Teachers in Trouble, Parents Ignored, Part III

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007; 6:42 AM

This is the third in my series of columns on a frequent, but underreported, cause of friction between parents and schools -- the rules that keep parents from getting information and having influence when their children's teacher has a problem. A short story about this clash between a parent and a principal appeared in the Post May 7.

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Dawn Henderson's daughter Kaitlin was crying hysterically when she came home from Hardy Middle School one day in early October 2003. The D.C. sixth grader had a learning disability. She had not understood her social studies homework and was among six students who had not completed it.

Henderson said she knew the teacher to be a young woman new to the profession. During visits to Hardy, Henderson said she heard the teacher yell at some students about failing to do homework.

Kaitlin told her mother that day the teacher had tried something new: She made the six students stand in front of the class and hold all of their textbooks in their outstretched arms for about 15 minutes, until their muscles ached. Kaitlin did not have many books, but they were heavy for an 11-year-old.

Henderson turned out to be one of the rare parents who had the time and energy to pursue relentlessly the facts of her daughter's case, usually hidden from parents because of school rules and legal concerns. Few parents are willing to go as far as Henderson did, or make the details public, so her story sheds light on what happens when a parent does not quit.

Many parents I interviewed for this series say schools rarely give them the information they need when one of their children's teachers is in trouble, and most of them give up the effort as a lost cause. Henderson is in the fourth year of her battle to get a full report from the school on what was done to her daughter -- and to the teacher she considers responsible. She said she plans to keep asking her questions until someone in authority answers them.

On the day that Kaitlin came home crying, Henderson said, a friend who was a teacher told her that making children stand and hold their books was corporal punishment, illegal in D.C. schools. So Henderson called the police, and the next day went to see Hardy principal Patrick Pope, a former D.C. principal of the year who was admired by many parents at the three-story school on 35th Street NW near a commercial stretch of busy Wisconsin Avenue just north of Georgetown. She said she asked Pope for a written statement of what had happened to her daughter. According to Henderson, he said he would look into it.

Darlene Allen of the D.C. Parent Teacher Association said Henderson took the proper course. Parents do not have much influence in such situations, she said, but if school officials know that parents "are watching, listening and waiting" for action, a resolution of the situation is more likely.

That did not seem to work in this case. The conflict between Henderson and Pope has persisted.

Pope told me in an email that school security officials investigated Henderson's complaint but that he was not given their report and Henderson did not ask him for it. He and D.C. school system public relations officials declined to answer other questions about the matter because of rules forbidding release of information about specific teachers.

The teacher left Hardy in 2004. A woman who answered the telephone at the teacher's home in Prince George's County told me the teacher was not available to be interviewed. Since I have been unable to get the teacher's side of the story, I am not going to use her name.


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