Given everything that has happened since, maybe Lois Winston would have been better off if she had never answered the phone when it rang in her office Thursday, Oct. 3. The caller was Sonja Watts, assistant principal at West Potomac High School. She said Winston's 17-year-old son Shawn was in trouble.
That morning Shawn had argued with another student at the Fairfax County, Va., high school, who struck him in the face. Shawn cursed a teacher who tried to intervene and refused to tell the man his name. He was given an in-school suspension for that, Watts told Winston, but something worse happened in the afternoon. During another confrontation with the same student, Shawn berated another teacher and pushed the man. That meant a 10-day suspension and a recommendation for expulsion. Watts told Winston that her son, a football team member who had never been in serious trouble, had been sent home.
So began several weeks of tortuous conversations involving Winston, her husband Wellington Smith, Shawn, and several Fairfax County educators, particularly Watts and her boss, West Potomac High School principal Henry R. Johnson Jr. To this day the various adults have not been able to agree about what Shawn actually did and how he should have been punished for it. Since that first unhappy telephone call from Watts, Winston has been told that the morning incident was not as simple as Watts first described it, that Shawn never pushed the teacher in the afternoon, and then that he HAD pushed the teacher but the teacher, whose own account I will get to eventually, did not think the offense merited a 10-day suspension.
It has become a mess, despite the fact that Johnson and Watts, whom I interviewed while profiling their school last winter, are experienced, honest and wise educators leading one of the best high schools in the country, and despite the fact that Winston has been similarly candid and self-effacing with me and quick to admit that her son badly misbehaved. She even signed a release giving school officials permission to tell me what they knew about her son's case. I am being intentionally vague about only one part of the story, the identity and actions of the other student, whose parents have not waived her privacy rights.
All the parties involved know that communications between parents and educators are often difficult and become impossible when facts are missing, tempers short and rules misunderstood. But recognizing that has not helped them reach a sensible and mutually agreeable solution.
Bright and productive students like Shawn get into trouble at school somewhere every day. Educators and parents often clash over how to handle it. I think it is useful to tell this particular story in some detail so that we can try to determine why such incidents so often produce insults and hurt feelings, and what rules of conduct parents and educators should impose upon themselves to keep such discussions from falling apart, as this one did.
I hope both parents and educators, and maybe students too, will read this column and let me know who you think acted the most sensibly and who did not. I would also like to know what you think should have done differently to keep one teenager's troubles from turning into a bitter fight among otherwise reasonable adults.
On the day she got the first call, Oct. 3, Winston said she was troubled that Shawn was sent home without any written explanation of what had happened. "He admitted to being disrespectful of the teacher, but was adamant that he did not push Mr. Floyd," she said in a letter to Calanthia Tucker, director of the cluster of schools that includes West Potomac.
Johnson, West Potomac's principal, said he had found Shawn that morning standing out in a school patio and still fuming about the first incident. Johnson sent him to Watts. "Based upon Shawn's admission that he had cursed and refused to comply with the teachers' directives," Johnson said, Watts imposed the in-school suspension. When the argument between Shawn and the other student erupted again in the afternoon, Watts questioned Floyd and the other teachers involved and heard that Shawn had pushed Floyd. Johnson told her that meant a 10-day suspension. He pulled Shawn out of football practice and listened to his story. He said he heard Shawn say he had pushed the teacher, although not very hard and only to get him out of his face. Johnson sent Shawn home.
Winston went to the school the next morning and spoke with Johnson. "I told Mr. Johnson that I was there to get the school's side of the story and that my objective was to keep Shawn in school at West Potomac," she said. Johnson repeated Watts' account of the afternoon incident but declined to discuss the morning incident. He told her that Shawn would not be expelled, but would have to transfer to another school. This bothered Winston, because most of her son's friends were at West Potomac and he very much wanted to stay on the football team.
Winston was advised by a friend who knew something about school procedures to appeal the suspension. When she called Johnson, he told her she couldn't do that because there was a recommendation for expulsion. She asked him to drop that recommendation, but he said it was mandatory in an alleged assault against a teacher. Winston called Tucker's office and was told by a staffer that she could appeal but she needed a letter from the school saying what happened. So far she had nothing in writing. Johnson said it was standard procedure to send the student home and then send a letter, but school administrators do everything they can to keep the parent informed. "That is the reason why the telephone call is placed to parents and they are told that the letter is forthcoming," he said.
