Monday, May 09, 2005

Suspended sentence

First, a little background on me. Both my parents are teachers. I was deployed for a year in Operation Enduring Freedom and, three months into my deployment, my father was called up and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom for a year. So, I feel like I have a little bit of expertise on the story of Kevin Francois, suspended for cursing at teachers after being told to get off his cell phone while talking to his deployed-in-Iraq mother.

A few quick things:

Kevin is black. Kevin lives in Georgia. Kevin has been known to be a "problem student." Kevin was being raised by his single mom and Kevin's single mom was deployed to Iraq, leaving Kevin with a guardian. I don't need to get too much into the racial subtext here or the wisdom of any policy that sends single parents overseas...but let's just say that this event didn't occur in a vacuum.

Here's the update on the story:

School Reduces Suspension Over Iraq Call Sun May 8, 6:27 AM ET

Following hundreds of angry phone calls and e-mails, school officials in this Army base city have reduced a suspension imposed on a student who wouldn't give up his cell phone while talking to his mom — a sergeant on duty in Iraq.

The angry calls about the boy's suspension got so bad at one point that secretaries had to take their phones off the hook, assistant principal Alfred Parham said.

Kevin Francois, a 17-year-old junior at Spencer High School, was suspended for 10 days for disorderly conduct Wednesday after a teacher told him to give up his cell phone outside the school during his lunch break and he refused, the teen said.

The boy said he had not expected the call from his mother, Sgt. 1st Class Monique Bates, who left in January for a one-year tour.

The teacher says the confrontation happened in a hallway, not outside, and that Francois never said the call was with his mother.

The Muscogee County School District Board of Education allows students to have cell phones in school but not to use them during school hours.

The punishment for violating that policy is that the phone is confiscated until the end of the day. But Francois was suspended for cursing and being defiant, said Parham. That was extended to 10 because "he did not want to accept the three-day suspension and to agree that he would not use the cell phone openly or curse."

"We are empathetic to all students whose parents serve in the armed forces ... (but) we do have behavior standards which we uphold," said Superintendent John A. Phillips Jr.

On Friday, the school district reduced the suspension to three days, which will allow Francois to return to school Monday, after officials met with him, the guardian who cares for him while his mother is out of the country, and a representative of her unit.

"People are fussing at us, calling us names," said assistant principal Wendell Turner.

"We are the school that serves Fort Benning," Turner said. "We're well aware of students with parents overseas."

Parham said, however, that Francois' behavior at school has been "a chronic problem."

And Francois added: "I'm not a golden child and I've been wrong, but I was right this time."

And here's the crux of the argument:

"I'm not a golden child and I've been wrong, but I was right this time." He was right this time. It appears that the school officials jumped the gun in this instance. They were looking for a reason to punish this kid and they made a mistake. And, while I agree that students' behavior at school needs to be monitored and regulated, their after-the-fact defense is disingenuous:

The teacher says the confrontation happened in a hallway, not outside, and that Francois never said the call was with his mother.

Oh. The teacher didn't know that it was his mom on the phone. That's funny. Because on Friday, the school officials said that they could have arrested Kevin, but instead suspended him because they were sympathetic to the fact that his mom was serving in Iraq.

So. The school screwed up. They had a problem kid who was on his cell phone during school hours (lunch). And they obviously did not give him the benefit of the doubt...nor did they take into account his circumstances, instead opting to simply punish him. Of course the kid got confrontational and cursed at the teacher. He's a 17-year old kid who's only parent is in Iraq, he only hears from her once a month or so, and he has no control over when she calls (and neither does his mom). And I seriously doubt that the teacher wanted to hear Kevin's side of the story. I'm sure the teacher merely assumed that Kevin was being defiant for the sake of being defiant. That would frustrate even the best of students, never mind a so-called "problem student."

This incident points to the larger problem, which is how over-burdened schools cannot deal properly with disruptive students who come from troubled backgrounds or are undergoing stressful personal circumstances. I'd be interested to see what the student-teacher ratio is in this school, but I have a feeling that this particular school is not equipped to properly handle the stresses of catering to a military community. The default reaction is to simply punish the student for being "out of control," rather than trying to combat the actual problem or to talk with the student and try to solve the problem together.

The real answer to the problem is to provide schools with more funding and better resources, including better pay for teachers who must deal with a diverse student body that may have other things on their minds, other than Earth Science.

And PS: Thanks to Paul, we know that Mike Gallagher is an ass.