Settling Parent-School Spats

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 10:36 AM

It is hard to decide where to begin the bizarre story of Ryan Gellis, a brilliant 16-year-old, his mother Carrie, two teachers who penalized him for being absent because of illness, and the various school administrators and New Jersey state officials and lawyers and hearing officers and goodness-knows-who-else pulled into the long dispute.

I often write about families in conflict with schools, since that is the theme of so many conversations I have with parents. From their point of view, the educators are stubborn, rule-bound and misguided, and most of the time I think the parents are more right than wrong about that. But the Ryan Gellis story is so convoluted, so full of bad decisions on both sides, and offers so many unexamined solutions that I wonder if it might be better to have an informal system in schools that looks for ways out of these messes, rather than just calling in the lawyers.

That is what happened in the Gellis case. It became "C.G. and R.G., on behalf of minor child R.M.G., Petitioner v. Board of Education of the Township of Brick Ocean County, Respondent." It began March 4, 2005, and it isn't over yet.

Why couldn't we have a friendly referee, or ombudsman, to talk to both sides and suggest a way out that would be less expensive and time-consuming for everybody? New Jersey has mediators for such issues, but they are professionals trying to get agreements, and I am thinking of an amateur just offering advice. How about all those retired teachers and principals looking for ways to use their experience and people skills? I can even think of one elderly education reporter, me, who might enjoy helping out as a friendly go-between, and for no charge.

So let's assume I am on the Gellis case. Here are the facts. What would I have done with them?

Ryan Gellis is a very smart and nice kid. His IQ has been tested near the 160 range. He got a 960 on the SAT when he was about 11. But he is also in frail health, with scoliosis, paranasal sinus disease and a severely deviated septum. His father is in telecommunications sales and his mother stocks shelves at a discount store. They have two children other than Ryan, and money has sometimes been tight.

Ryan was 13 when he became a freshman at Brick Township High School. In the second quarter, the trouble started. He was in an honors English class. The teacher reduced his grade by 25 percent on an oral presentation because he wore black jeans rather than the required khaki pants as part of the appropriate attire she had dictated for the assignment. His mother, Carrie Gellis, said he outgrew his khaki pants and thought the black jeans would do just as well.

The lowered assignment grade had little effect on his final grade in the course, which was near 90. But Carrie Gellis, who believes in fighting for the right principles, protested to the county superintendent and he persuaded the district to restore the points "so everyone could move on," according the district's attorney, Jean Cipriani. Carrie Gellis disputes this account, and says the change was ordered by a New Jersey state education official she contacted.

Whatever the reason for the change, Carrie Gellis said it angered the teacher and led her to transfer Ryan to another English class and caused upheaval in his schedule. Cipriani said the teacher was not angry but concerned about how other students would treat Ryan and how his mother's criticism of the teacher would affect the situation. Cipriani said the teacher eventually, and only reluctantly, agreed to let him be moved to another class.

Ryan lost participation points for missing nine classes, even though, Carrie Gellis says, all the absences were excused. Cipriani says the notes excusing the absences were not received until after the marking period, but the teacher said she was willing to help him make up work.

What would ombudsman Mathews have done about this? I would have urged the teacher to back off the dress code as a trivial grading technique and try harder to make it clear to Ryan that he could make up the work lost when he missed class. An administrative law judge later ruled that the teacher had properly used the same rules and procedures for all students and that is the way the law should work. But a teacher needs to be a bit more flexible and forceful.

I would also have told Ryan to apologize to the teacher for the absences and ask for ways to make up for them. Also, I would have advised Carrie Gellis to save her time and energy for a better cause than the oral presentation dress code. The drop in her son's grade was minor, and all teachers have their little quirks.


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