June 14, 2007

Please read this if you’re a parent who’s concerned about safety in Madison schools, and who wants to do something about it.

Posted in Discipline code, School policy, Student safety, Student violence at 11:56 am by madisonparent

[The following comment to the School Information System post on Kronenberg in the MMSD is reprinted here by permission of the author.]

This WSJ article could not have been more timely. We had a meeting with some staff and parents at our school, Orchard Ridge Elementary, that same evening. Both before and after, I’ve talked with parents at other schools who all agree that the article was horribly misleading – that discipline continues to be an enormous problem and is getting worse. And that this discretionary, overly soft, coddle-the-perpetrator “Above the Line” program is completely ineffective.

The overall tenor of our meeting at ORE last night was rather disappointing. We only invited a small handful of parents and staff to try to keep the discussion positive and manageable. But the bottom line was typical: Many parents left feeling like the staff (principal, school social worker, school psych and two teachers) listened but did not even begin to hear. They nod politely but don’t offer feedback. They stay mum when we bring up an idea that they have no intention of initiating but don’t offer any alternatives of their own.

When we asked for specific numbers of incidents this year compared to previous years at our school and across other elementary schools, we weren’t given any. We were just told the percentages from 2005 and 2006 of suspensions and that we were in line with those numbers this year. When we asked about non-suspension figures (data on anything that is not “above the line” behavior, the staff mumbled and distracted or stayed silent. There were comments that the ‘referral’ form (incident record) filled out for such things aren’t computerized yet so it’s all in transition, and we were told not all teachers fill out the forms all the time, etc. (A teacher today told me she didn’t even know they were SUPPOSED to fill out the forms this year; she thought they’d stopped doing that at our school.)

We were given the district mantra on the Above the Line concept – with a huge emphasis on how, with the incredible mobility the schools see (kids moving from one to another throughout the year, etc.), it’s important to have a program like this that offers them the consistency from school to school. But many of us parents pointed out that there’s no consistency from classroom to classroom or incident to incident, much less school to school. One teacher may be more sympathetic than another, or one may have a higher tolerance level than another. So what would pass for back-talk and a consequence with one teacher may not yield any reaction from another, because the teachers are given discretion. And when the principal says that teachers don’t fill out the referral forms all the time, it’s clear that there’s no consistency.

Parents brought to the table concerns with consistency (and how seriously the staff takes discipline) with several incidents, for example: One kid chokes another on the playground and doesn’t have to apologize, nor is he suspended. Ditto with a kid who apparently kicked a teacher in the chest. But we’re not told WHY these kids were not reprimanded, only that things happen behind the scenes that we don’t see. One kid shoves another kid, and the parents are called and told staff will sit down with the two kids and talk to them together, but it never happens. The situation – from victim’s perspective – is just ignored.

When we explained to the staff that – especially when it comes to kids – perception IS reality, and the kids do not perceive that typical bad stuff yields consequences, then we’re just told that we should tell the kids there ARE consequences. But our kids tell us that there aren’t, and they report fewer and fewer problems because “nothing’s going to happen anyway,” and because they’re concerned with retribution from the kid in question.

When we asked what we can do to encourage more engagement with parents next year – letting us know via letter if an incident occurs in front of a group of kids or on the playground, rather than just between two kids more privately – the staff wavered between privacy policy issues and suggesting that we should just let them handle it and not worry about it. I mentioned that I’d had a couple teachers tell me that if we believe half of what our kids say about school, then the teachers will believe half of what the kids say about home – explaining that kids are prone to huge exaggeration. So I suggested that – using that logic – if our kids tell us about an incident at school, wouldn’t the staff rather that the parents hear the CORRECT version instead of one that may have made its way through the kiddie rumor mill? No staff member replied to that.

We all agreed as parents that, next year when it comes to discipline, we really want that notification to happen. And we want the staff to insist on some measure of contrition on the part of the perpetrator — whether admitting bad behavior in front of the class and asking to be reinstated to the “tribe” (if the class uses that community building term, though only one classroom in our school does), or apologizing one-on-one to the victim and allowing the victim to say how the action felt, or writing a note to a parent chaperone to whom a kid mouthed off on a field trip (“You can’t tell me what to do!”).

