Let The Punishment Fit The Policy 

Idaho's school disciplinarians struggle to find the line between reprimanding and understanding

Throw a tantrum in your fourth-grade class and you might A) get punished by your teacher; B) pay a visit to the school principal; or C) get arrested, locked up and forced to spend four days in an oversized uniform isolated at the detention center.

Seven-year-old Fabian Alvarez experienced all of the above. Few parents would argue that students who act out in class shouldn't be reprimanded, but many may be unaware that Idaho law allows for their kids to be handcuffed, arrested and locked up for multiple days when they break the rules. Renee Alvarez certainly wasn't aware of the policy before she got a call from her children's school in November. Alvarez, formerly of American Falls, was notified that the school resource officer was in the process of transporting her son Fabian to the Bannock County Juvenile Detention center in Pocatello.

Fourth-grader Fabian had thrown a screaming fit in class, but when he was removed from class, his behavior worsened. The school principal called in the school resource officer and from that point on, Fabian's fate was sealed. Power County Magistrate Judge Mark Beebe issued a detention order on two counts of disturbing the peace.

At the juvenile detention center Fabian was isolated from other inmates, put in an oversized uniform, fingerprinted and forced to spend the next four days and three nights locked up.

To protest what she says is the calloused treatment of her son, Renee Alvarez challenged the charge in court, and her attorney, Mark Echohawk, filed a motion saying that Fabian was too young to have committed the crime with malicious intent. The court found that there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction, Echohawk said in an e-mail. "Although Fabian and his mother prevailed in the criminal proceeding, the judgment in their favor did not remedy the harm already done."

Alvarez's case may seem like an isolated incident, and many public school officials agree that it is rare that law enforcement is called in for discipline in the schools. But some people are saying that this case and others like it are symptoms of a school system that is increasingly prioritizing policy and rules--sometimes beyond what seems reasonable and without considering the underlying reasons for a student's misbehavior. While some disciplinary policies in Idaho were created with the intention of protecting students, some parents are questioning whether policy-level enforcement might hurt more than it helps.

Crackdown on Bullies

"If you've got one child that is being bullied, then that is one too many," says Brenda High, founder and co-director of Bully Police USA. The group aims to reduce the occurrence of bullying in the public schools by having every state pass a law that creates anti-bully policies.

High's commitment stems from personal experience. Her son, Jared, was consistently teased and tormented by his peers over a three-year period at a middle school in Pasco, Washington. By the time Jared turned 13, his parents realized how damaging the bullying was to their son and they had him transferred to another school. But for Jared, the move was too late. "He was severely depressed, and three weeks after the transfer, he called my husband, told him goodbye, and shot himself," says High.

Amidst her devastation and grief, High began looking for answers. Administrators at Jared's school were well aware that a bully had been harassing her son, she says. But there was no accountability for the teachers or school principals who let it happen. "There were no policies or ways to deal with it," says High.

Since Jared's death in 1998, High and other parents around the nation have been on a mission to eliminate bullying in public schools. According to High, an act of bullying occurs every seven seconds, and the lasting emotional and psychological effects for victims are often severe. Her organization hopes to have laws passed that define, address and prohibit bullying and, in some cases, outline the consequences for those students who break the rules.

"The number one duty of each lawmaker is to protect our citizens, and our most vulnerable citizens are our children," says High.

The Idaho State Legislature unanimously passed "Jared's Law" during the 2006 session. The law not only defines bullying and requires school boards to include bully policies in their school code, it also says that students who bully could face suspension and be charged with an infraction.

"It defines the word 'bully,'" says State Representative Tom Trail of Moscow, who co-sponsored the bill. "What this bill really does is call upon the board of trustees to work with teachers, administrators and parents to include in the school administrative handbook a section on bullying."

Trail says that he and Rep. Pete Nielsen of Mountain Home decided to write the bill after Nielsen's grandson was a victim of bullying, and after High told them her story about Jared. "She is the driving force behind any anti-bully legislation across the country," says Trail about High.

Jared's Law also prohibits any harassment, intimidation or bullying via cell phone or over the Internet--an important inclusion, says Roseanne Hardin, vice president of the board of directors of the Boise chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). One out of six instances of bullying occurs via computer or phone. "It is very helpful to have [the bill] reference Internet or telephone instances. We've heard about harassment in chat rooms or over text messaging. I think addressing that is very helpful in today's world."

