Monday, July 25, 2005

Discipline in Catholic High Schools, part I

(Philosophical Considerations for Principals)

If you ask parents what they want in a Catholic school, a “well disciplined environment” ranks right up there with a strong academic program and a community of faith for their children.

But what marks a well disciplined Catholic school? Is a good Catholic school different from its public school counterparts only in that it is a MORE disciplined environment, or should we mean something different altogether?

I argue that Catholic schools, if they are going to be true to their mission and founder, must regard discipline differently. Whereas public and private schools might describe a good disciplinarian as one who "keeps order" and "acts fairly", I suggest in a Catholic school, a good disciplinarian is one who creates conditions that encourage each child grow into the person God wants him or her to be and makes decisions accordingly.

If that strikes you as a mushy distinction, let me share a story about myself as a young principal that may clarify the point. When I was a teacher at our school before becoming its principal, I was critical of the previous principal, who had been in place 17 years. He never seemed to handle the kids in the same way. Worse, I noticed that even in the case where two kids did the same thing wrong, his punishment varied. Since he was a mentor to me, I asked him about this, accusing him of being seemingly “unfair”. He asked me what I meant. “Well”, I remember saying, “it’s simply wrong that different kids get a different punishment for doing the same thing wrong. Your discipline is idiosyncratic and that’s wrong. Punishment should be based on the action, not the person.” “Well if that’s what you mean by unfair”, I remember him saying, “then I plead guilty as charged”. I was puzzled by his response but made up my mind to do things differently when I took over.

The public schools around town at that time had adopted a “uniform code of conduct” that impressed me. They categorized routine disciplinary issues common to high school life as level one, two or three depending on the severity of the act, and with each level came a set of proscribed punishments which escalated based on frequency of offense. In that way, no matter the kid, everyone knew up front what would happen and this consequence would be evenly applied across the school system.

So the summer I became principal, I wrote out an unofficial “uniform code of conduct” as a guideline for myself. For two months that first fall, I labored to be absolutely consistent in applying these consequences to the many students and incidences I handled. Somewhere around Thanksgiving, I was faced with a situation that demanded (by my code) a three-day out of school suspension for a troubled sophomore boy, a consequence I was reasonably sure would cause his family to withdraw him from our school. If he left for the local, massive public high school in town, I didn’t like his chances. So I balked at my code, convinced that it wasn’t the right way to handle that kid. He was a good kid. He was “save-able”. Instead, I made him come out to the school on consecutive Saturdays and an in-service day (something I now call a “reverse suspension”) to do “gardening” (i.e. weeding the school flower beds) , scrape gum from under cafeteria tables, pick up trash and whatever else I could dream up to make the point. It worked. Over the course of his sophomore year, his behavior improved and he later graduated. I tore up my unofficial code of conduct by Christmas of my first semester and have handled disciplined idiosyncratically ever since.

As I am apt to do, I wrote a parable that reflected this new self-understanding:

A new principal, wishing to make a good impression, said “I will treat all students the same, for fairness sake”.

Shortly thereafter, two young men were sent to him for a disciplinary incident. The principal said “Policy dictates a three day out of school suspension for both of you.”

The first young man, working closely with his parents, came back from his suspension with resolve to do better.

The second young man dropped out.

And everyone agreed the principal acted fairly.

My role as a disciplinarian at our school is NOT to be a judge who dispassionately hands out punishment to fit the crime, as I once argued. Rather, my role is to be a minister, willing to do anything that helps a child become what God wants him or her to be. Don’t take that wrongly-- I don’t mean that a school should substitute discipline for touchy feely nonsense. There should be consequences for every action, and in the case of severe actions, severe consequences. What I do mean is that we in Catholic schools shouldn’t rely on scripted consequences that ultimately prize “fairness” more than what is in the best interest of the child we serve. Secular schools understand discipline as a means to create order. We are first and foremost interested in the child’s conversion. “Fairness” and even “order” misses the point by prioritizing the institution’s needs over the child’s. Our "punishment" shouldn't fit "the crime" but "the person". The reason the parable of the lost sheep is so challenging to us is that it’s counter-intuitive: unlike the famous phrase from Star Trek, the “needs of the many" should NOT "outweigh the needs of the few” in Catholic institutions.

Instead, I am charged to use all my creative thinking to design consequences that work for THIS child, but may not work for others. That’s what I mean when I say discipline in Catholic schools should be aimed at “creating a set of conditions which encourages each child to become the kind of person God wants him or her to be” and how I see that Catholic schools are different than their public or private school counter-parts.

Catholic school principals, then, should not create disciplinary policies that are so specific that their hands are tied when confronted with a unique student and situation. For this reason, our student handbook has only this to say about discipline: “Students who violate the rules and procedures of this handbook or who act in a way contrary to our mission as a Catholic school will face disciplinary consequences as determined by the teachers or principal, depending.”

“OK, OK”, you might be thinking. “That all sounds good in theory, but how can a principal, given the demands on his or her time, possibly run a school such that EVERY child and EVERY situation is handled differently?” You may be also thinking, “Is he implying that Catholic schools should never expel a kid?”

Those are good, practical questions, and I will address them in my next article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

my name is nikki and im a sophmore at McDonell High School (a catholic school, 9-12) i was suspended from school for two weeks when my other friend got expelled from school altogether, but we did the same exact thing wrong! i dont understand this at all..why did she get worse than i did?! the principal told me that he gave our punishments based on our past school records..(detentions, tardys..stuff like that) what can i do, to make the principal realize his theory of punishment isnt "just" ???