Building a Circle of Trust
The importance of parental involvement in the school experience of children is often shortchanged. So is the involvement of school district administrators in determining what's best for specific students and their families in specific situations.
Let's take parents. By and large, parents love their children and want to advocate for them. Granted, some parents need assistance in doing so, but their intent is right. This is my take after spending more than seven years as the director of "at risk" programs in a challenged urban district (one of Connecticut's "priority school districts").
I can give you many examples of the challenges faced by school district administrators in advocating for more significant parental involvement, but this one should suffice.
My district took seriously the call to reduce the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol by students. To ensure communitywide engagement I created a committee that included representation from virtually every social service agency in town. This committee met regularly and shared a sincere desire to advocate for the welfare of the young people being raised within our district. Like other priority school districts, if we applied, we were virtually guaranteed funding under the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities grant program.
Only with Student's Permission
The application included a mandatory matrix of infractions and the various actions the district should take. Infractions were listed in order or seriousness, with the least serious (i.e., student suspected of possible drug/alcohol use) to those much more serious, such as students being intoxicated in school and students dealing in banned substances.
One of the "action" columns was "Notification of Parents." To my dismay, the committee member assigned to complete this section - one of our town's social service directors - entered identical data into this field for every infraction regardless of its nature: It read "Only with student's permission."
I thought this was an oversight, but when I brought it up as such at the next committee meeting, the social service director said it was definitely her intent to say that. Her reason was that some parents might react "violently" to the news that their child had committed such an infraction. I countered that as a school district we had to advocate for a holistic approach through which we trust administrators to work with parents to make the right decisions. I told her that if they found my child drunk at school and didn't tell me, I'd sue the school district.
We need to trust that parents are the chief advocates for their children, and we need to trust school administrators working with a student's family to be capable of identifying potential problems and calling for necessary social service or legal interventions.
The social service director I took to task was well intentioned but misguided. We need to trust parents, and we also need to trust district administrators.
Not everyone agrees. Regarding the same grant, a state DOE official contacted us about another column in the matrix-this time regarding the disciplinary action to take under "Student found with drug paraphernalia." We put "Up to five-day suspension." The state official said we failed to meet her zero tolerance policy and that this infraction required a five-day suspension, period.
I gave her two examples. The first is a student found with a single roach clip - a first-time offender, sobbing apologies, and with no bad intent. The second is a student caught with a roach clip and, after an investigation, found to be a supplier and dealer who makes no apology for his actions but haughtily says, "You may as well legalize it."
The state DOE official insisted that zero tolerance required the same penalty. I said, "Nonsense. We need to trust school officials to reasonably differentiate in such situations and make the right decisions on behalf of the students they serve. Otherwise," I concluded, "those students remain underserved."
I lost that battle, because we needed the money and she was unrelenting. That doesn't change the bottom line: We need to trust parents and school administrators. Working together, they provide the best guidance for our children in an ever complex and challenging world.
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.