Neither Brenda High nor Rep. Trail see this legislation as the end solution for addressing bully problems, they say. "It's a foundation," says High. "Every school needs to follow up by developing their own policies, but it's a start."

Although High does emphasize that students who bully need to be punished, she says her purpose is more focused on ensuring that teachers address bullying when they witness it. "What we're fighting isn't really the kids who are bullying; it's the adults who let it happen. It's not a kid problem, it's an adult problem."

High says understanding is important, because she's heard of teachers and school administrators who have turned a blind eye on bullies at school. "No excuse is good enough to let that happen."

However, some parents have expressed concerns that the legislation is overly focused on policy. "If you spend any time in an elementary school then you can tell that bullying is not about the other kids," says Jennifer Mangiantini, a parent of two elementary-age boys in Eagle. "It's about the bully; something's going on with that child. And we need to find out about that, whether it's in the classroom or at home. We need to understand, 'What's going on, honey, what's going on?'"

Jared's Law not only requires that school districts develop policies prohibiting bullying, it also allows for bullies to be punished by law enforcement. If a student's bullying is a symptom of undiagnosed mental illness, criminalizing them by making them guilty of an infraction may exacerbate their social problems, some mental health officials say.

Still, Hardin says that this new policy will help in those instances more than it hurts. Bullies may have underlying issues that could be addressed as a result of a conflict. "They might have ADHD [attention deficit hyperactive disorder], they might be hyperactive, they could have problems at home and they could just be chatterers," says Hardin. Jared's Law may help highlight those issues, she says. "Does it solve the problem all by itself? No. But it's a place to start. It will hopefully call the student's behavior to the attention of administrators so they can say, 'Hey, let's take a look at what's going on here.'"

Although considerations for mentally ill students were not necessarily built into the bill, Trail says he discussed the reasons students bully with Idaho State Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard. "When incidents of bullying occur, both the victim and the perpetrator should visit their school counselor," says Trail.

But in other states where punishment policies aren't directly accompanied by counseling policies, sometimes the welfare of students is lost in the process of following procedure.

One parent named Robert, who lives in the Midwest and prefers not to be identified by last name in order to protect his son, said that dealing with his child's offense through law enforcement was a terrible experience for him and his family. His 16-year-old son is dealing with a number of difficult problems, he says.

Robert's son has been diagnosed with ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome. He was involved in an incident at school where he pushed another boy, the boy pushed him back and then Robert's son slapped the other boy.

Robert drove his son to the other boy's house the night of the incident and he apologized to the other boy. But the next day at school, his son was handcuffed and arrested for battery. Robert didn't question the school, and was told that law enforcement had to be involved because that was the school district's policy.

The next few months were miserable for Robert and his son. "I was beginning to worry that the fine line between doling out punishment to teach my son a lesson and beating what little self-esteem he has left out of him was beginning to be crossed," Robert wrote in a complaint to the district attorney's office.

To avoid spending thousands of dollars going to trial, Robert opted for "diversion," where his son had to complete community service and bring his grades up because of his offense. He was also forced to take a drug test, although he'd never shown any signs of using drugs. "I was beginning to realize that the 'process' was not concerned with our son, his welfare and his future. It is concerned with carrying out its 'cookie cutter' system of punishment, regardless of the individual and regardless of the crime."

Robert's case is not unusual. Since the inception of "zero tolerance," many students have been penalized for behavior that formerly warranted only a slap on the wrist. The umbrella policies that determine discipline standards don't soften for relatively minor offenses, and it's rare for a policy to call for a visit to a counselor in addition to a visit to the police station.

The Harbor Method

A relatively new form of schooling called the Harbor Method takes the practice of prioritizing policy to a new level. Developed in Nampa by teacher and administrator Becky Stallcop, the method has become extremely popular among charter schools in the Treasure Valley.

The Harbor Method teaches kids to be kind, gracious and helpful to one another and ensures that they do so by enforcing very stringent policies and rules in classrooms, hallways and lunch rooms. Harbor schools have rules that students may not talk in bathrooms or hallways. Children walk in straight lines with their arms at their sides looking straight ahead. The method aims to stop potential bullying situations before they start and create a "safe harbor" in which kids can focus on learning.

Owyhee Elementary Harbor School's principal, Nolene Weaver, says that when kids understand the rules and structures of their school day, they're more able to focus on learning. "It isn't like it's a total unknown what's going to come next," she says. "That ability to predict what is coming up is comfortable for them. It's easier for kids to learn when they're not wondering what's going to happen."

