Teachers say the law adds to disorder in classroom

Problem: Educators in Baltimore County and beyond say the threat of lawsuits prevents administrators from backing their punishment of disorderly or dishonest students.

March 23, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Gary Levin, an English teacher, was once forced to pass a student who refused to do homework. It was 10 years ago, and his assistant principal at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County told him flunking the girl would risk a lawsuit. "It sent a chill through me," Levin recalled.

But it was nothing like the deep freeze he felt five years later. Levin was then trying to help a young English teacher at Owings Mills High School, and watching her lose control of a class because the main office kept sending back a student who repeatedly yelled in class.

Levin, who was retired at that time but had a job coaching new teachers, decided he'd had enough with the bureaucracy and quit mentoring.

He is not the only one. In a dozen interviews, teachers said they left the Baltimore County school system -- or thought about leaving -- because they grew frustrated with superiors who wouldn't discipline students who cursed in class, cheated on research projects and hit classmates.

While school administrators must consider the ever-growing threat of litigation resulting from disciplinary actions, current and retired teachers said the failure to punish can destroy their ability to create a safe, orderly classroom where they can teach all students. It can also break Maryland law.

The Baltimore County school system is nowhere near the only district dealing with this problem.

Richard M. Ingersoll, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who recently wrote a book exploring the reasons teachers leave their jobs, said lack of administrative support is a "major reason" nationwide.

"It's a big piece behind the so-called teacher shortage," said Ingersoll, who said he quit high school teaching after seven years because of a lack of support.

Ingersoll said good teachers don't want to work where they're not supported, so they leave. That creates shortages of teachers in districts such as Philadelphia's, which is implementing new discipline rules to address the problem.

The issue surfaces often enough in Baltimore County schools that the Teachers Association of Baltimore County has raised the issue with the county school board.

"One of the biggest issues I'm seeing is the lack of support for discipline," said Mark Beytin, president of the teachers union. "It's the teachers who want to discipline, and it's the administrators who are fighting it."

Beytin, Levin and other teachers emphasized that many assistant principals, principals and officials in the school system's central administration back up teachers trying to rein in misbehaving or cheating students.

The teachers also said they understand the various pressures their superiors face, especially to avoid costly lawsuits.

Joe A. Hairston, superintendent of Baltimore County schools, acknowledged that the threat of litigation influences school decisions.

But he said he's structured the school system to support teachers in classrooms, and any problems are the result of bad chemistry between teachers and principals in a few schools.

"As good as the school system is, it's not because teachers are frustrated and not supported," Hairston said.

Range of sanctions

When students misbehave, said Catherine P. Walrod, the principal at Hereford Middle School and president of the Secondary School Administrators Association, principals must weigh the evidence and consider a range of sanctions.

Walrod, a former county teacher, said principals and school system administrators know the importance of backing up teachers.

"If you would ask the majority of teachers in our school, they would tell you our goal is a safe environment and the adults are in charge," she said. "We have a very supportive environment."

Teachers in Baltimore County can impose after-school detention on their own, but they must get an assistant principal, principal and, sometimes, a district-hearing officer to sign off on suspensions and expulsions.

In many cases, Baltimore County school system guidelines and Maryland law require administrative support for teachers. For example, state law orders principals to confer with teachers before sending a disruptive student back to class.

But former and current Baltimore County teachers said that rule is often broken.

"I've sent kids out of the room for a disciplinary problem, and then they're standing in your classroom 20 minutes later with a pass in their hand from the assistant principal," said Nolan Simon, a retired art teacher.

An implicit message

Simon, who taught at Catonsville Junior High School and Randallstown High School from 1968 to 1998, said a few students cursed, threatened, harassed and fought classmates, but assistant principals kept sending the students back to class.

"And you would never get rid of the problem," he added. "The problem would keep going for the whole year, it would ruin your class and there was nothing you could do as a teacher."

Simon and other teachers said administrators' failure to punish can seriously undermine the instruction of all students.

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