A Gap in the Disciplining Of Students Stirs a Debate

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sending a student to the principal's office is a teacher's last resort, something to do when all other disciplinary cards have been played. Because it means lost classroom time for the student and lost administrative time for the principal, it is a decision not to be taken lightly.

But according to teachers union leaders in Maryland, some principals are not holding up their end of the bargain: Too often, they send a student right back to the classroom with a terse note or a few words on the intercom, not bothering to find out why the child was sent to the office in the first place.

A bill proposed by Del. Terry R. Gilleland Jr. (R-Anne Arundel) in the completed 2006 legislative session would have required principals to meet face to face with teachers to discuss students who are sent to the principal's office for discipline. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House but did not reach a vote in the Senate. Gilleland said he will revive the measure next year.

"When we have a high school principal saying, 'I don't have time to talk to a teacher,' then we have a problem," said Gilleland, 29, a former student member of the county school board.

The Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals opposed the bill, arguing that it would have caused the schedules of both principals and teachers to be overwhelmed. Among its requirements was that principal and teacher meet before a student is returned to class. That provision could backfire if it means waiting hours or days for both parties to be free, said Gene Streagle, a former principal who serves as legislative chairman of the statewide group.

"Attempting to schedule a face-to-face conference would be essentially dictated by the planning time of the teacher," Streagle said in an e-mail. "The schedules of the principal and teacher may not match," which could thwart the goal of getting students "back into the stream of things with as little disruption as possible" after they have been disciplined.

The debate centers on a gray area in current law concerning students whose misconduct is bad enough to warrant a trip to the office but not more severe action -- suspension or expulsion -- by school or district administrators. The law states that a principal or "designee," such as an assistant principal, must at least "confer" with the classroom teacher before sending an errant student back. Principals have interpreted "confer" to mean an intercom call, e-mail or any of several other approaches short of a face-to-face meeting, said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association.

"The child comes back in five minutes with a slip of paper saying, 'This child has been disciplined,' " Kaufman said. That, in turn, creates a revolving door of unrepentant students being sent back and forth between the classroom and the office.

A local school system could make its own requirement that principals meet with teachers to discuss students who have been referred to the office for behavioral reasons, but a survey of local systems found that none has such a rule.

Gilleland heard complaints from Anne Arundel teachers and made those concerns the basis of his bill. His campaign treasurer is Robert Silkworth, a teacher at North County High School who once taught Gilleland.

"We have teachers who are being assaulted by students and being called any name you can think of, and they're essentially walking away with a slap on the hand or nothing," Silkworth said. "Teachers stop sending referrals, because they realize the referral is not going to be handled properly."

Proponents hoped a stricter law would help to reduce suspensions. Maryland school systems collectively suspended 71,029 students, or roughly one in 12, in the 2004-05 academic year.

Gilleland's bill would have required principals who failed to meet with teachers to submit written explanations to the county school board and to the appropriate school employees within 72 hours.

Streagle, the former principal, believes a better solution would be a set of guidelines -- not mandates -- on the proper way for principals to tell teachers how a student sent to the office has been dealt with.

"It comes down to basic communication," he said.

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