Friday, December 01, 2006

Discipline Policy Too Strict? Seems Not

Last July, I wrote a column that hit a nerve with our illustrious school board and certain members of our community whose teenage boys vandalized the high school but then managed to dodge the punishment of expulsion. That punishment was in keeping with school district policy and was supported by the high school principal as well as the interim superintendent and others. In that column, I voiced my opinion of what went down in that situation: The parent of one of those boys is an influential and wealthy developer here in Windsor, and he used his clout and power to see to it that his son did not have to (fairly) pay for his crime. And of course, he generously used that same clout to give the other boys the same treatment because otherwise, what would that look like? It was ugly. It was unjust. It was corrupt. And I still maintain that this is what happened.

School board member Cathy Norris wrote a letter to the Windsor Beacon in response to my column (glad to know she's reading!), singing the praises of our present school board, upon which sits no member I can remember actually being elected. After my column was published, my editor called, telling me he was "really taking some heat" for my column, which he read and edited before publishing. He made it clear that he did not agree with my stance (big shocker), that I had to understand that the district discipline policies were written post-9/11, and so were considered too strict and reactionary by some. I heard this argument from one other person, someone near and dear to the situation. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now. And a recent Beacon article seems to reinforce my doubts.

The 11/25 article, titled "Severity of Discipline Policy Questioned" and written by Megs Burd, indicated that a task force met with community members, educators, and parents, and "found many positive things in the district's policies as well as some that needed some strengthening." What "strengthening" means, I can't say. Burd didn't elaborate. Superintendent Karen Trusler was quoted as saying, "They do affirm our present policies. We have policies in place that are good for our kids."

Burd's article goes on to state that the task force felt "certain policies or disciplinary measures could be firmed up." Again, who knows what "firmed up" means. Members also support the superintendent's discretion in dealing with individual cases. Our interim superintendent did just that with the vandalism case, and she supported the original sentence of expulsion. Odd then, don't you think, that those boys are back in school? What's the point of case-by-case consideration if the superintendent doesn't have the final say?

What I noticed completely lacking in the article is any reference to our discipline policies being too strict or reactionary. Since the last board meeting, three expulsion cases have occurred. Did any of those kids' parents manage (or even try?) to get their students' punishment revoked? Or did they comprehend that when their kid breaks a rule for which there is a clear and formally stated consequence, said consequence is meted out, regardless of who they are? I like to think that in this age of permissiveness, lazy parenting, and privileged kids who have an overblown sense of entitlement that comes directly from their own folks, there are still adults in positions of authority who believe that rules are rules and should be followed. Period. No excuses, no exceptions.

Alas, I don't see any of those adults on this school board. Members are concerned, rather, about insuring those expelled students get some form of education. For crying out loud, where the hell does this end? Isn't there already a school in Greeley for expelled students to attend? Why is our district spending time and money on researching alternatives? This is like sending a child to her room but going to great pains to be sure that rooms has cable TV, a stocked fridge, and all the toys she could want. Perhaps knowledgeable professionals could be on hand to act as educational consultants, but give the responsibility of the legwork to the parents of these students who gave up their right to attend our schools when they made bad choices.

But since our district can't seem to manage enforcing the policies as they are clearly stated in the handbook, I guess it's too much to expect them to take a hardline approach to anything else. Discipline among students at the middle and high school levels is a serious problem in Windsor. But what do teachers and educators have to rely on when they can't even have the security of knowing their administration backs them up? How can they discipline rowdy, disrespectful, rule-breaking, foul-mouthed, apathetic, violent students when their superiors don't have their backs? That kind of support should be a given, yet such is not the case in Windsor RE-4. And until we get some people sitting on that board who aren't afraid to incur the wrath of certain parents or community members in the name of justice and fair play, it ain't ever gonna be how things work around here.

I don't think the problem lies in the severity of our discipline policies, and given that the task force affirms them, I'd say I'm not alone in my assessment. The problem lies in having a school board that refuses to consistently enforce those policies for everyone, but chooses instead to let someone outside the realm of school authority dictate what will happen. The problem lies in not realizing the limits of an entity's responsibility. Expel a kid and then give him his own special classroom? Come on.

This district needs some real leadership, the kind that lays down the law and then abides by it. What are policies for if not enforcement? The Beacon hails the school board for scrutinizing its discipline policies; I'd join in the accolades if I believed any real change would come of such an effort. But I think we're going to see more of the same. And down the road, lame excuses will be made, policies won't be followed, and we'll still hear unending (and justified) complaints of discipline issues from our teachers.

I called it right back in July.