From the school of hard knocks

I am the parent of a boy who, along with two of his friends, painted graffiti on an exterior wall of a Fairfax County public school a few years back. I am unaware of the punishments the other boys received, but my son was initially suspended and eventually excluded from attending that school. He was later reassigned to another school in the county.

At no time during the disciplinary process did anyone in our family point a finger at the school or the principal. It wasn’t their fault. Yet when the federal government last week unveiled new guidelines for trying to end racial disparities in school discipline, some of the conversation around the issue made it sound as though the schools and their staffs are at fault. A Jan. 10 Post editorial headline, “Discrimination in the principal’s office,” implied that principals are the problem and that they had better fix the “racially lopsided results” or else. I would respectfully suggest that this line of reasoning is a little lopsided.

Parents and students are responsible for bad behavior. In my son’s case, I took half of the responsibility for failing to provide sufficient parental guidance. My son assumed the other half for not making a better choice at 3 a.m., when his friends called him to “go have some fun.”

In announcing the new guidelines, aimed in part at avoiding punishment that keeps kids out of school, Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressed concern about students being “unsupervised” during suspensions. In fact, throughout my son’s suspension and every morning while he and I waited in our car for the county-provided bus to take him to his new school, he was not unsupervised but rather engaged in a conversation with his parents — his and every other student’s primary source of the adult mentorship the Education Department wants students to receive. We discussed why what he had done was unacceptable not only in school but also in any civilized society.

Granted, his choice that night did increase his risk “of economic and social problems,” as the guidelines pointed out, and he has endured the many consequences that followed. Those consequences were the result of my parenting and his choices, rather than a “racially lopsided” principal’s office.

Numbers can tell whatever story we want them to tell, especially when we color-code them. But when a student mouths off to a teacher, as I have witnessed in the Fairfax school where I am a sixth-grade teacher, the principal’s punishment is — as it should be — color-blind. A parent is the one who should have taught her child not to speak in this manner. And when a student decks another student in the face during gym class, as I have also seen, the principal’s punishment is also color-blind. Here, too, it is the parent who should have taught his child that this was not an acceptable action. Perhaps sending a courtesy copy of these guidelines to all parents of school-age children, regardless of color, would encourage new approaches to parenting that might assist schools and principals in preventing behaviors that simply cannot be tolerated.

I’m writing a newspaper commentary because my parents raised me to understand that this is an appropriate way to express myself. And if it gets me called into my principal’s office, I will not blame her or our school for the punishment I receive. Instead, I will follow my son’s example and take responsibility for my actions, apologize to those I have hurt and adjust my choices from that point forward. That’s what my son did, and he has come out on the other side as quite an incredible young man.

Mike MacIver,  Fairfax