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Monday, December 17, 2012

Let's Start with Less Harshness

Back in July there was a video of a bus monitor being put down and insulted by a group of middle school students.  What they did was wrong and hurtful.  We, as educators, should work with their parents to help them learn why it was wrong, how it hurt someone, understand why they did it and help them learn to be more sensitive and caring individuals.  We also need to educate those bystanders who watched and knew it was wrong to speak up to those who were teasing or help the monitor.
That type of response to the incident was not the one that reflected the sentiment of most people.  The media was filled with outrage by commentators who called these students “monsters”.  There were calls for them to be arrested and imprisoned.  Their parents were judged and condemned as incompetent and irresponsible.  They received death threats.  They needed to be severely punished and they were consequently suspended from school for an entire year.  Because of their mistakes, the actions that were wrong, they were condemned and labeled as individuals.  If they had been arrested and sent to prison as many suggested this condemnation and stigma would have followed them for the rest of their lives.
There was another minor news story that came to my attention.  It was about two high school students who had gotten into a fight.  The principal they them a choice of punishment: be suspended or choose to publicly hold hands for a lunch period. They chose to hold hands and subsequently endure ridicule and put downs-many of these put downs. 

  Here is what the blog that reported this said:
What ensued for the boys was about an hour of public humiliation. If you watch the linked news video, you can hear students laughing at them.
Several news reports stated that the boys were being taunted, “Are you gay?” The incident was so humiliating (or effective?) that one of the boys did not go to school for at least 2 days, per news reports.
I felt compelled to comment on this story.  Here is what I said:
.    I am retired elementary school principal and have written two books. One is the Peaceful School Bus and other is No Place for Bullying that I wrote as a resource for school principals on the issue of bullying. I have written quite a bit on issues like this, but I will quickly comment on this particular situation. The key question that a principal should ask when facing a disciplinary decision is what can I do to help the students learn not to do this again? Unfortunately the default response by many principals is to apply a consequence and hope it deters future behavior. This does not work for many reasons. A better option is to help the students understand why what they did is a problem, learn that their way of solving the problem did not work and help them learn a better way. Schools need to shift from a criminal justice mindset and embrace a educational mindset. Most behavior issues tend to be more a lack of skill than faulty motivation. Social skills are harder to learn than academic skills so simply providing a consequence for the behavior is insufficient. I don’t blame the principal-we don’t provide much support for principals on how to make these judgment calls. They need mentoring and coaching by experienced administrators and this is often lacking. I wrote my book in a effort to support principals.

Jim Dillon 8:01 pm on December 12th, 2012

I forgot to add I feel very strongly that public humiliation should never be used. A simple test any educator needs to use is the golden rule: is that something you would want to be done to you. I cannot think of any person who would want to be publicly humiliated. There is never an excuse or justification for treating any person with disrespect. There has to be limits on the options we use with students and public humiliation is off limits. I entitled a chapter of my book “You can’t bully your way to bullying prevention.”
Here is a response I got to my comment:
I’m shaking my head at the comments here. Me, I’d rather learn the consequences of his actions than baby him. And let’s not overstate things here: the boys chose their own punishment.

I did not agree with the principal as you can see, but here is another comment from someone else who didn’t agree with him:
This guy is sick. He needs to be fired. If he did this to one of my babies he would have dealt with a nightmare…ME…Momma Bear. I don’t understand why the boys didn’t take the suspension unless they were afraid of what would happen when they got home. I would have hugged my babies saying, “Good choice.” Then I still would have went after that perv for even suggesting holding hands knowing how cruel kids can be. That option has red flag predator alerts going off.

The harshness is pretty clear right down the line it seems.  This is something that we need to pay attention to-I think it is at the heart of many of our problems.

I decided to write this post in response to the horrific act of violence at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Needless to say, I am greatly trouble and distraught by what happened.  It was a school not unlike the one where I was principal.  The issues of safety were paramount to me, as they were to everyone at our school.  We practiced lockdown and evacuation drills.  We did exercises where we talked about what we would do if an intruder ever entered our school.  When I finally retired as principal, I felt a tremendous relief just because I didn’t even have the remote possibility of having something like this happen resting on my shoulders. It was a school that did everything right but yet was still vulnerable to act of a troubled, deeply disturbed person who committed a horrible, unspeakable act.
We as a country have many things to ask ourselves and I pray we have the courage to look in different places than we typically do. I am glad that we in our country can start to talk about something-anything, we can do to lessen the violence and protect all of us.  One thing however that has been overlooked in the discussions of guns, violence, and mental health, is examining a part of our culture that is harsh and unforgiving.  A culture that feels that people need to suffer pain and punishment in order to learn from mistakes.  A culture that feels that students who break the rules should be castigated and in many cases removed and cast off from the community.  A culture that feels that war, attack or battle is the answer to problems.  I even heard a commentator say that we now need to have a “war against violence”.  This culture unfortunately is present in all of our institutions including our schools.  
It seems like our culture is in many ways is blind towards any other way to respond to a problem.  Any suggestion of an alternative approach is considered soft, weak or ineffective.  Sadly, this harsh culture is now applied to teachers.  It is assumed that their shortcomings are a product of laziness, indifference or a lack of caring so they their “feet must be held to the fire” as some officials have verbalized.  
This harsh part of our culture is reflected in how we treat our children in schools and sadly this becomes what we teach them.  Our schools are often not forgiving and kind towards those students who are viewed as troublemakers-too often they are ostracized and segregated.  Students are separated into the good and bad sadly in the eyes of teachers and students.  Conformity and compliance too often are valued more than speaking up and being different.
This harshness and punitive mindset also shows itself in our violent games and entertainment. It is not so much the violence that damages our culture as much as it is the mindset that people deserve to be violated because they are bad people who need to be punished for the bad things they do to the good people. It is the “us against them” mindset that is the root of violent words and actions.
 Sadly, the person who committed this horrible unspeakable act was perhaps, in his darkly twisted mind and spirit, punishing those he felt were getting what they deserved.  He was issuing the ultimate punishment on those he felt deserved to die; ironically, the same punished he leveled on himself.  We must teach a different lesson that punishment is never an answer to a problem.  We doubt this alternative way we only need to look to the lessons of Christ-who told us not to judge and condemn but to love and forgive everyone without exception.
Our schools must first be places where the Golden Rule applies to everyone, especially those in authority and who have power.   If it did, I do not think we would routinely feel that every mistake or infraction required a consequence. We also would not we feel that every act of kindness and goodness needed to be rewarded. We need to believe that doing good and caring is rewarding in and of itself-if we don’t we will devalue it in the eyes of our students.  We need to believe that students are not a few steps away from being criminals and therefore need to be manipulated into being good.  If we give students a caring community that meets their needs, the only reward needed is the one they will receive from being in that environment, being part of that community. They will learn because learning is what they do as human beings-they won’t need for us to motivate them to learn.  
People are good and want to be good yet they make mistakes.  We are not giving our students that message when our main way of interacting with them is to control what they do. We need to guide and educate them not control and manage them.  Our message should be one of community, acceptance, and reconciliation when anyone forgets to respect that community.  The old saying  “There is no way to peace, peace is the way” applies to community.  We must believe in the power of community, of the human bonds that are already with us, to be the way to stay and grow as a community.  Maybe that is good place to start our necessary conversations and our actions-let’s be a little less harsh, let’s believe in the goodness of people, let’s be a little kinder to each other.

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