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Former city teachers: Discipline policies force us out, too

This week The Sun ran a story that looks at an innovative, albeit controversial, way the Baltimore city school system chose to use a $695,000 Race to the Top grant to improve the climate--including suspension rates for non-violent offenses--in its historically low performing schools with high suspension rates.

The district and school principals defend the program as one that helps attract and retain great teachers, and helps schools that have historically defaulted to suspensions move away from the practice that school officials say contributed to more than 26,000 students being suspended a decade ago.

But, the city's union leaders have criticized the program, saying that it could provide an incentive to ignore problems and jeopardize school safety--which they say, is already happening. You can read more about the program, and the debate around it, here.

The story comes amid a statewide and national dialogue about how schools need to employ behavioral interventions instead of so-called "zero-tolerance" policies that are currently pushing too many of the country's struggling students out of school.

But, The Sun spoke with a few teachers in recent weeks about how their schools' approach to discipline not only pushed them out of the classroom, but the city school system altogether. 

Stephen Green is currently waiting to see if he'll be able to teach in Maryland ever again after leaving his first teaching job at Arundel Elementary School, where he said he was assaulted by students twice in as many weeks.

The students, he said,  were either not disciplined or returned from a one-day suspension that allowed them to "sit in the office all day."

"To me, that sets a prescedent that, 'You can punch Mr. Green in the face and hang out in the office," Green said of the first incident. "Not really a deterrent to violence."

The 24-year-old Johns Hopkins grad is now fighting for his newly awarded teaching license after he resigned. The system has moved to suspend his license for 365 days, and presumably will not renew him, for "neglect of duty."

A letter from the system outlined several reasons, including Green's objection to discipline measures taken against students, that Green was deemed to be ineffective after only three weeks teaching his middle-school English classes.

Green debunked those claims, saying that the system padded its case to justify their action. He said never received any feedback formally or informally about his performance.

"I would hope that if I was that bad, someone would have intervened before I quit," he said. 

The school system declined to comment for this blog post; but officials acknowledged in the story earlier this week that the district's discipline policies-- namely using suspensions only for the worst of the worst offenses-- has been a source of friction in the district.

Green said that Arundel was hoping to reduce its suspensions by 1/3 this year, from more than 100 last year, a goal proclaimed at the beginning of the school year. He said that after he was attacked the second time, he believed that the schools' suspension goals trumped his safety.

"Waking up with a sore jaw is only something I can take if it leads to improvement," Green said. "If I can get punched in the face, and have that serve as a model for consequences, I can do that. But to be a punching bag just to keep numbers down--that's something I can't do."

Green is appealing the district's decision, which he says he doesn't expect to win.

"The question is: How much are you willing to bleed for your students, and for what reasons?" Green said. "I was sad that I didn't go back, but I didn't blame myself." 

But, to this day, Jennifer Boccheri still feels guilty for leaving Coldstream Elementary/Middle School where she taught for less than one month before leaving.

Boccheri, also a middle-school English teacher, said that after her calls to the office resulted in little consequences for her students--and eventually stopped being answered altogether--the constant fights, flying chairs, and students choking each other got the best of her.

Her students quickly caught on that no one was on the other end of the phone line when Boccheri would pretend to report incidents in hopes that it would quell uproars.

"Once they caught on, there was no turning back," she said. "Nothing would happen, and they knew it."

Boccheri said adminstrators told her to "learn how to deal with it," and that it would take four violent incidents before they would suspend. 

Eventually, even her most studious and well-behaved student yelled out frustration, "you can't even control this class, what does it matter?", when she attempted to assign her classwork.

"That's when it hit me," Boccheri said. "She was right--after all the training, and all of the effort, I wasn't effective. I would spend my entire weekend planning lessons, and nights planning lessons, and I couldn't get through them--there was no learning happening.

"I understand that if you suspend kids they miss classwork, but, they're causing the entire class to miss it too," she concluded. "I feel bad I couldn't stick with it, because there were amazing kids who wanted to learn.

"But, it got to a point that I didn't feel like the teacher, I felt like the warden."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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