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Are big money experiments ruining our schools?

My thoughts on Robert Herbert’s October 6, 2014 essay:

The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.

What do the failed educational reform initiatives critiqued in this essay have in common?

  • A belief that the answers to the challenges we face were clear and simple.
  • They made promises to fix the ills of our schools.
  • That very large sums of money gave you the right to experiment.
  • Projects could proceed without much scrutiny or forethought.
  • Reformers could act with impunity and move on if things didn’t go well.
  • Our children and their education suffered.

Herbert first discusses the Small Schools Initiative.

From 2000 to 2009, well-intentioned Bill Gates underwrote the “notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.”

Two billion dollars and a host of disrupted schools and damaged students later, Gates concluded, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

Gates’ next idea was to define what makes an exemplary teacher and then set that as the standard for all schools. He dismissed the plan when he discovered, “Unfortunately,” he said, “it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”

Next he critiques the Charter School Movement:

Herbert says, “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.”

They didn’t. Academic success -test scores- in charter schools was on a par or worse than the public schools they replaced and the racial disparities they promised to reduce were instead heightened. He concludes, “Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes.”

Herbert’s essay is scathing and unfortunately on point. Frustrated non-educators often think they have the magic solution to fixing schools. Nowhere is this more evident than the rapid growth of charter schools, which turned out to be loose cannons with little financial or academic accountability, rather than the meccas of exemplary practice and inclusiveness as touted. If there were simple answers to reducing dropout rates and consensus on what and how we should teach so all kids achieve at a high level, no matter their circumstances, and if we had an easy to apply formula for what makes “a good teacher,” and surefire ways to create efficient schools with respectful, caring cultures, we’d have glommed on to these solutions long ago. End of discussion.

But teaching and learning isn’t that prescriptive and schools are the most challenging of institutions to run and reform. They are people motivators and life changers., and everyone has a stake in their success. They are accountable for students’ success and this is dependent on the quality of life afforded the families and children we welcome into our classrooms, and the excellent leadership and tireless work of each adult in a child’s life. The reason why we don’t always have the answers is that the needs of our children and the context of the society they live in are not static; so nor are the strategies, resources, and skills critical to meet these needs.

I say all this as both a pragmatist and an eternal optimist when it comes to the tremendous power and inherent goodness of public schools. Great things are already happening and we surely can improve, but not by the temptation of a notion, the stroke of a brush, or the clinking of coins.

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Part Three: Say no to zero-tolerance, and yes to conflict resolution

If zero-tolerance is:

  • Ineffective (one-size fits all and does not teach better behavior)
  • Counterproductive (escalates the school suspension to drop out to prison pipeline)
  • Sometimes even foolish (suspending a first grader for hitting another student)

And since misbehavior and conflicts are:

  • An inevitable part of everyday life in schools, homes, and communities
  • No longer handled with automatic student suspensions and expulsions 

What can we do instead?

  • Teach positive social behavior at all developmental levels
  • Teach basic conflict resolution skills K-12
  • Provide students with constructive options to resolve conflicts before they turn into a crisis
  • Treat a crisis as an opportunity to learn

There is so much we can do if we intentionally weave these approaches into everyday school life. The school culture would be one of prevention based on care and respect, taking responsibility, learning appropriate behavior, and of intervention based on restoring damaged relationships.

What kind of problem behavior are we talking about?
We are concerned with all types of violence (physical force used to violate, damage, or abuse another, and abusive or unjust use of power)on the continuum from subtle/emotional to obvious/physical.

The Violence Continuum- where conflicts escalate from subtle to obvious:

SUBTLE__name-calling__excluding__teasing__embarrassing__taunting__hitting__stealing__ spreading rumors__ bullying__harassing__stalking__threatening with harm__ganging up on__punching__assaulting sexually__targeting for hate crimes__stabbing__shooting__killing__OBVIOUS

What kind of solutions are there?
Conflict resolution prevention and intervention strategies needed to prevent and address violence also fall on a continuum from pro-action/prevention to intervention/resolution.

