Julia Steiny: “Community Conference” Tames Rage, Teaches Tough Lesson
When Roger beat up Eddie, a ‘community conference’ rather than a suspension was instructive for students and their families.
A smart-mouthed 8th-grade punk, whom we’ll call Eddie, thought it was cool to put down girls at Waterville Middle School in the mid-coast section of Maine. Kids knew all about this obnoxious behavior, but hadn’t told the adults.
Then a new student came to the school — we’ll call him Roger. His big size coupled with his confidence inspired 6 boys and girls to egg him on to beat up Eddie. It took them a while.
But finally, one day Roger walked into the cafeteria where Eddie was having lunch and tapped him on the shoulder. When Eddie turned around, Roger started punching and didn’t stop until teachers could control him.
Kirsten Gilbert, Waterville’s then-Vice Principal and the one who told me this story, suspended Roger until she had time to put together a “conference,” which I’ll explain in a moment. She also suspended the 6 bystanders for one day for not saying anything about knowing a fight was brewing.
Perhaps you’re wondering why she didn’t expel Roger on the spot. That’s certainly what the parents and the teachers wanted. The victim’s parents were so enraged that right up to the day of the conference, they were in Gilbert’s office screaming that they would have her job or sue the school board and the superintendent.
But Gilbert’s Superintendent had sent her to Waterville specifically to reduce the number of suspensions and disciplinary referrals, which had gotten out of control.
Generally, schools only use disciplinary techniques that push the kid out – detention, suspension and expulsion. It’s such a school habit that alternative methods are unfamiliar and therefore deeply suspect. But bad kids do not go away and magically return better later on. Actually, they get worse. Research is clear.
Recently a massive study, Breaking Schools’ Rules, followed one million Texas public-school students from 7th grade through high school over three years. Thirty-one percent of them had been kicked out of school at least once. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 times or more, and of those, half were involved with the justice system. The study is a startling illustration of the classroom-to-prison pipeline brought about by push-out disciplinary techniques.
So how do you restore troubled or disruptive kids into the community fold? Where do they learn community-appropriate behavior? Only a few kids can’t be mainstreamed because they’re too damaged or violent. All others need their community to gather to help them understand how their actions cause harm or misery.
Such community gatherings, called “conferences,” often provide the safety in numbers that brings embarrassing or problematic information to light. Still, a conference coordinator first talks to all of the parties to ensure everyone’s safety when they do come together for what might be an emotionally-charged meeting.
On the day of the conference, Gilbert shepherded the victim’s furious parents down the hall to join Roger, Eddie, the six bystanders-and-eggers-on, and all of their parents. Big group. Fortunately Gilbert had asked a police officer to be there because tempers flared even as they went around merely introducing themselves.
The victim sat in his chair, curled in a little ball, so Gilbert started with questions to the bystanders.
As kids took turns talking, parents heard their own children say, “I instigated this fight,” and “I knew what was going to happen, and I wanted it to.” The parents had no choice but to face that the incident was not cut-and-dried. A large group of kids had cultivated this confrontation.
Roger told his story, adding only that before pummeling him, he told Eddie he didn’t appreciate him running his mouth with girls.
While Roger talked, Eddie’s parents couldn’t contain themselves, erupting with “He’s bad; he’s just no good.”
At last, the victim uncurled himself and spoke. He finished his story with: “But I’m not innocent.”
His parents’ jaws dropped.
Apparently Roger had approached him repeatedly to insist that Eddie quit being ugly to girls. Cocky, Eddie only dared Roger “to make me. So I got Roger to hit me.”
At that point Roger’s dad burst into tears, “I’m begging you. Please don’t deny him his education. I’m alone; I work in construction and I’m hardly home. He’s made a terrible mistake. I’ve made mistakes. I promise I’ll try to be a better dad.”
Through all that, Eddie’s parents had a change of heart – 180 degrees. They wanted Roger back in school the next day. They didn’t feel their son was afraid of him, so neither were they. And they were sorry about being wretched to Gilbert.
When the group discussed what would be an appropriate restitution, it was the 8 students who felt that their actions had offended the whole school community. They owed everyone an apology. So they stood together while they made individual presentations to assemblies of each grade level.
One girl told the student body that the whole mess started with name-calling. Eddie called her a name, but she had called him one right back. Ragging on each other is common middle school stuff, however rotten. But hearing peers describe how harmful it is was profound.
Over the years of Gilbert’s efforts to get kids and adults to talk over their issues and to quit pushing “bad” kids out, Waterville’s climate has become much more peaceful, happy and productive.
Discipline means “to teach.” Painful though it was, Gilbert’s conference was a lesson no one in that community is likely to forget anytime soon.
Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov , RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com.
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