Saturday, November 15, 2008

Expulsions, student behavior, and the shortcomings of principals

Recently I've been extremely busy with assorted, big projects at my daughter's high school. They have absorbed a great deal of my time so I haven't posted for over a month. Here's something I sent out via the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group this morning. It's length qualifies it for a Perimeter Primate posting.

The community needs to be aware that when a student is suspended from their school for a serious infraction and is then recommended by the school's principal to be "DHP'ed" (submitted to an expulsion hearing), if the Disciplinary Hearing Panel decides to expel the student, most of the time they are simply assigned another equivalent OUSD school.

Students are rarely expelled from the district, only from their original school. Very few students are sent to alternative schools. For instance, a student who has committed a serious infraction, and then is DHP'ed from Bret Harte, will be directed to enroll at Frick, or Montera, or some other middle school the following week. All school year long, these DHP'ed students play musical (classroom) chairs.

Of course OUSD charter schools will never be directed by the District to accept the DHP'ed students, nor be expected to take part in providing any of their resources to them. Even though those schools declare themselves to be "public," they are allowed to be exempt from accepting ALL students. This means, too, that problematic students of the charter schools must always be accepted back into the general system when they get kicked out of the charter. For all the popular talk about equitability, this is not equitable.

After students have been DHP'ed, they arrive at the attendance office of their new school to be enrolled by their frustrated, discouraged, ashamed, and/or angry parents. For a little while, the kids are generally subdued and on their best behavior from having been submitted to the DHP process. The schools have case managers who are supposed to follow the DHP'ed arrivals. They have varying amounts of experience and training, and are trying to manage a huge and difficult load. Because of the nature of the kids' family situations, and the magnitude of the problems that they have, this is very tough work.

Principals are required to accept these students, but are usually not happy to do so because they know the students usually bring chronically difficult behavior with them. Although the District's method sometimes works because it separates enemies from each other, it is not unusual for the DHP'ed student's negative behavior to start up once again as soon as they are comfortable at their new school and get underway with developing new enemies.

Students who are inclined to live their educational years in this way might also have strong neighborhood turf, and/or ethnic subgroup, allegiances. The rivalries caused by the tribal outlook of some of Oakland's youth are the cause of a considerable amount of the fighting.

East and West Oakland groups dislike each other. Some Latino/Black/ Pacific Islander and Asian groups dislike each other. In OUSD there aren't simply enough White kids who are so inclined. Even subgroups within each of those groups dislike each other, for instance Latinos who are either Norte or Sur, or those from 98th Ave. vs. those from Seminary vs. those from the Dirty Thirties, etc. (all East Oakland neighborhoods) . Add adolescent behavior and weak family structures into the mix and you'll get the behavior problems seen in OUSD secondary schools. You may wish to research the increase in school violence in New Orleans as a result of forcing rival neighborhood kids together when their school system was re-formed.

Having attended Bret Harte and Skyline, my children and their friends have never been part of this type of social drama at their schools and they have learned how to keep far, far away from it. This is why they have always been safe at those schools and why I believe they are better off, and more socially aware and mature than their private school or suburban school peers. I value those qualities in young people.

I've learned that the majority of the school fighting is caused by a subset of kids who mess with each other constantly and don't know how live their lives any differently. Sometimes they have parents and relatives who actively coach them and encourage it. Elijah Anderson (in "Code of the Street") explains how schools are a "staging ground" for establishing Respect, the drive behind all "street-oriented" behavior.

Because my daughters and their friends are simply outside that sphere, they've expressed to me that most fights are simply annoying, or even amusing, rather than scary and threatening. Their immense entertainment value is why kids stop everything and run like crazy toward a fight that has broken out -- blocking adult access to the combatants. Of course some of the fights can get serious and cause severe bodily harm, but most don't get to that point.

In my opinion, OUSD schools lack a comprehensive, unified and effective behavior modification approach toward student behavior. This might well be the District’s most serious failing.

Some principals have adopted the techniques of Noah Salzman, a respected education consultant, to guide the overarching philosophy and approach to behavior management at their schools. I'm sure there are other effective and tested strategies, but they are not always considered or exploited by principals, or even seem to be required by the District. It is very haphazard. Any of these approaches -- well-implemented, discussed, made transparent, data-reviewed and constantly adjusted -- would be able to control and contain a fair amount of the negative behavior. This strategy would relieve the concerns and frustrations of many parents and teachers.

There are some charismatic school administrators who are gifted with the energy and strong instinct for managing student behavior, but they are a very rare breed. Joe Salamack might be one of them. He worked as a dean at Bret Harte in the late 1990’s, then as an assistant principal at Montera, with admiration and glowing reviews by most parents and his peers. To OUSD’s loss, he was snagged by Bishop O'Dowd a couple of years ago to become their principal.

