Monday, August 01, 2005

Discipline in Catholic High Schools, part III

Handling Day to Day Discipline Issues as Principal

In my first article, I discussed what I believe must be the underlying philosophical difference between Catholic and secular schools regarding discipline. In the second article, I tried to apply this philosophy to the “hard cases” a principal might face—namely, those serious enough for the principal to consider expulsion—and spelled out two general circumstances where expulsion was warranted. Thankfully, most of the occasions of discipline we handle in Catholic schools are not of this nature! Rather, most of the disciplinary issues we face are routine: a sophomore girl that cannot keep quiet in class, a senior boy who skips school for a day, a freshman who lets his anger get the best of him and says something inappropriate to the teacher. How do a school and a principal handle these type things efficiently? That will be the focus of this article.

We should begin by establishing a basic point: It is the responsibility of every adult in the building to create an “adult-like” environment in our school. A long time educator once told me he could size up the quality of a school within a minute of walking down the hallway: Was it an adolescent environment or an adult one? If you listen carefully to the conversations, watch the interactions of students, observe how teachers and students relate to one another, it’s not hard to determine. But the obvious point here is that one principal, no matter how influential, cannot singly create an adult environment. He or she cannot be everywhere, and so it depends on the faculty and staff of the school to insist on adult behavior through-out the campus—not just in their own classrooms, but in the bathrooms, in the hallways, in the gym and around the fields for athletic events. Teachers and staff who are unwilling to insist on adult, Christian behavior in their presence, where-ever they find themselves on campus, simply have no place in our Catholic schools, because they reject our most fundamental reason to exist: to help students become the kind of people God wants them to be.

Having everyone take responsibility is easier said than done! There is a tendency within any system, whether we’re talking about corporate America or a school, for subordinates to pass their problems up the ladder without handling them on their own. If you’ve been a principal for a while, you’ve no doubt experienced this tendency first hand, as teachers too often send children to the office for matters of discipline without having done anything to remedy the situation at their level first. This is poison! For one, it undercuts the teacher’s authority in the eyes of the students. Students read the teacher (correctly) that that they do not need to pay much attention to what he is asking them to do, except up until the point that he becomes so frustrated that he may send them to the principal. Second, it trivializes the role of the principal, because when the principal rightfully assesses the incident doesn’t merit “lowering the boom”, and thereby doesn’t lower it, the principal begins to lose a “mystique” that is appropriate and helpful. I define this desired mystique as part fear and part unfamiliarity. Seeing Johnny every other day as a freshman because Johnny is a chatterer isn’t going to bode well for the principal’s effectiveness in handling Johnny if he ever begins to do things seriously wrong in his later years of high school!

So I believe it’s important, in the day to day running of the school, to have a clear understanding with faculty and staff as to what constitutes an “offense” that should be handled by them and what is appropriately handled by the principal. Here’s the truth: 95% of the incidents in our school should be initially handled by the teacher. How? Following the tradition of the sisters of Loretto who founded our school, we believe that time after school works, provided teachers insist the time is kept. I tell every teacher to decide on a day during the week to give “time”, and when students are late for class, or talking too much in class, or chewing gum, or out of uniform, they should be given 15 or 30 minutes of after school time on this day. If they miss this time, I encourage teachers to call parents and double the time for next week. Teens will test the teacher to make sure he is keeping track of things carefully, or to gauge if missing time really matters. For teachers who develop the reputation that it does matter, students become reasonably compliant, and the teacher is well on his way to establishing an orderly environment in his class room.

But what of the case, as often happens in a typical high school, when a student has been talking, the teacher has given time, and the student continues to be disruptive of the classroom environment? That’s when, I believe, it’s appropriate to send a child to the office. The teacher has taken steps to address the problem first, but the student persists in inappropriate behavior which makes it impossible for other students to learn. At our school, we make those students “sign in” to the principal’s office.

What next? First, the teacher who referred the child to the office must fill out a “behavioral referral form” at their next available opportunity. This is so when the principal addresses the issue, he or she has the adult perspective as to what happened. The form also asks the teacher to explain what steps he took prior to the office referral. Also, this form, once the principal has acted, gets sent home to the parent.

I don’t recommend that the principal gets into the mode of handling each and every disciplinary incident as they occur. The immediate crisis—the fact that the classroom was rendered un-teachable by the student’s behavior—has been averted by moving the student to the office. One of the biggest obstacles facing a principal is that his time is not his own. If he is held hostage to responding on the spot to every incident in his school, he is unable to plan, keep appointments, visit classrooms and complete other important duties. So in our school, when a student gets sent to the office, he or she usually sits quietly in the office for the remainder of the period. I deal with it later, after I have received the written referral from the teacher, and I usually handle a couple of incidents at a time.

What do I do with these referrals once I act on them? I always first talk to the student and ask him for his version of events. I want the student to tell the truth and own his actions. The general thrust of my talk is “Being an adult doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. It means accepting responsibility for the mistakes you make and being willing to pay the consequences”. After we have established the facts, I typically give anywhere from one to two hours of time on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. (I set up Saturday detentions once/month). I then record the incident in a d-base and send a copy of the behavior referral form to his parents, which includes the consequence I imposed. Once the “time” is served, the incident is over.

Usually, only when a student begins to develop a pattern of office referrals would I begin to “up the ante” to suspensions, and if the problem persists, to consider expulsion. (There are those rare cases, of course, where the action itself requires an immediate suspension, but these are relatively rare.) I have no set formula for how many referrals one needs before the ante is upped. Much of it depends on my assessment of the child, his maturity level, the length of the intervals between incidents, his willingness to own his behavior and the role his parents play or don’t play in resolving the behavioral problem.

A final note: Based on the number of disciplinary incidents, the principal will have a pretty good idea of which teachers are having consistent problems with their students. Where patterns emerge, there is room for work with these teachers. I have written elsewhere on ideas that teachers may employ for improving the overall environment of their rooms, and I would recommend these ideas to these teachers.

How a Catholic school handles discipline is perhaps the best test of our school’s mission and ministry. I have tried over the last three articles to outline the philosophical basis for discipline in Catholic schools, the handling of “hard cases” that may lead to expulsion, and the day to day processing of routine incidences within a high school. I invite your response and feedback!

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