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Changing Hearts and Minds: Think Globally, Suffer Locally

Posted: 2009-10-14

This commentary is inspired by the discipline policies in the Christina, Delaware School District.

On May 9, 2009, the Board of Education of the Christina, Delaware School District named Dr. Marcia V. Lyles as superintendent. Dr. Lyles, a Fellow in the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy in 2006, was formerly Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning for the New York City Department of Education. She inherited a legalistic district Code of Conduct that is long on student punishments and short on student rights. The Christina Code of Conduct is a prime example of administrators feeling they can overcome complexities with rules.

Two superintendents prior to Dr. Lyles, Joseph Wise, was also a Broad Academy Alumnus.

The user-friendly website of the Christina District makes a great effort to put parents in touch with a Home Access Center, giving parents/caregivers of middle and high school students access to student schedules, attendance, assigned class work, grades, and more. Each high school has a Wellness Center open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., "to help make the best quality health care available in our community more accessible. Because they are located right in our high schools, Wellness Centers help teens overcome many obstacles to receiving good health care - obstacles such as lack of transportation, inconvenient appointment times, or worries about cost and confidentiality." Operated in a partnership the Delaware Division of Public Health, Department of Health and Social Services, the Wellness Centers provide "comprehensive medical and mental health care, treatment and health education, to promote a healthy lifestyle." The Centers do not "not distribute or prescribe birth control."

This user-friendly tone of reaching out to parents is at odds with the legalistic, ominous tone of the 80-page Christina School District Student Code of Conduct: Student Rights and Responsibilities Grades Kindergarten through 12th (School Year 2008-2009) is featured on the district website.

The document comes with a disclaimer which sounds pretty much like a threat: This document is not all-inclusive nor does it restrict the Christina School District and/or Board of Education’s authority to take actions that are appropriate to maintain a safe and orderly educational environment.

A copy of the legalistic Code of Conduct is given to each student upon school entry, and orientation to the Student Code is held in each school at the beginning of the school year. Students and parents/guardians are informed that they "have the responsibility to know and respect the rules as described in this Code of Conduct." Does anyone think a parent of a kindergartner—or an eleventh grader—is going to sit down and read roughly 23,000 words? If you figure an adult reads about 250 words per minute, it would take about an hour an a half to get through this document. And that’s not allowing any time for pauses, thinking about the impact of the rules and punishments. Students and parents might find some consolation in the fact that the Christina School district BOARD OF EDUCATION POLICY MANUAL clocks in at 139 pages long: 38,787 words.

Students and parent/guardian are asked to sign a statement affirming that they have received the Code of Conduct document which describes punishments of everything from failures to be clean and neat to tardiness to forgery to inappropriate sexual behavior to extortion.

The George V. Kirk Middle School in Christina gets very specific about "clean and neat":

  • Sneakers are permitted, but must be black, brown, or navy.

  • No work boots are permitted (Timberlandsâ„¢, for example).

  • No facial piercings are permitted.

  • Corduroy pants are permitted, but must be khaki or navy in color.

  • Cargo pants are not permitted.

  • So does a teacher really have time to check the precise color every student's corduroys? Point of information: Timberlandâ„¢ boots cost $185. Google it with "gangs" and you find that school officials have the dilemma of trying to figure out whether Timberlandsâ„¢ are gang wear or part of retro hip hop fashion. According to The Urban Dictionary, kids refer to them as Tims or Timbs:

  • I'm lacing up my tims, then I am going to kick your azz.

  • Man when we was runnin from the cops my timbos felt like air nikes on me.

  • "Nigga, don't step on my Tim's!"

  • If the average citizen reads a few more entries in the Urban Dictionary he is likely to figure that school officials are right: Today's kids need strict oversight and lots of rules, including the type of shoes they wear. But the Rev. Stephen Young, Sr. has another view. He told The Washington Times that he often wears the uniform of the streets (Timberland boots, cornrows and baggy pants) to draw in younger people to his supportive, self-help sermons. Rev. Young preaches personal respect and responsibility as a counter to gang involvement.

    Admittedly, this is a tough call. Plenty of us feel that teachers should "dress up" to their professionalism rather than to try "dressing down" in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with students. Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus tried spandex.

    In Bogotá, Colombia, mayor Antanas Mockus is credited with turning the city into a social experiment just as that city was choked with violence, lawless traffic, corruption, and gangs of street children who mugged and stole. Mockus described it as "being in charge of a 6.5 million person classroom." In addition to walking the streets dressed in spandex and a cape as SuperCitizen, Mockus asked people to call his office if they found a kind and honest taxi driver; 150 people called and the mayor then organized a meeting with all these good taxi drivers, who advised him about how to improve the behavior of the mean taxi drivers. Mockus hired 20 professional mimes to shadow pedestrians who didn't follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes.