Unfortunately, some principals strongly believe in, and cling onto, their own personal philosophies about student behavior management. Those philosophies are not necessarily proactive and "best practices" driven, or derived from any serious insight or research. They are likely to be either a passive and vague philosophy, or one which is reactive and consists of repeated threats, screaming and punishment.

It's too bad that there is such a lack of sophistication on the part of some principals about these matters -- considering the wealth of human behavior research that is available. I do not believe that coaching for the principals will necessarily be able to correct their deficiencies, either. The principals need to arrive at that position of authority open-minded, sufficiently learned, and with a strong internal sense about group behavior management.

Sometimes the school's teachers have a great deal of insight and would like the principal to lead the school to adopt a strategic, effective and unified approach. And sometimes the principal is hopelessly "old school" and defensive, and the teachers' more innovative opinions are considered a threat and are squashed. The best that teachers can do under these circumstances is to manage their own classrooms effectively. A few of them create pockets of sanity -- peaceful oases for their students -- within a school wide climate of chaos. The kids always know who these teachers are.

The schools also need to be staffed with more Campus Security Officers. Ask anyone who works on any secondary school campus. Sometimes student safety at one school is sacrificed for another school. For instance, last week a CSO from Skyline was sent to work at McClymonds for two days. Then there are the sick and vacation days that come up for the CSO's (and disability days caused by the injuries they get from breaking up fights). The staffing of these valuable employees is simply inadequate.

Most parents have no idea that all of this is going on but anyone who steps on a campus can feel it. This submission has been long, but I hope it helps move us toward a better OUSD.

Sharon Higgins
OUSD parent (since 1993)
Former Parent Coordinator at Bret Harte (2001-08)


If a crime is committed that involves juveniles, the name of the perpetrator or the victim is not usually revealed, but they are crimes that should be reported nonetheless. Every week we read about crimes committed by juveniles in the Oakland Tribune. Names are withheld.

Katy Murphy just posted a piece on her education blog about the student-on-student assault that injured one girl so badly she spent two nights in the hospital. Of course the names were withheld.

The community should be able to see evidence that some sort of crime data is being tracked by the school site. I would think that those numbers (type of crime and frequency in a given time period) could legally be revealed.

How many fights broke out that week? How much bodily harm was caused (simple or aggravated assault)? How many kids were the victims of a strong arm robbery on the campus, or on the bus ride home that month?

And as for property crimes that cost the school district a ton of money, how many times that year did the school bank get broken into with hundreds of dollars getting stolen? How much property was stolen or damage sustained b/c someone at the school didn't remember to set its alarm system (yet again), or b/c the alarm system is simply ineffective?

This stuff is going on all the time, but the only way we learn about it is if it leaks out by accident.


Hey folks, this is the elephant in the room that we're now just beginning to talk about in a real way. I hope the strong members of this group don't let it fade away.

I believe the scattered and closeted handling of these issues on the part of the schools and the district is a big reason, maybe the biggest, why so many Oakland parents are reluctant to use the schools, especially the secondary schools. If they use them, many parents are always slightly on edge wondering about the safety of their children. And they should be, because nothing meaningful, by policy, is dependably revealed by the school. Bad stories, true or false, just seep out.

There are few straightforward ways to find out what is really going on. Maybe things are better than parents think, or maybe they are worse.

As far as I can tell, this is also a big reason why parents feel the need to flee to the charters or the privates ("I've heard that there is a lot of fighting at THAT school."). It is why working in these schools for the long term is so difficult for so many teachers (haphazard discipline structures & lousy school climate). It is why many OUSD teachers living in Oakland won't send their kids to their neighborhood OUSD schools. It is how a fair amount of the crime problem in Oakland is constantly developing in the public schools right underneath our noses.

The problems need to be addressed in a more comprehensive way by the schools. The unadulterated numbers of incidents need to be tracked, publicly reported and thought-about, so the schools know where to begin and where they need to go. Think about that magic word "accountability."

Hey District people: If you aren't willing to step up and be strong leaders who will be innovative with these issues and attack them head on for us, can you at least create a venue that will pull people together to make a task force, or workshop, or some way to put our heads together to devise a new strategy? Then we might be able to make some progress with getting into the nitty-gritty of this in a more meaningful way. On one hand it seems hopeless, but on the other it might be possible to start heading in a direction that will make more sense.

This topic affects parents who live in the flatlands, traditional zones, and hills schools alike. Unlike so many of those who work at Second Ave., we parents live in Oakland and we are using your schools, ugly warts and all. I wish you would trust us and consider us as worthy partners, and let us help you chart a new course.



The Perimeter Primate said...

