Like most school districts, NYC has a printed discipline code. Ours spells out four degrees of violations ranging from the mild, insubordination, perhaps, to the potentially lethal, bringing a gun to school.
Every student and every teacher is given a copy of the code and, to make sure the first day of school is as tedious as possible, foreshadowing the 179 or so to follow, the entire code is read to the students by their homeroom teacher.
Each category of indiscretion is paired with what the system has deemed an appropriate response or punishment. These range from a scowl to a lengthy suspension, and these, too, are read to the students.
Sometime in the day or two before the first day of school, teachers are given a roughly two-pound document to read and sign-off that they have done so by the end of the day. These are the Standard Operating Procedures.
The SOPs delineate the format of our lessons, the forms to be used to request classroom repairs, what to do if one is arrested outside of school (there is a different procedure if you are arrested inside the school), and much more.
One of the SOPs spells out the ladder of disciplinary referral. Starting with a student reprimand and ending with referral to the principal for possible suspension, the sequence of what teachers are supposed to do when a student misbehaves are spelled out.
Most of the measures are classroom-based: scowl; verbal reprimand; student conference; short-term (one period) removal from the room.
The next step is to call the parent or guardian.
All I have to do is mention that I might call is almost always enough to make most students offer abject apologies and beg, sometimes on their knees, for forgiveness.
I know from the looks on their faces that these students are terrified.
Sunday I saw the movie ‘Precious’ and I’m beginning to understand that fear.
If you haven’t seen it, Precious is the story of Clarisse Precious Jones, a high school-aged girl in Harlem, pregnant with her second child – both the result of rapes by her father – who is brutalized physically and emotionally by her mother.
Precious reads at the second grade level and when a teacher takes enough of an interest in the girl to try to visit her at her home in order to tell her of an alternative school she could attend, the mother beats, berates and blames Precious for “inviting” the intervention.
When Precious tries to escape the beating by running down the stairs, mom throws the TV at her, just missing hitting the poor girl in the head.
At school yesterday and today I asked my students what happens when a teacher calls home.
This is what these twelve and thirteen year olds told me:
“I get yelled at.”
“I get slapped and yelled at.”
“My mom spanks me with a belt.”
“I get beat and locked in my room.”
“I get grounded for a month… and I get hit a lot.”
I try to call parents with good news, like when a student aces a test, but one girl told me her father beats her even then just because a teacher called.
I don’t think anyone is treated as badly as Precious, but I’m not positive about that.
I’m starting to understand that fear I see when I mention a phone call to mom.
Now I’m afraid, too.