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Q&A With Janis E. Mills

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/washingtonpost.com
Bob's guest today was Janis E. Mills, the principal of Laurel High School in Laurel, MD and the chief educational administrator for the Laurel Community of Schools in Prince George's County, MD. As the leading figure in a suburban high school, Mills will discuss school violence, including whether the Littleton shootings can happen anywhere, the tension between jocks and alienated students, the role of parents and the use of police officers in schools, as well as other issues, such as discipline and dress codes.

Janis E. Mills
Janis E. Mills
Mills was named "Principal of the Year" for Prince George's Regional Association of Student Governments in 1997, and was selected to participate in the inaugural class of The Washington Post's Principals' Leadership Institute. In 1995, Mills instituted Laurel High School's Renaissance program, which rewards and recognizes students and teachers for academic excellence, perfect attendance, and improvement.

Here is a transcript of today's session:



Havre de Grace, MD: MS. Mills: My -unsolicited- "solution" to the behavioral problems in schools today - discipline and respect. Your reaction?

Janis E. Mills: My reaction is that I totally agree, and when I think about early childhood and some of the early teachings we need to provide for our children, they need to learn to obey the rules and respect each other and themselves. I think this sets a good foundation for students to realize that there are consequences to their actions. If self-discipline and self-respect are taught early, maybe we wouldn't need to concentrate so much on respecting others and providing discipline later in life or during their school years.


Silver Spring, MD: One of the difficulties ascribed to high school environments is size. I remember when large high schools were split into smaller houses administratively. This allowed students and faculty to know each other and minimized the "falling through the cracks" syndrome. Has this approach gone out of vogue?

Janis E. Mills: I'm not sure that it's gone out of vogue, but maybe it's a financial issue. I think it probably costs less to build fewer large schools than more small schools. I agree that smaller schools provide a more familiar environment and fewer places to hide and for problems to occur. I've always wanted a maximum of 1,000 students in my high school, and I feel that we can get a better handle of behavioral and instructional issues with a smaller population.


Bob Levey: Seems to me the problem is not just discipline in schools, but getting the community buy into that discipline. So when you get absurd situations like the girl who was suspended for bringing Tylenol to school, doesn't it become that much harder to build support for truly important steps, like dress codes?

Janis E. Mills: It certainly does. We need to look at some of the rules and decide if they're not too broad. A situation might exist where it's appropriate for a child to possess medication. When the policy is written so tightly, and the administrator feels bound to comply, then we may all look foolish if it appears to be a huge over-reaction. That certainly does make it harder for parents to support us when we're trying to be firm, but remain fair.


Bob Levey: I've discussed Columbine at length with my 17-year-old daughter, and here's what she and her friends say: It's all about school size. They don't believe the Columbine killings would have happened if that school had 1,000 kids instead of 2,000, because the two shooters could then have gotten help more easily. Do you (as principal of a school with nearly 2,000 students) agree?

Janis E. Mills: Your daughter and I certainly agree about that number. However, a smaller school does have a smaller staff. Our allotment of teachers is based on enrollment so it might not change the teacher-student ratio, but overall, I think control would be easier, and just getting to know kids better encourages them to be involved in school activities. A lot of people have written articles stating that students who become involved in the right things, don't have time to do the wrong things. I agree with that.


Rockville: When the Littleton shootings occurred, my son was away at college, just finishing his freshman year. His comment: "It could have just as easily happened at Rockville -HS]. I knew plenty of kids who were just like those at Columbine."

I spoke to a few of my local legislators about what could be done to stop high school kids from acting out their fantasies. The only thing we agreed on was that high school was too late to intercede. But, as we know, when "schools" assume the role of parents, presumably because parents have abrogated their responsibilities, parents get upset that their rights are being stepped on. Obviously, "we" - both parents and schools need to start building character and self esteem no later than day care. But how?

Janis E. Mills: I guess a child psychologist would make that answer very complicated, yet sometimes, it seems so simple. I think love and nurturing from the very beginning makes a person feel needed and wanted. When you feel that within your family, a sense of security goes with you to school, and maybe childish competitions aren't so difficult to deal with. Talk to your kids about everything, but even more important, listen carefully, answer all their questions. It's OK if you don't know all the answers, but be honest, loving and fair. They'll imitate you, and you'll be very proud.


Bob Levey: You and I recently had a long conversation about hats in schools. You did the impossible--you actually persuaded a newspaper columnist that he was wrong! So now I agree that hats-in-school are a distraction (and a way to tell students and non-students apart). But don't you worry that a no-hat rule will lead to a never-be-different rule? I hate the thought that a student at your school might be "turned in" because he or she wears a lime green jersey or bright orange socks.

Janis E. Mills: You know you're pushing to the extreme now. We do try to teach our kids to be different and expressive in what they say and what they do. We don't really concentrate on what they should and should not wear, and aren't really concerned with it--until it gets in the way. The dress code is meant to eliminate some distractions caused by "creative clothing." Some teenagers find it hard to concentrate, on their work, that is, when a miniskirt or a revealing top is sitting next to them in class.


Herndon, VA: Seems to me school systems across the country have been following this logic -
A- Harris and Klebold didn't conform, and were harassed because of it.
B- They became killers.
C- Any child who doesn't conform, and-or is harassed, is a threat and must be made to conform, by force if necessary.
This scares me. Have you seen this at all, and what's your reaction?

Janis E. Mills: This scares me too. I'd rather promote creativity, than force conformity. I don't think this is an "If P, then Q" situation. However, I think it is important to pay attention to students who are being harassed. We need to look at the reason for the harassment and do whatever it takes to end it.


