March 12, 2013

ON CAMPUS: Tough to legislate civility

Modesto City Schools Board debating substance and wording of changes to black and white suspension policies, but parent concerns show school conflicts are more often shades of gray.

Attitude and intentions. We all have ideas of right and wrong that hinge on these keys, but the task of passing judgement can mean diving into mightily muddied waters.

Modesto City Schools Board debated revisions to its student conduct codes late into the night. Overall the changes switched discipline focus from punishment and removal to counseling and behavior plans, especially for first offenses. Changing the wording from "consequences" to "corrective action," picky as it sounds, embodies that shift.

One of the results, will be to mitigate what the district admits is overuse of "willful and defiant" as a reason for suspension. Minority youth tend to take the brunt of these highly subjective, generally 1- to 3-day, kick-outs. Under the new guidelines, bad attitude is not grounds for suspension on the first offense unless there is potential danger to people -- not property, people.

But sensible as it sounds to have interventions be the first considerations when a student acts out, on campus few incidents are as black and white as the rule book.

Cases in point, just before the meeting I followed up on parent's call about an abusive teacher and an e-mail about sexual harassment by high school bullies at lunch.

An upset caller said she wanted to report a bullying teacher who used corporal punishment, threw things at kids and routinely belittled kids in her fifth-grade class. The details: When the class got rowdy, the teacher had kids "take a knee" -- corporal punishment in her book, tossed dry erase markers to kids, threw graded papers on the floor for kids to pick up later -- demeaning, the mom felt. Though this mom had pulled her student out of the class, she wanted the teacher fired.

Other parents shared her view, she said, that this teacher was a bully, which boils down to attitude and intentions. The actions themselves can and are used to good effect by excellent teachers, but with an aggressive, ugly attitude could also be menacing and mean. It would be tough to read a black and white book and figure out the appropriate corrective action.

The e-mail was from a mom whose daughter told her that her friend said she saw a guy stuff a banana in his pants then hit a girl with it and when she cried he and his friends threw oranges at her. Awful story. But school officials said the banana incident never happened. The girl in question insisted it didn't. The food throwing, however, did. Their solution for the girl, new to the school, was to find her a better crowd to spend her lunches with.

That may well have been the best solution, one that was not in any conduct code, revised or otherwise. What corrective action happened to the orange throwers was not available.

Can best intentions beat out lousy attitude, only time will tell. But sifting what matters from all the spin and drama of parent fears and teen conflict seems like the lion's share of the work here. There's only so much the rule book can cover.

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