Any concerns that I might be making too much of the communication problems between parents and educators were dispelled by the e-mails I received after my Nov. 19 column about a misbehaving senior at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County.

About half of the messages, usually from parents, said the West Potomac administrators had overreacted to the student's angry outbursts. The other half of the e-mails, often from educators, said the five-day suspension he received for insubordination was well deserved and his mother was wrong to complain about mixed signals and lack of evidence.

But the readers also did what I asked them to do. They suggested ways of handling such incidents so that intelligent people acting in good faith, like West Potomac principal Henry R. Johnson Jr., assistant principal Sonja Watts, teacher Benzell T. Floyd and parent Lois Winston, would not so frequently stumble into wearisome disagreements over who did what to whom and whether they should be punished for it.

I thought it was interesting that no matter which side readers backed in the West Potomac dispute, they seemed to agree on two ways to reduce the emotional damage. First, they said, everyone involved should have met together within a day of the incident to get facts and feelings straight. Second, everyone should have written down what they knew.

I am not sure how useful these suggestions are. Would school administrators ever be able to leave their computer keyboards if they had to document every student mishap? In a world full of meetings, do we need any more? But before I discuss practicalities, I want to summarize what happened last October at West Potomac, one of the highest-achieving public schools in the country, and what readers thought was the root of the trouble.

On Oct. 3, Winston's handsome and athletic son Shawn argued at school with another student, 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, but in the afternoon the two students argued again and Shawn berated and pushed another teacher, Floyd, who was trying to break it up.

Watts, the assistant principal, called Winston to say that Shawn had been sent home and would be suspended for 10 days with a recommendation for expulsion. Winston met with Johnson, the principal, the next morning. He told her that Shawn would not be expelled, but would have to transfer to another school. She said she wanted her son, who had been in no serious trouble before, to stay at West Potomac because most of his friends were there and he wanted to stay on the football team. That afternoon Johnson called to tell her that Floyd, the teacher, denied that Shawn had pushed him. Winston heard Johnson say that if the teacher wasn't willing to make a statement, they had no case.

The following Tuesday, five days after the original outbursts, Shawn, Winston and her husband finally had their major meeting with Watts. It satisfied no one. Watts said Shawn would be suspended five days for cursing and refusing to obey teachers. Eventually both Shawn and his parents decided it would be better if he transferred to another school.

But the administrators remain upset that Winston, who admitted her son had misbehaved, questioned their actions in the matter. Winston complained that she never received any written explanation of the incident and never saw a later statement Floyd gave to Johnson saying that Shawn HAD pushed him, but he didn't want to make a big deal out of it.

Several readers noted that Shawn, Winston, Johnson, Watts and Floyd never met in one room to sort out the facts. "I think that on that first day after this event occurred, everyone .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. should have sat down to discuss what had actually happened," said Susan Vallese, a fifth grade teacher in Middle Township, N.J. Michael S. Coray of Reno, Nev., said "The simplest remedy for such situations begins by getting all parties in the same place at the same time so that differing perceptions of the 'facts' of the events can be subjected to the scrutiny of all involved."

Carolyn W. Gahr, an educator in British Columbia, said such a meeting was much preferable to "the many private phone calls between teachers and parents which seem to have taken place while everyone was so upset. That is probably what caused all the different versions of what took place." Karen Clark Salinas, communications director for the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University, said in the meeting "the appropriate rule for punishment could be stated and everyone would be on the same page."

Some parents said the failure to hold such a meeting right after the incident indicated American educators' typical reluctance to spend much time explaining themselves to outsiders. "School officials want parents to mind their own business and are not really interested in hearing a parent's view or concern," said Dawn Conrow, of Centreville, who has three children in the Fairfax County schools.

E. Savannah Little, also a Fairfax parent, said, "Decisions are often made without early input from parents and students. By the time the parent is notified, negative actions have been taken with respect to the child." Tim Sullivan, publisher of PTO Today magazine, said, "It frustrates parents to no end, when school rules are vague or--worse yet--misapplied. Many parents feel that educators want deference .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. when partnership would be much preferred and much more effective."

