Sunday, September 24, 2006

Teaching the Wrong Lessons

Education Wonks has dug up another article that illustrates one of the problems we face in public education.

SOUTH BOARDMAN — A school custodian was fired "on the spot" and may face criminal assault charges after he became involved in a physical altercation with a 13-year-old male middle school student."We take the safety of our students very seriously and we will not condone or accept this type of behavior," said Forest Area Community Schools Superintendent Matt Cairy. "The physical altercation was very avoidable; this was not a case of self-defense."

The altercation took place Tuesday night as four middle school students allegedly harassed the custodian while he worked in the middle school during a basketball game in the adjoining high school gym, the Kalkaska County Sheriff's Department reported."The kids threw pop on a carpet and then they kept sneaking up and turning his vacuum off and apparently he just lost it," Kalkaska Undersheriff Bruce Gualtiere said. "He saw them hiding in the bushes and he went and got them. It looks like he punched and kicked (the student)."

The student received some scrapes, and his mother filed a complaint with the
sheriff's department.Sheriff's officials completed their investigation and will be requesting an arrest warrant for simple assault, a misdemeanor, from the prosecuting attorney's office.Cairy said the students involved were disciplined for their roles in the altercation."We have high expectations for our students, and any time there is inappropriate behavior toward faculty or staff there is discipline involved," he said. He declined to detail the discipline.

Neither the sheriff's department nor Cairy would release the names of those involved until the suspect is arraigned. Cairy said the custodian had worked for the school less than a year.

Ed Wonks says that we can't condone the response to the harassment by the custodian, and I agree. But I have worked in schools for 32 years, and I've learned a lot. I hate to think about how I might have reacted in a situation like this when I was a young teacher. Ed Wonk also suggests that the students should be suspended or expelled, and I agree again, but this points out a very real problem in public education.

If these students are suspended, it will probably be for about three days, and I'll bet that these kids will view it as a vacation. The only action that could be effective for students who would pull such a stunt would be the threat of outright expulsion. I don't think this incident, by itself, justifies expulsion, but combined with one or two other incidents, it might. But no matter what else these kids have done, that can't happen, because they have a right to an education. That, more than anything else, is damaging public education at the middle school and high school levels.

Before I go on, I should say that it's possible that this incident was not indicative of the normal behavior for these particular students. It's possible that they are usually models of good behavior, and this was just a fluke. But I doubt it. I'm guessing that this behavior was typical for these kids, because I've seen this type of thing so often before.

One of the problems with "the right to an education" is that kids like these learn to play the system so well. The worse kids behave in public schools, the more they learn the lesson that consequences aren't going to be very severe. Kids like these know that if the adult they are harassing over-reacts, he will be the one who will be in trouble. Twice, during my first two years at Warroad, I had students do something blatantly wrong, and then turn to me and say, "If you touch me, I'll sue you." It was no accident that this happened during my early years here, because I was new, and kids like these know that new teachers are the least likely to be backed by administration and the community. I doubt that it was any accident that the students involved in this incident picked a custodian who had been there for less than a year.

Although this incident did not take place in a classroom, the actions of students who do things like this usually reflect the same attitudes that they bring with them into their classrooms. Separate students like these from each other and it's possible that they won't act too badly, but put two or three of them together, and they can make it impossible for anyone to learn. The effect of truly disruptive kids on the overall behavior of a school and the learning that takes place is immeasurable.

I'm sure that many view me as a crotchety old man, and are appalled by my lack of concern for "troubled students." But look at what we are teaching these kids. We are teaching them that the consequences for bad behavior are relatively mild. We are teaching them that the system can be played like a violin, and believe me, they are learning how to play it. We are also teaching them how to play the role of victim. Are we serving them well by doing this?

I know there are teachers who are willing to be much more tolerant of disruptive students than I am because they honestly believe they can reach them, and I know there are programs to help troubled students. I have said this before, and I'll say it again: those teachers and those programs would have a greater chance of succeeding for a greater number of students if they faced a realistic possibility of getting kicked out for consistently bad behavior.

Behavior and learning in public middle schools and high schools would improve greatly if teachers were able to remove disruptive students and if principals could expel them without having to face thousands of dollars in lawyer and court costs. Although the feeling is by no means unanimous, I know that many teachers agree with me about this. But we have been much too quiet. When it comes to fighting for our rights in dealing with administrators, we have been fearless. But when it comes to this issue, which is crucial to providing a safe and positive learning environment for the students in our classrooms, we have been gutless.