Winston left a message for Benzell T. Floyd, the young substitute teacher whom Shawn had allegedly pushed, but he did not return her call. That afternoon Johnson called her. He "told me that Mr. Floyd said Shawn did not push him," she said, "that he in no way felt threatened by Shawn, and that he was not prepared to make a statement against Shawn. Mr. Johnson further stated that if the teacher wasn't willing to make a statement, they had no case."
On Monday, Winston visited the school again and told Johnson she wanted Shawn back in school that day because there was no case against him. Johnson said that wasn't going to happen. She objected, saying that not only was there no longer a charge against Shawn, but his due process rights had been violated because she had nothing in writing from the school that would allow her to appeal.
"At this point," Winston said, "Mr. Johnson became very agitated. He said that if I wanted to wait he would prepare a letter so I could file an appeal and that Shawn could come back to school that day, but that by the end of the day he was going to suspend Shawn again." Winston said she was going to see Tucker. Johnson said "fine, you do that."
Johnson remembers the conversations with Winston Friday on the telephone and Monday in his office somewhat differently. He said Winston never asked for a letter. He said he never told Winston that the teacher had denied being pushed. Instead, he told her that there was a discrepancy between the first report of the incident and what the teacher later said. The teacher "told me that he was not comfortable stating facts that would create the expulsion of a student," Johnson said.
Winston visited Tucker's office Monday and was told by her staff they would brief her and she would call Johnson, Winston went home and reached Floyd, the teacher, by phone. "He said that Shawn did not push him. He said Shawn put his hands up to keep him out of his space and the back of Shawn's hand touched Mr. Floyd's stomach. He also said that he did not feel threatened by Shawn and had no intentions of even reporting the incident," Winston said. She said Floyd told her that Johnson had instructed him not to speak to her, which Johnson says he did not do.
Johnson called her shortly after, Winston said, saying Shawn could return to school the next day, Tuesday, but that they still had issues to discuss. When Winston and her husband arrived with Shawn, Watts met them and began to discuss the morning incident of Oct. 3.
The meeting did not go well. Winston said she thought the morning incident had been taken care of with the in-school suspension. Watts said she did not have all the facts when she first called Winston. Shawn had been disrespectful, insubordinate and abusive to the teachers who intervened. She said she was suspending him for five days for that behavior. Winston recalls Watts saying "she couldn't understand our frustration because it was like going to court and getting a reduced sentence." Instead of the original 10-day suspension, Shawn would only be out of school five days. That irked Winston, but Watts said her intent was only to show that Shawn had insulted enough teachers on Oct. 3 to merit a longer suspension, and was getting off relatively easy.
In his message to me, Johnson included a copy of Floyd's statement about what happened the afternoon of Oct. 3. Floyd said he found Shawn in the hall outside an adjoining classroom, talking loudly to the other student who was in that class. Floyd said Shawn reacted angrily when he told Shawn to go back to his own class and followed Floyd into his classroom. When Floyd told him to leave, "he pushed me and told me I better get out of his face," Floyd said. There were more threats, until other teachers arrived and calmed Shawn down.
When I sent this statement to Winston, she said she had never seen it, or statements by anyone else regarding the incidents, and was stunned by it. She said she had seen Floyd just days before and he once again said that Shawn had not pushed him. Johnson said that although Floyd told him of the pushing, the five-day suspension was not because of the physical contact but because of the abusive and disrespectful way Shawn spoke to several teachers.
Assume, just for the sake of this exercise, that everyone is telling the truth as they understand it. People misremember and misunderstand conversations all the time. What could have been done to save the situation?
Winston, Johnson and Watts have not worked out their differences, but Floyd and Shawn appear to have no lingering animosity. Floyd said Shawn returned to his classroom the week after their confrontation and apologized. "He explained that he had a bad day and one situation led to another," Floyd said.
Shawn even checked in with Floyd before he left West Potomac for another school, a move that was one of the few things all the adults thought was a good idea after further clashes between Shawn and the other student. Winston said the teacher gave the student a hug, and told him "how much he would miss him and how sorry he was that this had escalated to such a level."
You can contact Jay Mathews at email@example.com