Wednesday, December 04, 2002


A few years ago, a very wonderful teacher we know was trying to discipline a middle-school student who was big for his age, new to the district, a racial minority, from a broken home, reportedly "optioned in" from the inner city because of serious behavior problems at his old school, and full of aggression.

The kid threatened the teacher's life. Squad cars were called. The kid was taken out in handcuffs. It was, to be sure, a scene.

The teacher was also our daughter's golf coach and we knew him to be a gentle, good man, a doting father and a really good coach. So we were angry and fearful that this happened to him.

But that weekend, something happened that put a whole new perspective on it. My husband had organized a golf outing long before to bring together this nice golf coach and some of the other dads of girls on the golf team. So off they went to the links.

Meanwhile, I went to north Omaha to attend a meeting of parents and community activists who wanted to improve schools. To my shock, one of the mothers started describing what her son was going through in the way of taunting and bullying in the suburban school district to which he had been optioned. She said his name: it was the same kid.

His trouble had all come to a head that week, she said, and he'd been arrested, even though he was a good boy who'd never harmed a flea.

Turns out the kid had a much higher IQ than most people do -- something like 170 -- but had been put in "behavior disability" programs instead of gifted programs in grade school because his behaviors were misunderstood. He would stick forks in the electrical outlets, for example -- not because he was bad, but because he was curious.

But the educators, for whatever the reason, interpreted it that he was bad, not smart. They gave him super-easy work to do, hoping his self-esteem would rise because he could get it done easily. Instead, he got madder and madder to be treated as "less than."

This was an articulate, funny, sensible, well-meaning mom . . . who made me realize that, quite frankly, what was really going on was not really a violent teenager out of control threatening the safety of a fine public-school teacher . . . but instead just a huge case of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

The boy's behavior had probably been misunderstood by teachers and other students to the point where he had exploded with rage. It had erupted in front of this good, gentle teacher and coach that we happened to know.

I know a heavenly coincidence when I see one. I called the teacher/coach and told him what I had learned.

Do you know what happened next? The teacher / coach and the so-called murderous boy started to meet after school for pick-up basketball. Just a few minutes of attention, a chance to build a relationship, a little mentoring . . . and it worked wonders for the boy. I never heard another word about him from anybody at that school.

Now, look. I know teachers sometimes feel that they are in physical danger from some of these troubled kids in our public schools today. I have a teacher friend who was shoved to the ground by a sixth-grader, but urged not to report it by the school principal to avoid "bad PR." I know litigation fears are tying their hands. I know parents are getting mad about the police in schools "gatekeeping" real safety threats so that parents don't find out about it, since the usual routes to filing police reports are shut off. I know that kids and teachers alike sometimes don't feel safe around some kids.

But what's happening is the start of a police state. That's being shown with a law that was proposed this week in Massachusetts that would give school administrators complete access to criminal police records of students. In turn, it would allow public school records and social-service agency records to be shared with law enforcement.

The bill is in reaction to the classroom stabbing death of a Springfield, Mass., school counselor, the Rev. Theodore N. Brown, in December 2001. Corey N. Ramos, now 18, has pleaded innocent and is awaiting trial for murder. School officials said he was on probation for an earlier violent crime of which they were unaware. Had they known, they said, they would have placed him in their alternative program for troubled students, the Springfield Adolescent Graduation Experience.

It is likely this bill will go through, and will spread across the land.

Will it mean that kids will have to be read their Miranda rights when they say the morning Pledge of Allegiance?

Will it mean that often-erroneous, misjudgmental and just plain crazy information that sometimes shows up on school and social-service records will now be made available to law enforcement agencies without warrants, and used against the kids later in court?

Will it mean that a boy like the one who messed with our wonderful golf coach, the one with the 170 IQ, would be pigeonholed into a "graduation experience" type of school, instead of using that fine brain of his in calculus and chemistry classes and learning how to get along?

We need to talk about this stuff. Not react to it. Talk about it. Look for those happy, heavenly coincidences that can help us understand each other.

We need to go into our schools and see for ourselves whether the principal and the teachers and the staff are modeling respect, courtesy, order and manners for the kids. I say they're not, in a lot of schools. I say there are a lot of schools where all you see is kids . . . waves of them . . . with no authority figures standing there like shepherds looking over the flock.

No wonder kids who are already leaning toward making trouble tend to explode: they're not being guided on a basic level on how NOT to explode.

Let's look for simpler, more developmental solutions to school violence, rather than destroying our freedoms and kids' right to privacy.

Let's insist on a lot more adult supervision of the kids in school, since that's what we're paying for. Get those grownups out in front of school in the mornings, in the hallways between classes, in the gyms, during classes, and after school.

If school staffs aren't doing a lot of that, they're asking for it. I don't want them to get it, please understand: I just want everybody to quit blaming the kids, start understanding them, and start looking for better solutions.

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