A comment about these posts from a member of Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group:

I agree completely with all these posts. As a middle school teacher in another district, we were not informed of students' past behavior if they were expelled from another middle school in my district. We now have language in our contract that requires them to inform us. I bet the same is true for OUSD teachers. Not only do they probably not know who these kids are who have violent histories and were expelled and rerouted to their middle school, but most likely they aren't even told about the current violence on campus unless they witness it or someone tells them about it.

Still, at least for my middle school, all reasons for detentions, in-house suspensions, regular suspensions, and expulsions are documented. They have to be because students do have rights, and if the district doesn't document the consequences for behavior, they don't have a legal ground to stand on. So, OUSD must have this documentation, and the individual schools must have it as well.

Perhaps Troy, or someone else from the district, might weigh in on how to get this information?

Finally, school violence happens in urban as well as non-urban schools (think Jonesboro a decade ago, or Columbine). Non-urban schools might have fewer feeder schools or might be more homogeneous- -so the issues are very different. But urban schools are particularly vulnerable especially with kids coming from many feeder elementary schools. And I wonder if urban schools' violence is more persistent and less of an explosion of sudden violence as seen in the aforementioned incidents. Little seems to be done to unify the kids in any real meaningful way. Neighborhood identification is very strong, and kids who come from the same elementary schools seem to band together, at least for awhile. Students would rather die than be seen as "snitching" on someone even if that someone is intimidating and harassing others. Teachers are overwhelmed by the amount of pressure placed on them to bring up test scores, and there aren't enough adults around in any of the schools to really make a huge impact. It all comes down to money to pay for adults to implement programs, be security guards, lower class sizes, etc.

Many many years ago, I taught summer school in SF. It was a horrible experience. Daily we experienced outbreaks of major fights because the kids were having a turf war. The summer school was in a completely different neighborhood, but they brought kids in from Geneva Towers and Sunnydale--both very poor and violent housing projects--and the kids went at each other constantly because they had to defend their project because kids were dissing it. In the middle were these kids from other parts of SF who were witnesses and sometimes incidental victims. I cite this as an example of how little is done to try to reach kids to find a common ground.

The Perimeter Primate said...

And another response:

Dear Oakland Parents,

Like many Oaklander’s I voted for Measure “Y” to fund violence prevention programs in the City Oakland. I have also supported County Supervisor Nate Miley in his efforts to develop and fund county violence prevention programs. So I am shocked to learn that OUSD dissolved the internal agency that dealt with children and families in crisis and that they have no coordinated reporting system or plan address violence in the schools.

Both Supervisor Nate Miley and Council person Jean Quan boast of their achievements and expertise in the area of violence prevention. They represent the families of Bret Harte. The Oakland Unified School District needs to work with the City and the County to support families in crisis and prevent violence. They should not be “dumping" children and failing to find them the City and County programs which can support them in staying in school and achieving up to their potential.

How is the OUSD coordinating with the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda to prevent violence in the schools?

What do Jean Quan and Nate Miley have to say about what happened at Bret Harte?

Will the OUSD be holding a public meeting with Council Member Jean Quan, County Supervisor Nate Miley, Police Chief Wayne Tucker and Roberta Mayor to present their coordinated plan to address violence in the schools?

The Perimeter Primate said...

It is troubling to me that members of this listserv who work for the District, including a number of our school board members, choose to be perpetually mute and won't even chime in with the tiniest nicety.

The Perimeter Primate said...

And one more public comment to this public parents' listserv from the OTA president, Betty Ohlson-Jones:

Sharon, thank you for a most excellent and informative posting. Your observations on charter schools in this context are especially enlightening -- yet another example of how these publicly (AND privately) funded schools are run privately, with precious little oversight from the district.

When the state administration dismantled the Office of Student and Family Services during the "second wave of reorganization" just a year ago, they got rid of more than the jobs that were eliminated. The effectively tore apart a culture and a safety net that had been carefully built over the past 20 years, and that included programs for school climate and safety (conflict resolution, anti-bullying, Second Step, etc.) One of the things they were working on was a draft template for developing positive school climate that could have served as a starting point for schools across the district.

Instead, what we now see all too often is exactly what you described -- haphazard or non-existent plans for student discipline, lack of follow-up when students misbehave, lack of support for teachers, and an overall climate ranging from over-permissiveness to harshness.

Another by-product of the frequent shuffling of DHP'ed students is that receiving teachers often aren't informed of their previous criminal and/or disciplinary record. This is a violation of Ed Code #49079, which says that a school district shall inform the teacher of each pupil who has engaged in, or is reasonably suspected to have engaged in, any of the acts (described in Ed Code #48900) that are grounds for suspension and/or expulsion.