Parents need to join the discipline equation

November 25, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

His name was Richard Doak, and he was principal of Northern High School long before this business of last week's 1,200 student suspensions, and there came a moment in his career which instructs us about the whole history of troubles at that school.

One day there was a confrontation in the hall outside Northern's auditorium, scores of kids in one group about to get physical with another big bunch of kids. Doak stood between them.

"If anybody's gonna go at anybody else," he said, "they're gonna have to go through me."

Nobody did. The kids dispersed, and went back to their classes, and tempers cooled.

"It was real John Wayne stuff," a teacher who was there recalled yesterday. "But you have to remember, here was a guy who was not only a strong administrator. He was a strong guy."

The implication was clear. Alice Morgan Brown, the current principal at Northern, brings what she brings. She's smart, she's dedicated, and she's had a reputation as a disciplinarian. But she's not a guy. Physically, she doesn't show strength, and some of these kids of hers thus sloughed her off last week and figured they'd get away with it.

Such things shouldn't matter, but maybe they do. Last week, Brown told her students to go to their homerooms and pick up their report cards. When they ignored her, she suspended 1,200 of them. This, in effect, would not have been a suspension of the kids (they were readmitted a day later, in the messy aftermath) so much as a suspension of school itself, a cancellation of learning for the day, because it represented two-thirds of all Northern students.

Here's the bigger question: How many of these kids faced the music when they got home? How many of them had parents who said: "You got suspended? Now you're in trouble, big shot, because you have to deal with me."

Here's a guess: Not many. Not enough.

Instead, we heard public recriminations of Brown, both from school officials and from parents. Some said she'd issued a clear cry for help, which is the same as saying, I'm overmatched, get me out of here. Some said, she's too strict and here's the final proof.

This is known as passing the buck.

By the time a kid gets to high school, certain behavior patterns have been set. Not in school - at home. By this time, the kids have learned what they can get away with, and what they can't. If the parents are smart, they've adopted a general rule: The teachers and principal are your parents when I'm not around, and you give them the respect you would give me.

School discipline's a con game. It's the threat of something bad, of having to stay after school, or having to go to summer school. Or it's Richard Doak standing between two angry groups of kids, implying he could beat 'em all if he had to.

Or it's a principal saying, I'm calling your parents in for a conference.

Beautiful. Brown invites 1,200 parents in, and how many showed up? Maybe a hundred. Not many, not enough.

In his Sunday Education Beat column in this newspaper, Mike Bowler points out some pretty interesting facts about Northern High: For openers, it has no PTA. Such a thing isn't important to Northern's parents?

Here are some more facts: Every year, a third of Northern's students drop out. Because so many drop out after ninth grade, the school's 700-student freshman class is bigger than its junior and senior classes combined.

"Parents," says the teacher who was there during Doak's confrontation with students, "mean everything to a school. They're 90 percent of it. If they're paying attention, the kid behaves and has a chance to learn. Without them, forget it."

He was at Northern in the 1970s and remembers one teacher dislocating his shoulder while breaking up a fight - between two girls. He remembers breaking up a fight between two boys, and a security officer later informing him, "You know that boy had a gun, don't you?"

It's gotten rougher since then. The easy thing is to make Brown the sacrificial lamb, but then what? School discipline's a con game, in which adults try to make kids think they have actual control over them. Brown showed how little they actually have.

On the day she suspended 1,200 kids, there was a routine outburst of noise at Chinquapin Middle School. About 200 kids were seated in the auditorium, eager to leave. But they were noisy.

A teacher tried to calm them. Some of the kids ignored her. She talked about bringing them in before school - 6 in the morning. Some kids still ignored her.

"We're not leaving here," she said, "until there's complete quiet."

It took about 10 minutes to get it. Then, as the kids quietly filed out, the teacher turned to a colleague and declared, loudly and soothingly, so the kids would hear her, "They're my babies. They're so good. They're my baaaabies."

She was walking that line between discipline and an embrace, each gesture quite exaggerated, in a bid for peace.

Sometimes they pull it off, and sometimes not. But, to make Brown the sacrificial lamb is unfair. It's the system's way of saying, What are we supposed to do? Blame parents?

Maybe.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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