Teachers' plaints lead union to study discipline

January 17, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl Staff Writer

Teachers' complaints that administrators don't back their decisions on how to discipline students have prompted the Harford teachers union to investigate.

The union, the Harford County Education Association, is forming a committee to look into discipline at the county's 46 schools.

"There is a perception, at least among some teachers, that their decisions are not being backed up by administrators," said John Holzworth, a social studies teacher at Fallston High School.

The School Discipline Task Force will collect information about school disciplinary procedures, said Mr. Holzworth, who has taught for 27 years. He said he decided to form the committee because so many teachers complained about a lack of support from principals and assistant principals.

"The task force is a way to take a snapshot of disciplinary situations throughout the county and identify problem schools," Mr. Holzworth said. "We can't rely on anecdotal information."

The committee will circulate questionaries and ask teachers to report any problems, he said.

Jean R. Thomas, president of the union, said teachers are expected to solve discipline problems in the classroom. "Sending a student to the office is seen as a last resort and sometimes a failure on the part of the teacher," she said.

Before sending an unruly child to the principal, a teacher must fill out a form -- an undue burden on busy teachers, in Mrs. Thomas' view.

Teachers also are expected to contact parents before referring a child to administrators. "You know what happens when you call the parent? They tell you their child would never do that. Or they tell you they can't control their child either," Mrs. Thomas said.

Teachers are expected to discipline their students, said school system spokesman Al Seymour. But the school system will back a teacher's decision, he said.

"When students are referred to the office, it is taken very seriously. Oftentimes, what happens is a meeting between the child, parent and teacher to find ways to solve the problem," he said.

"There is probably some truth in what teachers are saying," said George Lisby, immediate past president of the school board. "Kids today live in a different sort of world. The values and respect children were taught years ago is not taught today to the same extent."

Mr. Lisby, who taught for 38 years, 17 of them in Harford County, said children probably don't fear a trip to the principal as much as they did a generation ago. The county did away with corporal punishment about four years ago, when Ray R. Keech became superintendent.

Disciplining students is complicated because there is such a wide range of infractions, he said.

And teachers and administrators have a lot of leeway in selecting punishments. A teacher could ask the student to stay late, or the principal could suspend a student for as many as five days. The superintendent can make long-term suspensions or expulsions.

Parents and students can appeal the superintendent's decision

to the school board and then to the Maryland State Department of Education.

But many teachers say school administrators do not treat infractions seriously. A student at one high school swore at the teacher in front of a class. The student, referred to the principal, got a one-day detention, infuriating teachers, who viewed the punishment as a slap on the wrist, Mr. Holzworth said.

"Once a teacher refers a student to the office, what happens to that student is out of the teacher's hands," he said. "Decisions are then made by the administrators, the principal or assistant principals.

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