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 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 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 him. 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 and several Fairfax County educators, particularly Watts and her boss, West Potomac High School Principal Henry R. Johnson Jr. The situation has become a mess, despite the fact that Johnson and Watts, whom I interviewed while profiling their school last winter, are wise and talented educators leading one of the best high schools in the country, and even though Winston has been candid and self-effacing with me and quick to admit that her son badly misbehaved.
Winston contacted me because, she said, she was troubled by issues of miscommunication between schools and parents. She signed a release giving school officials permission to tell me what they knew about her son's case.
Bright and productive students such as Shawn get into trouble at school somewhere every day. I think it is useful to tell this story and try to decide what rules of conduct parents and educators should impose upon themselves to keep such discussions from falling apart, as this one did.
On the day she got the first call, Oct. 3, Winston said she was troubled that Shawn was sent home without a 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.
Johnson, West Potomac's principal, said Watts imposed the in-school suspension "based upon Shawn's admission that he had cursed and refused to comply with the teacher's directives." When the argument between Shawn and the other student erupted again in the afternoon, Watts questioned Benzell T. Floyd, a young substitute teacher, and the other teachers and heard that Shawn had pushed Floyd. Johnson told Watts that meant a 10-day suspension. He pulled Shawn out of football practice and heard him say he had pushed the teacher, although not very hard and only to get the man out of his face.
Winston went to the school the next morning, Oct. 4, 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's account of the afternoon incident but declined to discuss the morning incident. He told Winston 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 left a message for Floyd, 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, Oct. 7, 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. Winston objected, saying that not only was there no longer a charge against Shawn but that his due process rights had been violated because she had nothing in writing from the school that would allow her to appeal.
Johnson remembers the conversations with Winston Oct. 4 on the telephone and Oct. 7 in his office 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.
Later on Oct. 7, Winston 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.
Johnson called her shortly after, Winston said, saying Shawn could return to school the next day, Oct. 8, 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.
In his message to me, Johnson included a statement by Floyd 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 been shown it, or any other written statements from those involved, and was stunned by it. She said that she had seen Floyd just days before and that he once again said Shawn had not pushed him. She said she pursued the case because she is convinced that her son did not push the teacher and that he was treated more harshly than he should have been, particularly since he had been assaulted by the other student. 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? If you have some thoughts, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Winston, Johnson and Watts have not worked out their differences. But Floyd and Shawn appear to have no lingering animosity. Shawn apologized to Floyd and even checked in with the teacher before he left West Potomac for another school, one of the few things all the adults thought was a good idea. 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.