if I were able to give you answers to the above questions. Being of inferior intellect, however, I will avoid that strategy like a weaker boxer in the ring.

    Finding the line makes it a great deal clearer to your students what is acceptable actions for them and what will not be tolerated. Whatever and wherever the line, the vast majority of students want to know and will respect it over time. Keep in mind that part of their "job" as a student is to see where that line is and occasionally test it to be sure it hasn't changed. We all do this. It's normal and natural (think about posted 55 mph max - is that what you drive?), and we know the risks for the most part. Students aren't any different with school rules (or at home for that matter).

    It appears here that the difficulty you are encountering is the difference between what you see as a clear line and what the board (or the history of the district) sees as the line. Some of this is probably genuine concern for the students with the logical belief that more support should enhance the students' positive responses, where you believe strong structure will cause them to rethink their negative actions. Some may be created by the distance between community members and the students in that they may not see the daily interactions that detract from learning and socialization. You see that from the "trenches" and understand the negative impact on others.

    In my personal experience I have been known as a pretty strong disciplinarian that sets the limits, makes that known, and follows through on violations. In all of my administrative assignments, that has been what was desired as one of the top two characteristics (my perception) in the suitable candidates. In other words, I offered what the school was in search of at the time. That worked well for me, and over time, the culture of each of those schools allowed me to be less active as a disciplinarian and more active as a leader. This seems to be the ultimate goal for you, so it would appear that making a good assessment of where the "line" is should serve you well.

    No, I didn't answer "where" at all. Only you, your board, and your community can identify it.

  2. Marshall your statement is truly profound. I agree with you completely. I guess my frustration ultimately lies in the fact that my line may match that of other district leaders.

  3. This is the comment that made me want to respond to your post...
    'I want all kids to learn, but right now I am concerned about loosing some due to trying to save some others'.
    It seems that we do not get a choice as educators to decide when to say enough has been done for one student so that more can be done for five students on the edge. The question also needs to be asked 'Who would we want to make that decision?' It is a catch 22 situation and one that drives every administrator and teacher to doubt the system that is in place. I would like the answer if one is out there.