Teachers tied down by legal worries

It was the first day of school when, as a high school teacher, I stopped a student from entering my English class. She was a transfer student, wearing what I considered a lewd T-shirt. I sent her to the principal's office where she was told to go home and change before she would be allowed to return.

What I didn't expect was that her mother would show up the next day and tell the principal that her daughter had a right to wear whatever she wanted, citing a similar dress-code case in California, where they'd previously lived.

This was Bozeman Senior High School, Bozeman, Mont., 1975. The principal was folksy, savvy, and authoritarian. He acknowledged that a student had the right to sue a school district over unreasonable policies but opined that the existing dress code was not unreasonable.

He also dryly noted that there was only one judge in the county, that the judge's wife was his secretary, and that the judge would set a trial date more than a year hence. Until her daughter won in court he'd suspend her, postponing her graduation by at least a year - if she won.

There was no lawsuit. The student returned to class that afternoon - properly attired.

Ah, common sense and simpler times.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where the threat of lawsuits hangs like the sword of Damocles over discipline decisions made by public school administrators and teachers. Sadly, it is a fact of life that the traditional role of educators on matters of discipline has become a shared enterprise with a school district's legal department.

Talk but 10 minutes with teachers or principals laboring in the classroom trenches (not the central office or the state education department) and you'll quickly hear how the legal monkey on their backs is a major obstacle to providing a good education.

A recent national poll of parents and teachers commissioned by the advocacy group Common Good and conducted by the research nonprofit Public Agenda, reported that nearly 8 in 10 teachers said students are quick to remind them that they have rights or that their parents can sue.

Because most students pass through a grade only once, it is criminal if an unruly individual routinely disrupts this unique opportunity. A real troublemaker can't be left in a class for days or weeks on end as a court system reviews a school's decision to kick out such a student for egregiously unacceptable behavior.

Of course, a less legalistic approach to running schools does not relieve the teacher from setting clear expectations on behavior and grading. Good teachers make such guidelines clear (or pay with inevitable chaos for not doing so).

Public school teachers deal with students overly influenced by a pop culture that routinely promotes contempt for authority. The values reflected in such miscreants as cartoon character Bart Simpson, talk-show host Howard Stern, or hard-core rapper "50 Cent," compromise teachers' authority. Compound that with a legalistic code of conduct - and you have the makings of an authority vacuum.

Young people test authority. That's just what they do. For parents and schools, the goal is to have order and discipline internalized, to make good behavior a value a young person chooses rather than has imposed. Invariably, the first skirmishes in the effort for schools to establish order is for authority to be a respected adult, not (especially to a teenager) an abstract set of rules set by a distant court or legislature. Authority must have a face.

What might that face be?

Supportive parents, of course, but unfortunately that's not the case for far too many students. Next, the principal: visible, present, knowing each student by name. Then the teacher, expressing positive expectations about each student and an assertive, if understated, pride, that "in my classroom, you will learn because I am a good teacher."

And, as important as all three above, is peer pressure. Young people set group norms for what they expect from each other. It is imperative that these norms reinforce the right of everyone to learn, respect for others, and the self-discipline to succeed.

Students are as quick to defend a good teacher as they are to condemn a bad one. Students are the best source for a principal to find out if a teacher abuses authority. Good schools, where adults are in charge, support and foster strong values.

There is no face of authority if it becomes routine for two sets of lawyers to argue the appropriate penalty for school infractions before a distant judge. The practical fact is that a troublesome student, or one who routinely tries to avoid responsibility for poor grades by blaming the teacher, will have problems in more than one class.

Schools are incredibly complex social institutions. Teachers should not be tied down like Gulliver by Lilliputian legal maneuvers used by a student or parent to cudgel a district into making individual exceptions, be it on grading, dress code, or discipline.

Jim Bencivenga, community producer for csmonitor.com, taught high school for eight years.

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