Bob Levey: We haven't said a word about the highest octane subject of all--boys and girls. How do you help kids walk the line between friendship and flirtation? Is this any of a school's business?

Janis E. Mills: Actually, we try not to make it the school's business, unless it becomes inappropriate or there are unwanted advances. We try to concentrate on appropriate behaviors of all kinds. We educate the students about harassment, but sometimes when you bring something to the surface, it repeats itself more than it would have without your involvement. We also try to remember what it was like to have those raging hormones at the age of 16.


Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, Janis Mills, principal of Laurel (Md.) High School


Bethesda, Maryland: Hi.
I was an alienated student in a Washington Catholic all-girl school twenty years ago.
I has always been my opinion that teachers and parents fail to recognize the intense pain that students who feel left out experience.
Even though many years have passed I still feel the sting of the taunts and teasing that went on thru high school. The effects are long-lasting and potentially devastating to a person's ability to form healthy, lasting relationships.
About three years ago I wrote to the teachers who caused me so much pain and they are still in denial about their role in allowing other kids to do things like lock me in a small room with a snake, though I was deathly afraid of snakes.
Fortunately I was able to heal somewhat from the abuse, but what about the kids who never do? They are who I worry about.
When will teachers recognize they are the last defense for these children?

Janis E. Mills: I try to build a strong relationship between the adults and the students so that the students feel comfortable sharing their problems and concerns with some adult on the staff. I also stress to the teachers that theirs might be the kindest face students see all day. Teachers who forget their role in a child's life, not only shouldn't be educators, but should probably go to jail. I'm really sorry about your experience. Stories like that awaken me at night and remind me off all the things we must do to help our kids grow and be strong and be safe.


Bob Levey: Two Laurel H.S. students were arrested last fall and charged with kicking a man to death. According to news accounts, they seemed to be solid citizens--football players, good students, the whole bit. I'm sure you and your staff have wondered what you could have done to prevent (or predict) this tragedy. What conclusions have you reached?

Janis E. Mills: I hope you don't believe everything you read in the newspaper, especially when the information was gleaned from the parents. This tragedy did occur off school grounds and on the weekend. We tried very hard to keep it a non-school issue, while providing counseling and attending community meetings that followed the incident. A few of our students were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were not directly involved or charged. Those who were charged are not solid citizens.


Atlanta, GA: If a child in your school was depressed, what options are available to the child?
I remember having counselors in high school, but they only offered help with class schedules, not counseling.

Janis E. Mills: We do provide individual and group counseling. Also, our school psychologist, who is worked to her limits, would become directly involved in severe cases. Guidance counselors also provide lists of outside agencies where parents can take their children. Some of those are on sliding scales and some are free. I do my very best to organize the responsibilities of my staff so the counselors can get away from the scheduling and concentrate on the children.


Bob Levey: The Post recently ran a piece about snitching. It said that high school kids often know who has weapons in school, and who breaks other rules. But these students are afraid to "drop a dime" on the culprits for fear of retaliation. How serious a worry is that?

Janis E. Mills: I believe that more and more students really want their peers to behave appropriately. They might not want to snitch or get anyone in trouble, but I think they realize that they don't want anyone to be hurt either. All information that we receive from students is kept confidential. Our students know and trust that that is true. So I think that they see snitching is the better choice over what could happen if they didn't.


Washington, DC : Do you think there is any possibility politically of raising teachers' salaries? I used to teach in Australia where teaching was the highest paying profession of college graduates -for the first few years out of school-. The had no problems with respect and were a highly professional group.

Janis E. Mills: Someone really does need to wake up and pay teachers what they're worth. This country is in a crisis. Non-certified teachers abound and this lack of training affects not only instruction, but classroom management and, therefore, safety. Teachers are expected to work miracles with very little compensation. You're right, probably every other country treats their teachers with more respect, beginning with higher salaries. Our financial role models are our athletes. Many of them who hit the news should not be role models in any other way.


Bob Levey: You've tried to reward classroom achievement through a program called the Renaissance Honor Card. If a child gets a certain grade point average, he or she wins discounts at local restaurants and reduced ticket prices at school events. Is this really the best way to motivate high school students?

Janis E. Mills: Bob, some people do call it bribery, but I don't care why they succeed, just so they do succeed. Our Renaissance program has doubled the number of students on the honor roll, has tripled the amount of students with 4.0s and has taken our attendance to 93 percent, the highest in Prince George's County. We reward and recognize student and teacher success in many ways through the Renaissance program, and we have found that these positive behaviors repeat themselves because of those rewards. We will jump through hoops to motivate kids, and it seems to be working.


SS, MD: I definitely get the impression nowadays that one problem teachers-administrators face on the disciplinary front is parents who reflexively take their kids' side in disciplinary disputes at school, as opposed to how I was raised, in which in my parents' eyes, I was guilty until proven innocent...
Your thoughts?

Janis E. Mills: That's great. We talk about that almost everyday. Too many times, the educators end up defending themselves. When most times, the information went home incorrectly, via the student. We follow the student code of conduct to the letter, we explain that to the parents and we give the child a consequence. Usually, the parents support us in the end, but if they don't, we never cave in. In doing that, we seem to get more support and respect from the home.


Bob Levey: Many thanks to Janis Mills for taking the time to be with us today. Join us next Tuesday, same time, same station. And please give "Levey Live; Speaking Freely" a look if you haven't already. That's our weekly anything-goes program here on washingtonpost.com. It appears Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.



© 1999 The Washington Post Company


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