Keeping Discipline In-House

Nelson Hernandez, Washington Post, June 15, 2009

The epicenter of trouble at G. James Gholson Middle School used to be the cafeteria.

When a few hundred seventh- and eighth-graders crammed together, they would gain a sense of strength in numbers. The noise was overwhelming. Food fights erupted almost daily. Roughhousing sometimes led to brawls. The school handed out 867 suspensions in the 2006-07 school year, more than 250 for fighting.

The Landover school offered a case study of what Prince George’s County leaders want to change. Many educators agree that suspensions are ineffective in changing behavior. When students return after a suspension, they’re behind in class and often angry, which can provoke them to do something that will get them suspended again. Students who are repeatedly suspended are far more likely to drop out.

Prince George’s schools issued more than 21,700 suspensions in the 2007-08 academic year, involving almost 13,000 students who were kept out of school–many of them more than once, according to state data. The county’s suspension total was more than any other Maryland school system and almost three times the total in neighboring Montgomery County. D.C. public schools–about a third the size of the Prince George’s system–issued more than 2,200 suspensions in 2007-08. To many observers, the Prince George’s tally represented an educational failure because school administrators were forced to sacrifice in part their academic mission in order to keep campuses under control.

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Experts say forcing a student to stay out of school can be problematic, particularly when a child goes home to an unstable family situation or is allowed to run the streets.

“You send them home for 10 days, they aren’t going to ‘see the wizard’ [and] come back reformed,” Phil Lee, president of the Kettering Civic Federation, said at a meeting. “They come back angrier.”

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But the secret to the reduction is standing hours a day, roaming the halls, peeking into classes and ceaselessly keeping students in line. Nowhere is this more evident than the daily battle to have an orderly lunch in the cafeteria. Food fights are now a distant memory.

“5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1,” Parker [Jeffrey J. Parker, principal of Gholson] called out on a microphone as students streamed in one day last week, carrying on hundreds of conversations at once. “Everybody be seated and quiet.”

The din of chatter dimmed ever so slightly. “I’ve already counted down, I’ve already asked you to get quiet,” he said. “Excuse me! We will have a silent lunch if you cannot get quiet when I ask you to!”

The noise decreased a little more. “I mean for you to get quiet, so I’m going to have to show you,” Parker said. He started calling out the names of students who were still talking, making them stand against the wall to calm them down. Soon it was about as quiet as it was going to get, so he started shuttling each table off to the food line.

As lunch got underway, Parker scanned the students from a chair on the stage, calling them out when they started acting up. The children, bundles of energy, were testing rules every moment. A group threw around a crumpled-up love note (confiscated); two boys “took it to the body,” slang for punching each other in the chest as a test of how much pain they can take (Parker stopped them; it can lead to fights); and a boy and a girl clung to each other in a prolonged embrace (and were told to knock it off).

“What’s the problem? What do you keep moving for?” Parker asked a seventh-grader who kept switching seats. “Burnett, Burnett: Don’t throw that orange. Sit down, Knight. Charles: You ready to sit down, son? Sit down and stop playing.”

Parker explained his methods: Usually a word or a guiding hand on the elbow is enough, although he has chased trespassing high school students out of the building a couple of times. The main thing, he said, is being a presence in the school and knowing students by name. Like principals everywhere, he has found that some of the students he knows best are the ones who land in his office most often.

“See those two standing against the wall?” Parker said of a couple of eighth-graders. “The short one? He’s a pistol. He will curse you out. Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho, like a sailor.”

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PCcounty

Principal Parker keeps an eye on his charges.

 Students by Ethnicity 

% American Indian

7%

% Asian

% Hispanic

3%

% Black

95%

% White

1%

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