Weaver says she uses positive reinforcement and frequent reminders to make sure pupils follow the rules and to help them understand why they exist. Less time shushing a class means more time for learning. "Instead of wasting a lot of energy on those rule-breakers, we can spend time on learning new information. You get all that stuff taken care of and out of the way."

The proactive approach has worked for Karyl England's sixth-grade son, she says. When she first heard about the Harbor Method, she was skeptical. "At first, I was like, oh my gosh, this is like a military school."

England was working as a kitchen assistant at Owyhee School for two years before it became a Harbor Method school and so she was able to witness the change.

"I wasn't just a parent, I was an employee." It didn't take long for the method to win her over. "What they do is they just lay down the rules at the beginning of the year, and if the kids don't obey they rules, then there's consequences," says England. "There's no wishy-washiness."

England enrolled her youngest son in the school and after observing how well he did in the first grade, she decided that she wanted her sixth-grade son to attend Owyhee as well. He had not done as well as she had hoped she would at traditional elementary schools, says England. He was frequently bullied and had been involved in several fights. England says that she thinks that he may have been acting out in part because his dad was on active duty in Iraq. "I think it was more or less a protective thing. It had been so long that he had been bullied, and then he was angry because his dad was gone."

Once England transferred her son to Owyhee Harbor, she noticed a change in his behavior almost immediately. "I saw such a difference in attitude from one school to the next, even when his dad was gone," says England. "When he went to the Harbor School, it was different because he felt more comfortable, and you could tell he felt more comfortable because he didn't have to defend himself."

England's youngest son will continue on to second grade at Owyhee, but since Owyhee only goes through sixth grade, her older son will start at a traditional junior high in the fall. "I'm kind of hoping that he does better because of the Harbor Method, but I'm willing to do whatever I need to do to keep him going in the right direction."

Critics of the Harbor Method say that the strict policies are unreasonable, and can result in extreme or humiliating punishments being inflicted for minor offenses.

Jennifer Mangiantini enrolled her two sons in the Hidden Springs School, one of several charter schools in the Treasure Valley that have embraced the Harbor Method. She was impressed with what she had heard about the school. "When you read the description, it's like, my gosh, what parent wouldn't want their child in this loving environment?"

However, Mangiantini, who once taught art at Hidden Springs, said she noticed quickly that some things about the school seemed off. She didn't mind that they couldn't talk in the bathrooms, or that they had to walk in straight lines, but the punishments for offenses seemed unusual. She noticed that when students would break the rules, they'd often get sent into a younger grade's class for a day or two to complete their work alone.

A few times when she was helping out in her third-grade son's class, the school principal would escort an older kid who was in trouble into the class. "The principal would come in and he would point out a sixth- or seventh-grade student that he had sent into the class and say, 'This is a bad boy. Don't let him out of this class.' And then he'd say what they'd done. And the kid would just kind of slump."

Mangiantini said that public humiliation was commonly used to punish students who broke the rules. Students who asked to go to the bathroom at an inappropriate time, blurted out an answer or turned their head to look at art on the walls in the hall were reprimanded in front of the class.

Becky Stallcop, founder of the Harbor Method, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in an article with the Twin Falls Times-News last year, she responded to critics of public discipline by saying, "If they did it in front of everybody, why should they be confronted in private?"

That form of punishment didn't sit well with Mangiantini. She says she realized that she had to pull her kids out of the school after her third-grade son was unreasonably punished for a minor offense. As her son was entering music class, he asked two questions: "Which keyboard would you like me to sit at?" and "Do you want me to help Ben or Brad today?" Her son's mistake was forgetting to raise his hand.

When her son returned to his homeroom, Mangiantini says, his teacher told him that he had misbehaved. "He was sent into a first grade classroom where he had to sit on the floor, facing the wall, and write an essay calling himself a troublemaker."

Mangiantini's conversations with several different parents from other Harbor Schools in the valley have led her to believe that public belittling or berating of students occurs at other schools, too. "I definitely believe that it occurs as a Harbor Method practice, to deter behavior that they deem inappropriate."

"I don't think it's safe, and I don't think it preserves a child's dignity, and that's a promise that they make in the mission of the Harbor Method," Mangiantini says.