The Conflict Resolution Continuum where school-wide practices range from prevention to intervention to crisis management:

PREVENTION__ nurturing a positive school climate of caring, respectful relationships where every student is my student__identifying common values and social norms__providing bullying-prevention training, policies, and procedures__compiling student generated behavior guidelines/rules/codes of conduct__teaching, practicing, modeling, applying principles of restorative justice and positive social and conflict resolution skills__using informal conflict resolution(What are you doing? What can you do instead?)__involving families to work with us as a team__developing individual problem-solving plans__counseling/adult mentoring__providing formal peer and adult mediation__assigning in-school suspension__suspending from school__using formal restorative justice programs__expelling from school____arresting__incarcerating__ CRISIS

When a situation escalates in seriousness, conflict mediation and restorative justice can break the cycle of punishment:

inappropriate behavior+punishment+more inappropriate behavior+harsher punishment=

destroyed relationships + damaged lives

Mediation allows each student in a conflict to peacefully work out a solution they can both live with. The impartial mediator-peer or adult-provides a safe and respectful setting where they can express their concerns and feelings, gain insight into how their behavior affects others, and talk to each other in a respectful way to come up with an agreement. Mediation helps students consider the perspectives of others and can prevent the escalation of a conflict. It helps restore broken relationships and to build new ones. Through the mediation process students learn that conflicts are normal, to take responsibility for their part in the conflict, to work together to solve the problem, and that they can peacefully settle conflicts with positive words and actions.

Restorative justice is an opportunity to change negative behavior by focusing on the harm done to the victim-person or community. Its goal is not to punish but to develop empathy and mend relationships. The offender is expected to make things right and to not repeat the behavior in the future. Rather than receiving external punishment handed out by an adult authority, the offender takes ownership of his actions and is actively involved with repairing the damage done. It is an educational approach that aims to teach responsibility, change attitudes, and replace destructive behavior with constructive choices. Formal restorative justice programs are appropriate for secondary students and we also practice restorative justice with young children when we ask them how they can fix the mess they made, including emotional hurt they may have caused others.

Through mediation and restorative justice processes, students learn how their actions are personal choices and that their choices have consequences on people and communities. They learn the invaluable quality of empathy and compassion and how to restore harmony.

Even with strong prevention efforts conflicts and violence of many forms and intensities will still arise. Mediation and restorative justice are not the answer for all offenses. Serious behavior that threatens someone’s physical safety and emotional well-being is still dealt with consistently, swiftly, and assertively. Yet we can address all those other negative behaviors on the middle and lower ends of the violence continuum in more constructive ways that teach, model, and expect better behavior.

 

Part Two: If not zero-tolerance, then what?

If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.

It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.

In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.

Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:

“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)

One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.

Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?

Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:

  • ·        Caring relationships.
  • ·        High expectations.
  • ·        Meaningful participation.
  • ·        Autonomy and sense of self.
  • ·        Sense of meaning and purpose.

(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)

A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”

In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.

To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.

Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline  policies do not work.

In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.

Part Three: Instead of zero-tolerance, use early intervention, mediation and restorative justice.

Part Two: Does school feel welcoming to parents?

So, Trevor is in trouble at school. It’s time to contact his parents.

You want to get the parents to work with you to find a solution, so keep in mind that you are talking about an emotional issue–the welfare of their child. This conversation relies on your communication skills and ability to empathize. Hopefully you have had some of the positive contacts with Trevor’s parents, like those mentioned in Part One, before this problem arose and you have to make the call home. This foundation of positive experiences serves you well when you have to contact parents about unpleasant situations and field their calls and visits when they are unhappy. This helps you go into the situation with the frame of mind and self-confidence that something good will come of your joint efforts.

As the teacher (the professional in the relationship), you can do a lot to make these kinds of phone calls and meetings successful. You have the power to set a positive, respectful climate conducive to problem-solving. Being prepared boosts self-confidence and your chances for success, so take time to prepare for the call or meeting. You are more relaxed and communicate more effectively if you know what you want to say and how to say it in a straightforward, kind way. You are also better situated to actively listen to the parent.

When there is a problem or concern:

  • Wait until you calm down before you call.
  • Choose your words carefully; use non-labeling words that describe the situation instead of disparage the child, especially if you are sending something to the parents in writing, including email.
  • Review what you want to say.
  • Keep in mind that if the problem happened at school, the school has the primary responsibility to solve it, not the parent; you are looking for insight and help.