    As an article in the Harvard University Gazette points out, Mockus focused on changing hearts and minds--not through preaching but through artistically creative strategies that employed the power first of individual and community disapproval and then positive action.

    Too often, schools seem to resort to rules rather than to the power of the community, and a rule-based school quickly looks like a precursor to prison: all rules and no nurturing of independence. A student who has no room to be independent can't learn to become responsible.

    Some schools--like those in the Christina district--try to extend their reach to what seems to non-school folk an amazing length. These schools insist they have jurisdiction over a student's out-of-school conduct if said conduct "indicates that the student presents a threat to the health, safety, or welfare of other students and staff. This includes behavior exhibited in the community, non-district schools, other districts, or states." No mention is made of the possibility of escaping the school's eye while traveling in a foreign country.

    The mission statement talks of a "diverse and technologically progressive community of learners" but the emphasis seems to be on the punishments in the conduct code rather than on what students might do to help their community. Included in the conduct code is this injunction: Students should help to keep the bus clean, sanitary and orderly. They must not damage or abuse the equipment. There is no mention of students helping, say, to keep the lavatories clean, sanitary, and orderly. There is no mention that students have a right to or expectation for clean, sanitary, and orderly lavatories—or a responsibility for helping to maintain such a state.

    Delaware State Policy News Release, May 3, 2007
    Arrest Made in Kirk Middle School Incident
    Newark- State Police School Resource Officers have arrested a 7th grade middle school student for preparing a threatening note found by fellow students on Wednesday, May 2, 2007.

    A12-year-old boy was charged with "Terroristic Threatening," and according to the news release, "State Troopers will continue their increased presence in and around the school." The public was informed that "State troopers are assigned to schools as School Resource Officers (SRO's) act under the Triad Principle in which Troopers act as: 1- Law Enforcement Officers 2- Educators and 3- Counselors. Following the 12-year-old's arrest, the Kirk Middle School SRO [in Christina] participated in presentations about conduct "and the ramifications that come with poor decision making."

    The case of LORRAINE G. HARRIS-THOMAS, Plaintiff, v. CHRISTINA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant reached the United States District Court because when a teacher tried to break up a schoolyard scuffle she got hit. Hit, not injured. To quote from the court record:

    The School District's Student Code of Conduct (the "Code") defines fighting as "[a]ggressive, physical conflict between two or more individuals assaulting each other, including wrestling and shoving." (D.I. 16, Exh. A at 37.) Fighting is a Level II violation for students in grades 7 through 12. The consequences of fighting, if it is a student’s first offense, are "(1) parent/guardian notification, (2) suspension for three days, (3) parent/guardian conference, (4) restitution/ restoration if necessary, and (5) referral to mediation." Bryan, the white student, was disciplined for fighting and received a three day suspension.

    The Code defines assault as "[a]n unlawful attack using force upon a person resulting in physical injury.” (D.I. 16, Exh. A at 44.) Assault is a Level III violation for students in grades 7 through 12. The consequences of each offense of assault are "(1) parent/guardian notification, (2) suspension for five days, (3) parent/guardian conference, (4) notification of police; charges may be filed, (5) restitution/restoration, if necessary, (6) recommendation to appropriate counseling or social service agency, (7) possible recommendation for alternative placement or expulsion, and (8) referral to mediation, if appropriate.” (Id.) Because he struck Ms. Noonan, Isaac was disciplined for assault, and received a five day suspension.

    Mr. Nichols is required to report every assault upon a teacher to the Alternative
    Placement Committee (the "APC") in the Christina School District. (D.I. 68, A-32 to A-33.). . . .
    Isaac was assigned to an alternative school program called "New Beginnings" for the remainder of the academic school year (D.I. 6 ¶ 42).2 Pursuant to Delaware House Bill 85, defendant was also required to report the assault to the Delaware State Police and to file assault charges against Isaac. See 69 Del. Laws 120 (1993) ("In any instance where a pupil is found to have committed an assault ... against a school employee ... the principal shall immediately report such incident to the appropriate local police agency and to the superintendent ... [and] ... file the appropriate charge against the pupil ... .").3 After a trial in Family Court, on October 18, 2000, Isaac was adjudicated delinquent of assault and disorderly conduct. (D.I. 68 at A-45.) He was also committed to the "Back on Track" program of the Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services for one year. (D.I. 68 at A-46.)

