Parents still play key role in student's discipline

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHY DON'T WE have a former two-time "suspendee" from Baltimore's public schools weigh in on the matter of suspensions, an issue now before the school board.

"Student conduct policy studied," read a headline on a story this week by Sun reporter Tanika White. Right away, I got the willies. It's the "studying" of public education that has led to its present pathetic state. Rolling the dice with my sanity, I read on.

School leaders and experts are now pondering whether the old practice of suspending misbehaving students is unfair or harsh. To no one's surprise, even lawyers have gotten in on the act. What used to be a simple disciplinary matter has now become a civil liberties matter, because in the America of 2003, everybody - even the school prankster - is a victim.

Bill A. McComas is a lawyer who provides pro bono representation for suspended or expelled students. Here's his take on school discipline, according to White's story.

"When there are behavior problems, the school system is the investigator, they are the prosecutors, the hearing officers and the appeal board. And where in that process is there anybody who has the interest of the child?"

Let me take a stab at it: Might that person be the parent?

This suspension business is not quantum physics or three-variable calculus. We Americans, as is our wont, have taken something incredibly easy and made it excruciatingly difficult. I'll remind readers of how this suspension business worked "back in the day," when I had the dubious distinction of being suspended not once but twice from my beloved City College.

The first time was in the 1967-1968 school year. City had a not unreasonable policy of suspending students who were late three times in a semester. I managed to turn the trick, and my homeroom teacher, Mr. Asher, lowered the boom.

I couldn't be reinstated until my mother came to school and conferred with administrators. This was done, I got a scolding from Mom and learned a valuable lesson. City College had this Spartan rule about tardiness because all its graduates would be in the work force one day. Be late there, and suspension would be the least of our worries.

The second time was a bit more complex and, in my eyes, an about-face from what happened the first time. In the second instance, I contend to this day, I was right and City officials were wrong. A school security guard was in the cafeteria when my lunch period ended. I had long since eaten my lunch and carried my tray to the stacking area. I was sitting around chatting with some other guys, one of whom left his tray on our table.

As I left, the security guard insisted the remaining tray was mine and that I bus it. I told him there was no way that would happen. One word led to another (no profanity, though), and I wound up in front of one of the vice principals, who didn't trouble himself to hear my side before he suspended me.

My mother did little talking when we met with another vice principal for my reinstatement. I told this other vice principal that my mother had always taught me to clean up after myself, that my tray was taken care off, that I was not City College's official or unofficial busboy and would bus my lunch tray only.

In short, I explained, I was right and they were wrong. If it happened again, he or another vice principal would see me again. That was the end of it. No studies, no lawyers, no claims of violations of rights. See how easily matters can be resolved when actual, real, live, effective parents are brought into the equation?

The experts and officials barely mentioned parents in White's story. Instead, we had Christopher Maher of Advocates for Children and Youth calling suspension a "backwards policy" that "send[s] a child away from a learning environment, and in some cases, you're sending a child from the only stable environment in that child's life."

Very perspicacious, but apparently Maher forgets that misbehaving children are sent away from learning environments so that those children who do behave and want to learn can do so. And, while it may be harsh to say it, this has to be said: Public schools are here to educate children, not raise them. Raising them is the parents' job.

Wouldn't it be nice if, for a change, instead of studying why some parents refuse to do their jobs, we would just tell them to do it?

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