Many readers also said wise and compassionate administrators like Johnson and Watts were handicapped by the tough "zero tolerance" rules against drugs, weapons and other student violations. Emily Snyder, a former member of the Fairfax County School Board who works as an independent educational consultant, said the long list of misdeeds that can get you suspended made it difficult to adjust the punishment to individual circumstances. She said the rules can even encourage inhumane behavior, such as walking away when another student is being attacked so you won't be suspended for being involved in the fracas.

But many e-mail writers blamed allegedly ill-bred students and their protective parents for much of the trouble. Discipline was breaking down in the schools, they said, and educators had to stand up for each other. "Pushing a teacher crosses the line of minor infraction and goes right to the top of the list," said Steve Rezendes, a physics teacher at West Potomac who said he was not involved in Shawn's case. "Ms. Watts and Mr. Johnson bend over backward to be fair to students. But they also back their teachers, and that's how it should be."

Arnold Bradford of Vienna, Va., said Winston and her husband should have "sought out West Potomac administrators to apologize for the outrageous behavior of their son." Brian Rugen of Sterling said, "As far as I can see, the only mistake the school made was not sending the child home after the first incident."

Big meetings would not clear the air, people on all sides said, unless there were detailed written accounts to back them up. Arthur Freas, who said he encountered similar communication failures when his fifth grade son was suspended, said the West Potomac story revealed "extremely poor documentation. Nobody sits down and takes written statements until after the judgements have been rendered."

Gerry Mayberry, a retired chemist and supervisor, said, "Documentation in such a case is absolutely necessary. I worked in industry for many years and we were trained to get it in writing immediately before the facts were cold and to have the person or persons sign it as being accurate." Rebecca King of McLean said she exchanges e-mails after important telephone conversations to make sure everyone understands what has transpired.

Winston, Shawn's mother, said she likes the idea of careful documentation and an immediate meeting of all the parties. She said people are more careful of their words when they speak to others involved. As the officer manager of a high-tech firm, she said, "I would never believe I could make an accusation against someone that could affect their future and then think I was too busy to document it."

Those are excellent points, but I wonder how all that detailed communication will fit into a principal's day. I cannot think of another job, other than emergency room nurse or restaurant manager, that has more interruptions or distractions than running an American high school. Requiring principals to set down on paper what they knew of every hallway confrontation, and putting the same burden on teachers and other staff, would cut deeply into the time available for helping students learn.

John Thompson, anther reader, said in an e-mail that he worked at an urban high school. He listed the incidents he and other staffers had to deal with just on the day my column ran: "We caught two special education students with a loaded gun, dealt with an arson fire, had a couple of physical confrontations comparable to the one you described, had a couple of dozen disruptions in class and the halls, .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. and chased down a freshman who ran after being caught smoking marijuana in the girl's gym locker room."

West Potomac is a suburban school with somewhat less disruption, but it has 2,000 students and enough adolescent glandular activity to keep an educator engaged. Good principals such as Johnson know that they cannot effectively run their schools unless they are on the move, checking in with teachers and students all over the campus. Spending the day in their offices writing memos or holding long meetings is a good way to lose their jobs.

And I do not share the view of many readers that bringing all the parties together in cases like Shawn's would bring calm. There are no judges to referee the arguments (although some readers suggested professional mediators). There will always be disagreements over intent and meaning. Was the teacher cruel or just frightened when he raised his voice? Did the student have any knowledge of the rule he broke? And Johnson, the principal, notes that teachers and their union representatives do not always think such meetings are in their best interests.

I have a feebler, but I think more realistic, suggestion. When, as parents, educators or students, we find ourselves in such skirmishes, we should try to remember that we are not omniscient. We should assume that everyone else involved, no matter how wrong-headed they might seem, are acting with the best of intentions, and treat them as such. If there are still disagreements, acknowledge them, but ask what we can do to get the information that will resolve them.

Soft voices and careful listening can sometimes remove obstacles that meetings and memos can't budge.