Blogger History Dude aka Mr. D said...

Fired on the spot? What ever happened to due process??? Some of theses kids know how to work the system so well that they know they can be judge, jury and executioner.

9/24/2006 7:37 PM  
Blogger rory said...

Quite frankly I hope the custodian beat the shit out of the student first. Having said that, he should still be fired. Adults working in a school system need to have thick skin and be able to be above the antics of these delinquents.

I know that I have a “zero” acceptance policy with my children when it comes to misbehavior and disrespect in the classroom. What I would like to see is a system where the punishment for misbehavior is shared by the parents for chronic problems. For example have the parents of a habitually disrespectful child have to sit in the classroom. This of course would require a judicial system that better supports the schools, but I think it would reinforce values in the school system.

9/25/2006 8:19 AM  
Anonymous Steven said...

I don't think that I would go that far, Rory. You may change your mind when your children get older, especially your son. There are some children that just don't respond to normal discipline, and when these children become teenagers there may be little the parents can do about it. I had a brother like this. These kids know how to work their parents just like they know how to work the teachers and principals. Some even know that they can complain about the parent to social services and social services is generally inclined to believe the child. Several years ago one of the police officers in our town told me that he was afraid of his 16 year old son. A police officer afraid of his 16 year old son! He was relieved when his son left home, because he and his wife finally felt safe.

9/25/2006 5:38 PM  
Anonymous Steven said...

What I forgot to say is that in those types of situations it would be wrong to punish a parent that is doing the best job they can. The punishment should fall squarely on the child.

9/25/2006 5:43 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

There are some children who are genuinely disturbed. But usually it's that they learned to have no respect from their parents. I'd bet that most of the kids who act up like this are getting neglected or hit at home, and they know they can take it out on the school personnel. This is what's so ironic about the parents--they want to be able to hit their child, but they don't want anybody else to.

9/25/2006 9:45 PM  
Blogger rory said...

Steven, you bring up some good points, but I have the feeling that if something was done at a younger age, the kids would be better behaved when in those difficult high school days. There should be some sort of help available for truly bad kids, but at least an attempt to hold parents responsible is still warranted.

9/26/2006 5:38 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I think all of you are making some good points. When Rory says that he has a "no tolerance" policy for his kids when it comes to misbehavior and disrespect in the classroom, I think that will pay dividends for him later on. Tough-love is effective. But I also think Steven has a point. In most cases, the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree, but I've seen some parents of misbehaving and disrespectful kids who seem to be doing everything they can, and are more frustrated than any of their kids' teachers. And Elizabeth is also right. There are times when I've had two or three siblings who are so messed up that I have to ask, "What the heck is going on in that home?"

9/26/2006 3:26 PM  
Anonymous Steven said...


Sorry about the Viking's loss, but they came very close to beating one of the best teams in the NFL. The power rankings have the Bears ranked #4 and the Vikings #10. I didn't bother to look where the Lions and Packers were ranked.

9/26/2006 5:43 PM  
Blogger liusia said...

The district I grew up in had an "alterative" public school that were scared as hell of being sent to. It was fairly effective as a behavioral management ultimatum. I've often wondered why more school districts don't go that route...I supposed it's quite expensive.

9/27/2006 12:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a parent in this district I have to say to fire the janitor was only 1 of a list of things Mr. Cairy has done. He has denied a 10 yr old boy with Epilepsy and his medicine (Diastat Valum Given Rectally) a safe way to get to and from school ( Would be administered on a public school bus in front of 50-60 kids) and then told the parent " To keep her mouth shut about it". Has threatened the jobs of many of the staff. Has bad mouth the entire community for voting no on the bond proposal on May 8 2007. The list goes on and on.

Oh yes and the janitor was fired because Mr. Cairy was supposed to be the administrator at the school during the sporting event. He was at his house and the athletic director had to call him to come and take care of the kids and the janitor there were no administrators at the school after 8:15 that night.

5/30/2007 6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He should have been given a raise. There are more that need a good ass kicking. The parents are total assholes too. My kid would have caught hell from me, then he would have to apologize to the custodian. Its not hard to understand why things are so screwed up.

2/21/2010 9:11 AM  

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