Educator strikes chord with call for discipline

December 19, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Stephen Wallis has struck a resonant chord with those who are discontented with the state of the public schools.

An administrator in what is supposed to be the state's premier school system, the Wilde Lake High School vice principal sees a national educational system run amok.

Foul-mouthed, disruptive students, low-achievers, dispirited teachers -- he encounters them daily in the county schools and blames lax discipline and a curriculum that has strayed from the basics.

"The kinds of things we see every day -- truancy, insubordination, pregnancy -- those kinds of things are allowed to happen by our own policies," Mr. Wallis said. "We need to wage a war on incivility. We're far too tolerant."

His remedy sounds simple: a get-tough, no-nonsense policy toward disruptive students and apathetic parents.

If students make trouble, refer them to boot-camp-style programs in school that will make them shape up.

If violence and disorderly conduct are on the rise, hire armed guards and administer Breathalyzer tests to students suspected drinking on school property.

If parents won't take responsibility for bad behavior by their children, charge them for the time it takes to deal with those students, or have them attend school with their children.

And instead of undefined "self-esteem" programs, Mr. Wallis would teach students about respect, integrity, responsibility and discipline.

"They'll feel better about themselves, and every child of every ethnicity will be the beneficiary," he said. "We owe no less to our youths, their families and to our country."

It's a message that has won Mr. Wallis plenty of fans since he first went public last month in a column written for The Sun.

"I think he's right," said Frank Horstman, a teacher at Mount Hebron High School. "It seems today we've gotten away from holding kids accountable. . . . I think we're afraid of students."

John Fiackos, an Ellicott City parent, said: "Some people may think he's old-fashioned, but he has values.

"He's trying to do his job."

And the Wilde Lake administrator even has drawn the attention of state Board of Education President Robert C. Embry Jr., who would like to have him present his views to the board at some point.

"The issue he is concerned about is very much on the minds of the state superintendent and the state board," said Mr. Embry. "I thought we should hear what he has to say."

Even the Howard County school administration's top brass has given a measure of support to Mr. Wallis' critique of discipline problems.

"Many of the things he said were sound," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who disagrees with some of the specifics. "I'm not sure there is anything that is preventing anybody from implementing the kinds of things he's talking about."

Mr. Wallis is described by colleagues as a man of strong convictions and high moral standards, who often serves as a confidant for teachers.

He was held in such high regard at Mount Hebron that when Dr. Hickey transferred him to Wilde Lake last year, the entire Mount Hebron staff signed a petition asking that he remain, and a

group of parents clamored that he be promoted to principal.

At Wilde Lake, his cluttered office near the school's noisy photocopy machines is filled with photos and mementos from 20 years in education, mostly in Howard County as an English teacher and an assistant principal.

Social and educational problems nationwide, including school violence, stem from a broader breakdown of values, he said.

"We are confronting today a genuine deficit in work ethics," he said, citing recent political and Wall Street scandals. "There is an abysmal lack of accountability."

In his view, there are plenty of reasons why school systems aren't run as they should be and end up failing the many well-behaved, respectful students who strive to do well.

Discipline policies are too weak, he said, and some administrators are reluctant to suspend students, fearing image problems.

Some teachers let disruptive behavior continue because they're afraid, or don't think they have the backing of administrators to discipline unruly students, he said.

Parents of some disruptive students don't want to cooperate with school authorities. And some students who see classmates get in trouble -- and get away with it -- are more apt to misbehave themselves.

The result: the kind of public school climate outlined in a recent survey by Metropolitan Life, which found that, nationally, 11 percent of teachers and 23 percent of their students have been victims of violence in or around school.

"Surliness to teachers, defiance, truancy, widespread cheating -- every bit of that has a negative cumulative effect," Mr. Wallis says. "We shouldn't be surprised that kids throughout the nation bring guns to school and fire at students."

He views his solutions as both practical and far-reaching.

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