Initiating the Call or Meeting:

  • Have a paper and pen ready to take notes.
  • Take a minute to put yourself in the parent’s place.
  • Be friendly, polite, and professional and begin the call on a congenial note.
  • Address parents by their correct name (check the records first).
  • Be aware of cultural differences.
  • Share your genuine concern for the child and your wish to work toward a solution.
  • Convey that you want to help through your choice of words and tone of voice.
  • Be honest and tactful. Avoid blaming or making accusations that put the parent on the defensive.
  • Establish a calm, professional climate.

Discussing the Issue:

  • Calmly explain the situation and/or have the child explain it.
  • Let the parent talk and listen carefully to what he or she says in words and between the lines.
  • Jot down ideas during the conversation.
  • Put a realistic, yet encouraging, spin on being able to solve the problem.
  • React calmly to parents if they are upset; keep in control of your own emotions and responses.
  • Invite them to come in to talk if they would like.
  • In person look at body language, facial expressions, and signs of agitation and relaxation.
  • Assure them that you know it is not easy for them to hear their child has a problem.
  • Ask them if they have any thoughts about what happened.
  • Listen to them and stay understanding of their perspective.
  • Confidently share your professional assessment of the issue. Educate the parent to the possibilities, and make suggestions.
  • Remain professional and positive.

Finding a Solution:

  • Share school expectations, services, and policies.
  • Ask about approaches that work at home.
  • Discuss the approach you will use.
  • In a tactful way, discourage suggestions for punishment and other non-productive ideas.
  • Set a time to check back with each other to see how the plan is working.
  • Ask them if they have any more questions.
  • Thank them for their support of the plan and for working with you.
  • Remain professional and positive

Concluding the Contact:

  • Have a three-way meeting with the child to explain how you and his parents are working together to help him make better choices.
  • Send a letter home that summarizes the problem and the solution, and that thanks them for their help (run it by a colleague or principal first).
  • Sign and date it, and keep a copy for yourself.
  • Implement the plan and do what you can to help the child be successful.
  • Provide progress reports to the child and parents.
  • Contact the parents at the agreed upon time to assess how the plan worked, and make changes if needed.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Remain professional and positive.

You need parents and they need you, and your students need both of you. If you work confidently from a place of professional expertise, openness, and empathy, with the belief that parents love their children and ultimately want to do what is best for them, you will make parents feel welcome and valued and you will discover the power of a strong parent/teacher partnership.

Part One: Does school feel welcoming to *parents?

Trevor is in trouble at school.

You are Trevor’s teacher. What is going through your mind when you place the call to Trevor’s parent?
You are Trevor’s parent. What is going through your mind when you get the call from Trevor’s teacher?
You are Trevor. What is going through your mind when your teacher tells you she’ll be calling your parents and when you hear the phone ring?

What did the experience look like from the perspective of each participant? How would perspectives impact each person’s choice of behavior as they deal with the problem? One of the common feelings is fear. Maybe the teacher doesn’t like delivering bad news, especially when she doesn’t know the parent and isn’t sure how he will react. Maybe the call upsets the parent who is also having problems with the child at home and he is worried that you think he is a bad parent.  Maybe…Trevor is scared about being punished both at school and at home,. He knows the home punishment will be physical.

Fear and insecurity are major impediments to developing a relationship. We do not know what the parent’s earlier experience with school has been and how they view schools as an institution and teachers in general. But we can imagine what it may be like for parents to get dressed for a meeting at school, to go into the building, check in at the office, walk down the hall, wait until it is time to go in, walk into the classroom, sit down across from the teacher, and then listen to what she has to say about their child. Many things could be going through the parent’s mind- and your mind- to make you both distrustful and on edge.  This fear and insecurity can manifest in defensiveness with a poor choice of words, harsh language, aggressive body language and facial expressions, raised voices, and, in the extreme, threats of violence, and it interferes with meeting the goal: to help the child take responsibility for his actions and do better in the future.

The Good Before the Bad

Since teachers are responsible for keeping parents informed about their children’s progress, successes, and transgressions, they need excellent communication skills. Trevor’s situation would be more comfortable and productive if the teacher had already experienced a few positive interactions with the parent. Casual and newsy communications help the teacher and the parent become familiar with each other. The interactions reduce those understandable fears and develop a level of trust that lets them work as a team for the child.  The trick is to use the positional power that comes with being the teacher through a lens of empathy and compassion.

