Tuesday, November 14, 2006


What Do You Call Six Kids In Handcuffs? A Good Start!

I like that riff on the old lawyer joke. Of course, when I first heard that six had been arrested, I said "Sixty more and you'd be off to a good start." The fact that this was greeted with a knowing smile by the other teachers tells you everything you need to know.

It's not that the end of lunch today was typical. I mean, sure, every year, we have several days of big fights at lunch. Just in case, let me review big fight. If you were born before 1970 or so, a big fight was a fight between two high-powered bad-asses. We might call it the more civilized, noble code. Sometime after 1970, we saw a more generalized crumbling of the societal code. Since many of our kids are little removed from animal behavior emotionally, socially, and in some instances, even intellectually, we might say that current kids live by the law of the pack. Now, a big fight is a group of twenty to fifty kids, pushing, shoving, punching and kicking their way across the campus, with as many as two hundred kids charging the scene to get a good view. Of course there are exceptions, and your school may vary; so might the timeline, depending on where you live.

So you have a big fight. Then you get the counter-attack the next day. And sometimes the day after that, and the day after that. One thing that usually seems to stop it pretty well is the weekend. I could not tell you if it's the fact of a two day cooling off period, or the fact that by the end of three or four days, by Friday most of the core instigators have been suspended for five days, or, perhaps, that over the weekend, there is plenty of time to settle scores, and by Monday, the issue has been decided.

As I said, the end of lunch today, the first counter-attack, was not typical; however, I don't mean not typical, in the sense that big fight days don't happen often. I mean not typical in the sense that even for a big fight day, this was not typical. Today we had at least six big groups of twenty to fifty kids surging around the campus. At least one student was knocked to the ground, but by some miracle not trampled.

It was also not typical in the duration. We have a five minute passing period. The end of lunch bell rings, you have five minutes to get to class, and the tardy bell rings. Most of these big fights are broken up, or at least dispersed, and the majority of kids to class, before the tardy bell rings. Today, the fights continued another seven minutes after the tardy bell. I know seven minutes doesn't sound like much, but it's an eternity for rampaging children.

It was also not typical in one other way. Out of eleven years, this was only the second time I felt like I had to lock my door to keep the kids in my class safe from something dangerous going on outside. I'm still not sure if twice in eleven years is something I should feel good about.

The irony of it all is that the fights began yesterday at lunch. Guess what came right before lunch? An all school assembly about violence and making the right choices in life. A lot of effort and time and expense went into that assembly, and it was wasted on the kids. It was the saddest thing in the world, the principal, after everything was under control again, standing alone on the quad, picking up an overturned garbage can. No wonder he tried to leave after two years and go back to his old school.

Six is not nearly enough. Our young people may be little removed from base animals, but even base animals have cunning. One of the rules of the law of the pack is that the pack can strike with impunity, without fear of penalty or retribution. Did I say sixty would be a good start? I should have said six hundred.

It doesn't take much to get to a tipping point at which any and all restraint from rising above purely animal behavior is lost. You may still have a chance, wherever you are, and if you do, good luck to you. Any doctor can tell you that sometimes, you just have to cut the cancer out. Unfortunately, too often, we've been deciding to kiss the cancer, and tell it how great it is, in the hopes that the tumor will cure itself. Why would it? If our only response to this sort of behavior is to tell the kids how wonderful they are, why the hell should they change?

The law of averages, or statistics, or something, should tell you that in a school of 2,500 students, the notion that only twenty-five of them are deserving of suspension is ludicrous. And if statistics doesn't tell you that, I'll tell you that. Every single day, way more than twenty-five should be out on suspension. Apart from simple anecdotal experience among the faculty, I'll give you some hard numbers.

The student body is divided among administrators by last name, alphabetically. One administrator has his name by twenty-one of the twenty-five suspensions. Another is named on two suspensions. Two other administrators have one suspension each. The lesson to be drawn from this example is not that one administrator is a trigger happy suspendaholic. The lesson is that the other three don't want the grief. The lesson is that those other three administrators ought to have twenty or so suspensions under their names. On any given day, we should have at least eighty kids out on suspension. I'll give you three guesses who gets in trouble in the above example.

Not in enough trouble, not yet. Not enough to make him change. Not enough to make him start counseling kids, telling them how great they are and how much we all love them. At least not yet. The district is unhappy with him. They think he has too many suspensions. They want fewer suspensions. You see, for the district, too many suspensions means a school that "looks bad" and is racist. To rational humans like you and me, too many suspensions means a school that enforces discipline, has high expectations of its students, and demands that they take their education seriously. To the district, too many suspensions might make the poor children feel bad. To rational humans like you and me, too many suspensions means we've created an environment of support and caring for the kids who do want to learn.

If only we can learn, before it's too late. In the meantime, I guess I can take comfort in the fact that our riots of impunity, unlike in Paris, don't feature a hundred or more burning cars each day. Now that's what I call ending on a positive!
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