When school, discipline were synonymous

December 21, 1997|By Harold Jackson

DISCIPLINE problems at Northern High School -- hundreds of students ignoring their principal's orders -- made me think about my school days. Schoolchildren are reportedly much worse than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe, but I wonder if it's the children who are that much different or the teachers, principals and parents in charge of them.

I mean, most descriptions of Baltimore's worst high schools bring back memories of my high school days in the late '60s. People joined gangs for protection more than friendship. First-period classes were interrupted by the snoring of classmates who had been up all night popping barbiturates called ''reds'' or amphetamines called ''Christmas trees'' and drinking Mad Dog wine.

Criminal acts

Few weeks went by without someone you knew getting shot or stabbed, usually not at school but sometimes there. Football games were interrupted by gunfire, basketball games ended in brawls.

Amid all this chaos, though, most days there was order in the classrooms, the hallways were empty and the principal was always obeyed. He was the law.

R. C. Sheehy was principal at my elementary school and was promoted to the high school I attended two years before my freshman year. In the vernacular, Roscoe didn't take no mess. Teachers feared him as much as students.

Some people insist the dangers are greater now, that teachers won't confront troublesome students because they're afraid of being assaulted. But my teachers had the same fear.

It amazed me to see Thomas Hill, the boys' adviser, demand that a guy who had been flashing a shotgun under his overcoat leave a basketball game. Of course, by then the police had been called. Mr. Hill didn't let students see his agitation upon finding his tires slashed by a thug who had promised much worse.

Even the meek teachers -- Madame Ragland, who taught French, for example -- didn't tolerate classroom disruption. I guess they knew they could count on the principal and other teachers being there to back them up. You get the impression teachers today are afraid that if they had to call for help, it wouldn't come or would arrive too late.

All I've seen and read about Northern High certainly suggests few teachers rushed to principal Alice Morgan Brown's side when students taunted her rather than return to their classrooms. I have since learned that the Nov. 19 incident, which led to the brief suspension of 1,200 students, was not unexpected by the Baltimore school board.

This summer, the board identified Northern, Patterson and Lake Clifton as high schools needing new principals because discipline had dangerously eroded. The principals at Lake Clifton and Patterson were transferred, but before Ms. Brown could be replaced the mass suspension brought in the media. Now, with the hero status placed on Ms. Brown for finally standing up to students, her job seems secure.

A new partnership

Perhaps she will have more success with the extra attention the board was forced to place on Northern after it received national media coverage of the student mutiny. The story has led to a partnership between television station WJZ and Morgan State University to help improve the school. However, no one is expecting results soon from that arrangement.

Northern could use a Roscoe Sheehy and teachers like those 30 years ago whose mission wasn't simply to collect a paycheck or pass time until they retire or get a job in the suburbs. Northern needs parents like those 30 years ago who made their children understand in no uncertain terms that the principal and teachers were to be obeyed at school.

I guess it was easier at black schools in the 1950s and '60s to get that type of commitment from principals, teachers and parents. They believed strongly in the power of education to transcend racial discrimination.

Parents without an education wanted their children to get as much as they could. Parents with an education stressed that their children must have even more.

Fools who wanted to waste their time in school getting high or fighting were tolerated only to a point. The message was their behavior pulled the entire race down. People don't talk like that.

Shut out from other career opportunities, many of the best minds in the African-American community chose to teach in decades past. They didn't do it to get a job in the suburbs. They did it to make a difference.

There are still teachers like that, but too many who aren't motivated or never should have been certified to teach go through the motions in a classroom, then wonder why students who know they aren't learning anything don't give them respect.

School reform

Baltimore has embarked on a school reform process whose success depends on the board's ability to put teachers and principals in the schools who want to, and can, stand up to all odds, including parents who don't care.

The board faltered when it changed its mind about removing Ms. Brown. Its inaction has allowed inaccurate portrayals of her as a strict disciplinarian to persist. Delaying the inevitable may answer her cry for help, but what about the students?

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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