The goal then is to do things that set up a foundation of trust that creates a working partnership between teacher and parents, which ultimately benefits the child. Here are some ways to do this.

  • For younger students, make home visits or send them postcards before school starts.
  • Send home a welcome letter that expresses your hopes and expectations for your year together and that invites parents to participate.
  • Use a system of student agenda books or folders sent home daily that includes homework assignments, notices, personal notes, and a place for parents and teachers to communicate with each other.
  • Write or have the children write a class newsletter or Friday note to take home.
  • Design homework assignments that involve parents in a fun, meaningful way.
  • Host a mini open house for your classroom or grade level a couple of times during the year.
  • Use parents as classroom volunteers to help with projects, read with students, chaperone field trips, share their knowledge, talents, and jobs.
  • Invite parents to visit the classroom for small performances such as dramatic presentations of a story or an author’s tea.
  • Welcome parents to parent/teacher conferences by putting chairs and a desk outside the classroom where they can wait.
  • Include some books and school projects for them to look at while they are waiting, and maybe a bowl of hard candy for a dry, nervous mouth. (This works for you, too!)
  • And one of my favorites…the good news contact: make random phone calls and send notes home that celebrate the child’s successes or to just show appreciation for who they are.

Parents are concerned about their children, and so are we; they have a profound responsibility, and so do we; they know a lot about what makes their child tick, and so do we; they want a bright future for their child, and so do we. It is just plain natural that we should work together as a team.

Next

Part Two: Preparing for a successful parent call or meeting.

*Parents is a generic term for those who have custodial responsibility for the child.

 

Back to School: Do you have highly sensitive and introverted students in your classroom?

The odds are great that you do.

And odds are you have a few students in your classroom who are both highly sensitive and introverted.

We know this because experts who study personality types agree that:

Given these odds, it’s to everyone’s benefit that as we prepare for a new school year, we think how we can meet the needs of our highly sensitive and introverted students, so they can feel safe, secure, and have their gifts appreciated.

Let’s start with some ways to recognize these students. They…

  • Deliberate internally (inside their head) before coming to a conclusion.
  • Are slower to raise their hand to answer questions and offer ideas.
  • Take more time to answer when called on.
  • Better show their insight and creativity in solitary activities such as writing, art activities, and individual assignments and projects.
  • Enjoy talking to or playing with one or two people at a time and not a large group.
  • Thrive with quiet alone time.
  • Dislike presenting in front of a group.
  • Might look like they aren’t paying attention or are day-dreaming.
  • Have a strong sense of fairness, and right and wrong, and a want to help others.

Introverted or Shy?

As you read the list, you may find yourself thinking, this sounds like my shy students. It’s important to understand that introversion and sensitivity are not the same as shyness. Shyness is fear and anxiety in social situations. Introverts might seem or are treated as shy because they are quiet while they listen to others, process internally, and then reflect on ideas and possibilities. It’s not surprising that introversion in a typical noisy, busy classroom, where answering questions quickly and moving on is part of the daily pressure to keep instruction on pace, is often misunderstood as shyness or even slowness. But introverts and extroverts are simply wired differently and therefore react differently to stimuli. The brain of an introvert would feel pleasantly stimulated by solitary activities, while the brain of the extrovert would be pleasantly stimulated by a higher level of sensory input. And both personalities need the chance to merely feel and act like themselves without feeling they are lacking.

Are today’s schools biased in favor of extroverts? Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, believes schools are biased against introverts who are usually more quiet, introspective, and sensitive, and, as a result, overpowered by those more extroverted students who love to talk, work in teams, brainstorm, and to think out loud. She wishes teachers could see inside the mind of the sensitive child, the rich world where the creativity, wisdom, empathy, and compassion lie. There are ways you can do this.

Suggestions to respect and accommodate all students –introverted and extroverted – in the classroom.