Stallcop developed the Harbor Method while she was principal at Central Elementary in Nampa, although it wasn't until later that she formalized and named the method. In 1998, during her tenure as principal at Central Elementary, the Nampa Education Association researched the various school environments by sending an anonymous survey to teachers of six schools in the Nampa School District.

Sixteen out of 24 teachers at Central responded to the survey. Many indicated that the school's strict policies created a culture of fear not only to prevent students from misbehaving, but also as a management tool for teachers.

One teacher responded, "This building is definitely split between teachers and administrators. Fear reigns supreme. The administration is a 'my way or the highway' mentality."

"The teachers of our staff are not at all in a positive workplace and they are suffering because of it," wrote another teacher. "We have six staff members that are on medication for stress-induced illness created by the environment at work."

Long-term effects

Mangiantini says that she thinks the premise behind the Harbor Method is a good one, but running a school using inflexible policies results in disciplinary actions that are too extreme, especially for young children.

"Teachers are given the latitude to do what they want," she says. "I don't think certain methods are appropriate, and there has been research that has shown that it doesn't work to shame and humiliate. It affects a very volatile child in a very sensitive way."

But England says the method worked at Owyhee Harbor School because boundaries were explained in advance. "The teachers do a good job," she said. "It's really nice because the kids act better. They're more respectful, and they just act better. The kids, they knew the consequences and they followed the rules." England says that she never witnessed any punishments that she thought were too extreme.

Dr. Kenneth Coll, chair of the counselor education department at Boise State, says that punishment for misbehavior must be accompanied by examinations into why a student misbehaves. "These are some kids that bully because they don't know what else to do, so they lash out. That bullying may be because of violence at home," he says

"As a society, we tend to dichotomize, we tend to say 'Bullying is bad,' and it is bad," says Coll. "But that's too simplistic. Kids do have a right to attend school without being bullied. Yet we also need to work on understanding what this bullying is about. It's not enough to say that bad people need to be punished."

The kind of compassion that students with special needs might require wasn't a priority at Central Elementary, wrote one teacher in the anonymous 1998 survey. "We have many students at our school with horrific home lives--child abuse, drug addicted parents or siblings, mental illness, alcoholism, broken homes and extremely dysfunctional families. Becky Stallcop said at a staff meeting that she 'doesn't care' what their home life is."

Coll says that in most cases, the development of policies is a benefit to school and classroom management. "You can always take anything too far," he notes. But most policies are created to foster a better learning environment, he says. "We're not trying to reduce spontaneity in the classroom or creative learning; we're not trying to reduce social or academic development. We're trying to let those things thrive through these policies. If they're too rigid, then it sort of defeats the whole purpose, and it becomes oppressive."

The effects of policy taken too far can be lasting, says the attorney representing jailed 7-year-old Fabian Alvarez.

"I have interacted with Fabian since he was placed in detention and remain convinced that the experience of being taken away from his mother, processed into detention, and held for three days has lasting consequences on his mental and emotional state," writes Mark Echohawk in an e-mail.

But the effects of bullying and harassment by other students are traumatic for children too, says Brenda High. She says it is important to use counseling to get to the root of problems, but more than anything else, teachers must catch bullies and make them take responsibility for their behavior. "Kids are wonderful, but they need to be watched. Teachers need to watch them--in the halls, the playground and in the classroom."

The American school system has made many positive changes over the past half century through the writing of policies, Coll notes. "If we could time travel back to 1965 and take a look at the normal schools, you would be appalled at what used to occur, because discipline wasn't well thought-out. Policies are important because they deal with situations that are really tricky and difficult."

Policies should be used as tools, he says. They help set guidelines for appropriate behavior so that students who break the rules can be held accountable, but also get the help and counseling they need to find out why they are acting out. "These policies help raise consciousness and nip problems and misbehavior in the bud," he says.

However, Coll adds that the important thing is to make sure policies are dynamic. He suggests that rules and punishments be reviewed annually to ensure they are effective, and that school districts to communicate with one another to determine what works and what doesn't. He has seen statewide policies become effective tools for schools, he says, after district and school officials troubleshoot. "But it's because the policies have evolved, and I think the bully policy will evolve, too, and become a very good thing for students and teachers."

For information about Jared's Law, visit www.jaredstory.com, www.bullypolice.org or use the search tool at www.legislature.idaho.gov. To find out more about the Harbor Method visit Owyhee Elementary's Web site at http://www.boiseschools.org/schools/owyhee/index.html.

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