    In the good old days, the principal would have dealt with both children, but these days more than 17,000 police officers patrol school hallways nationwide, and breaches of school conduct codes become police matters, and a 7th grader winds up in Youth Rehabilitative Services In a January 2009 letter in the New York Times, Donna Lieberman and Melissa Kissoon, respectively, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and youth representative for the Urban Youth Collaborative, wrote, "More than 5,200 inadequately trained and supervised police personnel patrol the city's schools, making the New York New York Police Department's school division larger than all but four police departments in the country." They continue, "Every day, more than 100,000 students must submit to metal detectors, bag searches and sometimes even patdowns to go to school. The media frequently report problems: the 5-year-old handcuffed for throwing a tantrum; the 16-year-old arrested and beaten in a dispute about a cellphone; the principal arrested for trying to protect a student from abuse. But how many more incidents go unreported?" The writers worry that "unchecked policing pushes vulnerable students from classrooms to jail."

    Although no one will deny that violent acts do happen in school, statistics from the U. S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Dept. of Education, the U.S. Dept. of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control Injury Mortality Reports indicate that school is certainly not the place where kids are at greatest risk. The Reason Foundation offers a chart on the probability that any school age child will die this year:

    The probability that any school age child* will die this year

    Any cause
    1 in 3,000

    A traffic accident
    1 in 8,000

    Homicide, away from school
    1 in 21,000

    Suicide, away from school
    1 in 28,000

    1 in 33,000

    Accidental drowning
    1 in 73,000

    Heart disease
    1 in 79,000

    A firearm accident
    1 in 200,000

    Pneumonia or influenza
    1 in 250,000

    Bronchitis, emphysema, or asthma
    1 in 260,000

    Cerebro-vascular disease
    1 in 390,000

    Accidental fall
    1 in 390,000

    1 in 420,000

    An act of nature, including lightning
    1 in 780,000

    1 in 850,000

    1 in 1,300,000

    Any adverse effect of medical care
    1 in 1,300,000

    Homicide at school

    1 in 1,700,000

    *School age is here defined as 5 to 19 years of age.

    In the opening of his New York Times Sunday Book Review cover review, Walter Kirn writes, "Think globally, suffer locally." This could be the moral of Methland, Nick Reding's unnerving investigative account of two gruesome years in the life of Oelwein, Iowa, a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself, in forces almost too great to comprehend and too pitiless to bear.

    The mayor and the county prosecutor and a few others fought back and reclaimed the town. At the core of their reclamation efforts they put new sidewalks, street lights, a sewage system, and a new library.

    Yes, a library.

    They didn't hire more police; they built a library. Our schools might take note.

    After Uproar on Suspension, District Will Rewrite Rules

    By Ian Urbina, The New York Times, October 14, 2009

    School officials in Newark, Del., said Tuesday that they would revise the district’s code of conduct to exempt kindergarteners and first graders from some of its automatic and harsher punishments.

    It’s a Fork, It’s a Spoon, It’s a ... Weapon? (October 12, 2009)

    The decision came after a first grader, Zachary Christie, 6, was suspended and ordered to the district’s alternative school for troubled youth because he took to school a camping utensil that included a small fold-out knife.

    School district officials also said they would reinstate Zachary to his school and remove the suspension from his record. And they asked his mother to review and possibly help rewrite the conduct code.

    The utensil that Zachary took to school was considered a "dangerous instrument" under the zero-tolerance policy of the district, the Christina School District, and officials had said they were forced to act, regardless of Zachary's age or intent.

    The case prompted an angry reaction from parents because several other students had been expelled or suspended in the past several years for similar offenses, including an elementary school student who was expelled for a year after she took a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it.

    The school board passed an amendment creating a separate category of rules for students in kindergarten and first grade.

    If these students engage in what is known as a Level III offense for the first time, they will now face three to five days out-of-school suspension and referral to school-based counseling, rather than being sent to the local reform school, as is now the case.

    Level III offenses include possession of a "dangerous instrument," including knives under three inches in length, and more serious offenses like assault, arson or drug possession.

    Some school board members said the amendment did not go far enough in revising the code.

    "We are doing this because we got egg on our face, but it doesn't address the underlying issues with zero-tolerance rules,” said John M. Young, who opposed the original decision to send Zachary to the district’s reform program. "What if next time the case involves a second grader? That student will run into the same exact problems that Zachary did."

    Mr. Young said he believed the school board should immediately reverse the decision concerning Zachary's punishment and apologize to his family. It should then begin redrafting the entire code of conduct so it gives school officials more discretion, he said.

    Zachary’s mother, Debbie Christie, agreed.

    "I think it's a start, but I don't know if it goes far enough," Ms. Christie said.

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