  • At the beginning of each year, plan activities to get to know your students as unique people, and use this information to develop a feel for where they are on the introvert/extrovert and highly sensitive continuum.
  • Teach and model an acceptance of the diverse learning and communication styles in your classroom.
  • Create areas and times of the day for students to work quietly and by themselves. (Quiet reading and writing time is a welcome break for those who are easily over stimulated.)
  • Cooperative learning isn’t the best approach for every student and for every lesson. Provide a balance of large group, small group, partner, and independent work so both introverted and extroverted students have a learning environment conducive to their thinking and learning style. Build these into your classroom structure so your students come to expect and feel more comfortable in each setting. They can surprise you with their insight if given the right setting to share it with you.
  • Allow students to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways, and adopt a broad definition of classroom participation that goes beyond participation in discussions. One-to-one conferences with the teacher are particularly revealing.
  • Slow down the instructional pace by giving more wait time for students to think before answering and resist the urge to call on the first child to raise his or her hand. Be patient and wait until more students raise their hands.
  • Avoid putting introverted students on the spot to answer questions or read in front of the group.  Let the learning setting create the confidence and opportunity they need.
  • Use a variety of student response strategies, such as think, pair, share where the first step allows time to reflect quietly on their own to gather their thoughts, where step two allows them to try out their ideas with another person, and step three gives them a chance to share with the larger group the ideas they have thoughtfully considered beforehand.
  • Use power writing as a way for students to process before they must answer. (Take three minutes to write all you know about… or, Take five minutes to respond to this quote…)
  • Hold regular class meetings where each person is given the opportunity to speak, one child at a time has the floor during discussions, and the emphasis is on thoughtful solutions to problems and respect for the ideas and perspectives of others.

And work to understand yourself better. Figure out where you are on the introvert/extrovert and sensitivity scale. Then consider how this personality style affects your teaching. What adjustments could you make so all children have a chance to thrive and shine in your classroom?

 

 

 

Hazing: A sugarcoated name for bullying and assault

A Case of Rights vs Rites

We owe it to our students to call it what it is.

Hazing is violent behavior we’d never excuse under its real name: bullying and assault.

Hazing is tacitly permitted and spans the violence continuum from taunting, extortion, and humiliation, to forced substance abuse, and physical and sexual assault. Like all bullying, hazing is an abuse of power and it negatively affects both girls and boys. The problem continues to exist because students are afraid to report it, it flies under the radar of adult scrutiny, or adults are aware of it and do nothing. Looking the other way and this veil of secrecy provide the perfect mix for uncontrolled, destructive behavior under the guise of tradition and good fun.

The traditions and myths surrounding hazing allow it to enjoy a protected place in our culture, not just in our colleges, but also in our public and private elementary and secondary schools. Status as a cultural norm, which considers negative initiation rites benign and even character building, is an imposing barrier. The norm is strengthened even more by student peer pressure and the need for acceptance into the group. The effect is students routinely give up their rights and quietly suffer humiliation and put themselves in emotional and physical danger in exchange for the chance to be included. They don’t see a way out of going along with the initiation rites if they want to be able to take part in the group activity they enjoy. We need to develop and present a new mindset and set up policies that give students a way out.

Who is in charge of eliminating hazing?

Clearly we are, just as we are responsible for maintaining academic standards and establishing a safe school climate. The adult staff is accountable to do no harm and to allow no harm be done to their students. Coaches and advisors for sports teams, music groups, social activities, and clubs have a specific responsibility to keep safe the students under their care by prohibiting and reporting hazing that occurs on or off school property and during or outside of school hours. If a college fraternity chapter can be suspended from campus for life for hazing abuses and members charged with assault, coaches and other adults who allow our young students to be abused and those students who abuse others should face comparable consequences.

The reality is most students want us to protect them from hazing. They don’t want to be victims and many don’t want to be put in the role of victimizer. They want adults to intervene, hazers disciplined, the police called, school leaders who are educated about the underground of initiation rites, and hazing replaced with positive experiences.

Adult culpability for what happens to their students is a wake up call to all elementary and secondary school staff. The Ohio State Education Department takes this responsibility seriously. Their anti-hazing code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. They have placed hazing into the realm of a crime where it belongs.

But students fear nothing will change, and some adults justify hazing, because it is difficult to break down well-established traditions. Yet we have repeatedly proven we can change school climate and school culture. Think of what used to be ingrained in the culture and policies of our schools: students segregated by race, separate schools and classrooms for students with disabilities, different courses and graduation and post graduation expectations for boys and girls, rigid academic tracking from a young age, the use of corporal punishment for discipline. From experience, we know that the most effective way to change the status quo is to get the cooperation of those involved and to take a clear and firm position together.

