This week in my Facebook feed I found an article that many of my friends and former colleagues were commenting on. The article was titled “School Tragedy Could be a Ticking Time Bomb Right Here.” It was written as an opinion piece by J.D Booth on January 12, 2013. At first when I read it I thought it was a recent piece but when I went back and reread it I found it was 5 years old. Perhaps it was a repost, but the comments in the feed were recent.
The author referenced some “unofficial research he had done over Christmas holidays with students, parents and teachers. He goes on to say he has asked about “bad kids”, violence and punishment.
He then goes on to say that teachers refuse to send students to the office because there is no discipline there. He highlights interactions with parents in which teachers are yelled at, and disrespected. He talks about the violence between students and from student to teacher.
He suggests that school administration start suspending students and send them home for their parents to deal with and that if students are violent or threaten teachers or principals that they are removed from the school or at least the teacher’s classroom permanently. He advocates for explusion, police involvement and stronger discipline in schools in an effort to combat the problem.
Interesting 5 years later we are still struggling with these same issues in schools.
I know that my colleagues who are working as administrators wish it was as simple as Mr. Booth feels it is, but the reality is that it is NOT. There are many mitigating factors that affect what happens in regards to discipline, consequences and student plans for support.
What is the role of parents? We absolutely can send students home but before we do that we have to meet or speak with parents. What does that look like for the administrator? CONFLICT! Parents respond by making excuses, defending their child’s actions, blaming the teacher, blaming other students or suggest it is because their child was tired, hungry or stressed. They scream, yell, swear and even threaten physical violence. As an administrator I have been threatened with legal action, public humiliation or slander in the media including social media, physical violence, swearing, and intimidation. As administrator it is VERY rare that you will have parents who support a decision to suspend or a consequence for a behavior. Many parent meetings are confrontational and leave administrators feeling defeated and vulnerable. Parents will often go home and ruminate and consult with other parents at the arena, dance, swim practice, grocery store or anywhere in the community someone will listen. They often return the next day with a whole new round of arguments, alternatives and negotiations.
The other piece is that suspension rarely changes behavior. It does give the other students and teachers a break from the child but when the child returns often the behaviour is the same. What does the child do while they are home? What is the parent responsibility? How do they support student reflection? What many administrators find is that children are left to their own devices at home while the parents go to work. Students sleep in, play video games, watch TV, go shopping, go out for lunch travel with parents, visit grandparents, aunts, uncles etc. What should they be doing? Who makes that decision? What happens if parents do not support the student reflection or the decision to suspend?
What is the role of the police? As administrators the answer is…. it depends. Some of my colleagues have positive responses from the police and do find that they will come to the school. The reality is that the police cannot charge students who are under 12 and are hesitant to do so even if they are 12. They usually refer it back to the school to manage and determine the appropriate consequence. The flip side of that coin is the lack of response from police. I have called for support and been told they are too busy or unavailable or that we will have to wait. There have been times I have waited days for the police to respond to a fight, trespassing, domestic violence, sexual assault etc. This really serves to undermine our authority as administrators when we tell parents we have called police and they have not responded. It is almost like parents get their thinking reinforced “See I told you so, they do not think it is important either.” To be clear this is not a reflection of the police. They have the same struggles that we do….time, funding, prioritizing etc. They want to help but they often find themselves in situations where they have to make hard decisions with the resources that they have at their disposal.
Child Protection and Mental Health Supports
What about the parents who refuse to pick up the child when they are suspended? Refuse to get help and support? Continue to neglect the needs of their child? What do administrators do about these issues? The reality of these situations is that administrators have very little recourse. We have no authority to force parents to access mental health care for their children. We can suggest it, make recommendations, create support plans that include it, make referrals, fill out paperwork, attend doctor appointments and consult with health care professionals but parents do NOT have to follow through. What about when they do not follow through what do we do? Create a crisis. We get into a loop of suspensions so that parents are forced to take action. They problem is that crisis services are VERY limited and waiting lists for mental health care are long. The system is very tricky for parents to navigate and services are limited. Parents are often asked to publicly share the most intimate details of their lives around a table with many professionals and feel intimidated and inadequate. They get discouraged, embarrassed, intimidated and fail to follow up.
Child Protection services like CAS and Family and Children’s Services are so overworked, understaffed and under resourced that they often only attend to the most severe cases. They are required to provide copious case notes, examples, and patterns of abuse it often takes years of building a case before supervision orders can be mandated. Even with these supervision orders it is rare to have students removed from their homes and placed in foster care. I often found myself frustrated as it seemed that the level of intervention for animal cruelty and abuse was much lower than that of the children in our care. I have worked with countless children who have suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of the parents and caregivers. I have begged for help and support and provided documentation and evidence of abuse only to be told that there was nothing that could be done. It is heartbreaking and demoralizing. You feel as though you have failed the children in which you are there to protect and serve.
So Mr. Booth, it is not just as simple as stronger discipline, police involvement and explusion. Phone calls to the school board demanding a change are not the answer. It is much more complicated than that. There are MANY MANY mitigating factors that must be considered before a solution to the problem can be achieved. This problem deserves attention but is going to take considerable effort and creativity to develop a solution to the layers of complexity that surround this issue.
The time is now but the question that still remains is how?