We were all happily agreeing that this was a much-needed and much-lacking component of the discipline process – instilling a sense of responsibility and accountability – and suddenly we were feeling that the meeting was getting really productive. But then I asked, rather pointedly, whether *the principal and staff* were buying in to this element and would enforce it next year, and I was met with several awkward moments of silence. Finally, “It’s something to look at and discuss” – which, in my experience with MMSD, pretty much means that it doesn’t fit their idea of how the program works, so they’ll ignore it, thank you very much. No one on staff came out and said that they would or wouldn’t do this, and no one offered any ideas of how to accomplish these goals in a different way that might be more in keeping with the program. More “listening but not hearing.”

One thing we want to look at is: Just what IS the district’s privacy policy? I’ve searched for it on the MMSD Web site, and I’ve found references to it, but I don’t see it spelled out anywhere. I’m guessing that the district (or at least my school’s administration) has gone overboard in their interpretation of it. Making sure a child’s disciplinary history doesn’t follow him on his “permanent record” (remember when we were all worried about that! ) or not revealing the income status of a child is totally different than not telling parents that an incident has occurred and how it has been dealt with.

Only the victim’s parents need to know who the perpetrator is, I think, and we’re not even told that. (What if they’re on the same soccer team together or go to after-school care together? Wouldn’t it be wise for parents to know WHO so they can better protect their child outside the school, too?)

But the rest of the witnesses’ parents (be they on the playground or in a classroom) surely ought to be told that “one kid held a baseball bat over his head and was poised to strike another child. Two classmates pulled the bat away, and the child was sent to the principal and has been suspended for three days.”

How is that violating a privacy law? Wouldn’t it reassure parents to know that the school takes issues seriously and deals with them appropriately?

The staff at the meeting said they believed discipline is not the issue we think it is – it’s no worse than in previous years. They don’t believe the kids think so, either, despite what we’re telling them. One parent asked pointedly: “So why do you think we’re all HERE tonight?” The staff member just said, “I really don’t know.” That same staff member also said, “You know, you each can call me or the principal whenever you want. We don’t have to have a big old meeting for things like this.” Which was just another sign that they don’t get it. We all HAVE talked with staff members individually, and nothing has changed. So now we’re looking at it as a group.

At one point, when the staff was talking about how ‘respect’ would be the primary component of the social message at ORE next year, I pointed out that the district PowerPoint slides they showed us spoke a lot about being respectful to peers and staff, but not to people in general. Then the school psych said something about teaching the kids “which adults to respect.” And I said, “WHICH adults? Shouldn’t we be teaching kids to respect ALL adults?” Sure, I know we need to talk about good-touch/bad-touch and child enticements and the bad guys that are out there. But if there’s an adult on the school grounds whom a student feels he/she should NOT respect, then I want the staff to get that adult the heck off the campus!

I just don’t understand why some of the staff at my school (and the district, too? I don’t know yet…) seems to feel that the parents are enemies and/or that we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about stuff that goes on at school. That’s certainly the attitude we’ve been confronted with, time after time after time, whether the issue is helping kids succeed academically or dealing with discipline or anything in between.

My husband is the one who organized this discipline meeting (I wanted a fresh voice to head this up, instead of just “Diane, that instigating PTO president!”), and we’ll talk to the parents who were there about what step we should take next and what our expectations are. I feel certain that we need to pull in school board members ASAP. If they’re going to be hiring a new superintendent soon, then they need to know how strongly parents feel about choosing someone who will provide a much stronger leadership position when it comes to discipline and engagement of parents in solutions. Because the silence, the double-talk, and hiding behind regulations simply isn’t acceptable.

If this district is committed to differentiation instead of skills-grouping of children in elementary and middle schools, and if they continue to want to water down the honors offerings in high school, then they need to be committed to making sure that the learning environment is the best it can possibly be. It’s hard enough for teachers to differentiate curriculum across so many levels when the kids are angels. It’s next to impossible when several of the kids are consistently unruly.

If any of you have had positive results in going from poor discipline to better at your schools, I’d love to hear your success stories [(DianeBH -at- sbcglobal.net)] – because we’re committed to making a positive change, not just whining.

If any of you are (or know) PTO presidents and would like to be on a listserv of current/former PTO presidents who want to work together as a single, common voice (the better to be heard at the district!), please let me know. I vacillate between telling myself, “I’m not an educator! This is not my job!” and “Suck it up, Diane! You have to go out there and be an advocate for your kids.” Looks like the latter voice is winning these days. 🙂

– Diane Harrington

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