In the unique case of hazing, school policies, staff, students, and families need to be clear and firm that no emotional or physical violence, couched as a harmless initiation rite for acceptance into a group, regardless of tradition, will be allowed, ignored, or excused. Any anti-bullying policy that does not specifically address hazing is incomplete.

Instead we will:

  • Create a written code of conduct for extra-curricular groups that specifically prohibits any form of hazing. (See Evergreen Colorado HS anti-hazing sample policy below.)
  • Bring parents together to review the code and to enlist their support for its success.
  • Consistently publicize and enforce the anti-hazing policy.
  • Create a confidential hotline so hesitant students and parents can report hazing to the authorities.
  • And as our new mindset, offer positive, respectful adult leadership and collaborative activities to welcome new students into a group.

Sample policy

Evergreen Colorado High School Anti-Hazing Policies

Evergreen High School prohibits recognized groups, organizations, athletic teams or those that attend events or activities sponsored, organized or supported in any way by those organizations, from hazing members, prospective members, or other persons seeking to obtain benefits or services from any of these organizations.

Hazing is any action or activity, with or without consent from a person, whether conducted on or off Evergreen High School property, which is designated to or has the reasonably foreseeable effect of humiliation, denigrating, offending, physically or mentally abusing or exposing to danger a person, as a condition, directly or indirectly, of the person’s consideration for, continuation in, admission to, membership in, participation in activities of, receipt of benefits or services from, an organization or group.

Part 1: An end to zero-tolerance policies and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

A Return to Common Sense and Reason

The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.

Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?

The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.

Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:

  • Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
  • Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
  • Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs. 
  • Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
  • Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
  • Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).

By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.

Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.

It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.

One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All

The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.

Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.

And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”

A Better Way

School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.

These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.

 

 

 

3,500 views this year! Who would have guessed?

Is anyone listening?

Writing is a solitary pursuit and publishing your writing is a leap of faith. Without a direct connection with an audience it is easy to wonder…Do people care about school climate? Do I have something important to say about school violence? Do I offer new insights that help us improve the school experience for students? Do my posts inspire others to reevaluate and take action?

Thanks to this WordPress annual report of my blog activity for 2013, I know the answer is yes. Schoolclimate.com had 3,500 views this year. I had no idea so many people visited my site, especially since I am not the most prolific blogger and seem to average one post a month.

Blogger or Essayist?

Blogger probably isn’t the right word for what I do. I think I am more of an essayist. I don’t maintain my blog site regularly. I am inspired to write when I feel I have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important with a capital I; it could just be a different perspective on an old topic or a new idea I had about something to try. Things that are thought-provoking, enlightening, and disturbing spur my posts. When I do write it is from my deep commitment to keep the conversation going and to generate positive change.

While I enjoyed writing each post, I am especially pleased that my most popular post was New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone. Eliminating sarcasm is a foundation for a school climate that teaches respectful communication and nurtures positive relationships among students and between teachers and students. The topic of sarcasm clearly resonated with readers and that tells us people do care about making our schools the emotionally and physically safe havens we owe our children.

So thanks and happy new year to my regular followers and to all the Internet searchers who found me. You made this a good year for schoolclimate.com. Energized by the stats, I will continue to write about topics that inspire me and I hope, in turn, interest and inspire you. In fact, I already have one brewing to start the new year!

Here is the WordPress.com 2013 annual statistics report for my blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Take back your power. No more “please.”

I used to say please. I don’t anymore.

I have red hair.

I wear glasses.

I have freckles.

Please don’t call me names.

I am short.

I stutter.

I have learning problems.

Please don’t make fun of me.

I don’t speak English well.

I have dark skin.

I am quiet around others.

Please don’t laugh when others taunt me.

I wear wrinkled clothes.

I get free lunch.

I like reading more than sports.

Please don’t try to embarrass me.

I am gay.

I live with my father.

I have few friends.

Please don’t gang up on me.

I used to be your friend.

I like the same boy that you do.

I don’t want to drink or smoke with you.

Please don’t write mean things about me.

I shouldn’t have to say please.

I am a person, like you are. I have feelings, like you do. I have rights, like we all have. You are not better than me.

I shouldn’t have to say anything.

But until it stops, I won’t say please.