Apodaca: Discipline is tough to get right

If there's one conclusion that's easy to reach in the wake of recent school scandals it's that discipline is the most difficult, controversial, fraught-filled aspect of education. And considering that everything having to do with education is difficult, controversial and fraught-filled, that's saying a lot.

We find parents, teachers, administrators, students and school board members battling among themselves, driven by competing agendas, varying vantage points and feelings of victimization. We hear calls from those who demand stern punishment for miscreant students, just maybe not when it comes to their own kids. Lawyers get involved. Community outrage ensues.

Meanwhile, the policy pendulum swings one way, then the other, from zero tolerance to restorative justice. With each change more training is required to make policies effective — or at least consistent.

Yes, discipline is a minefield that tests the spines of educators everywhere. I imagine many a school principal starting each day hoping to make it through a packed schedule only to be detoured time and again by the need to deal with a behavior problem. Or a teacher dreading facing a class in which one kid just won't settle down, shut up and stop distracting the other students. You have to wonder sometimes how any learning gets done.

A couple of recent high-profile cases illustrate the explosiveness inherent in the administration of discipline. The Corona del Mar High School cheating scandal prompted one Newport-Mesa Unified administrator to quit in protest over the expulsion of 11 students. And in Santa Monica, school officials backtracked from a decision to place a high school teacher on leave for tussling with a student in class after many outraged parents demanded his reinstatement.

I'm not defending the actions taken in these or other cases. But it is worth acknowledging that school discipline is really hard, and even in the best of circumstances, it tends to suck a lot of the air out of the basic job of educating kids.

To get an idea of the scope of disciplinary issues, consider the data from the California Department of Education's Suspension and Expulsion Report, which states that in the 2012-13 school year, seven expulsions, 965 suspensions and 1,608 "other actions" were administered in Newport-Mesa.

The biggest number by far were in the rather nebulous "disruption, defiance" category. The most severe punishments were reserved for offenses involving weapons, drugs and, in one case, for "making terrorist threats."

Now, as the CdM cheating case continues to unfold, Newport-Mesa is reorganizing. Former Costa Mesa High School Principal Phil D'Agostino just took over as director of student services, which makes him the district's go-to guy on disciplinary matters. He replaces Jane Garland, the aforementioned official who resigned. Also, in a switch, D'Agostino will report to Ann Huntington, assistant superintendent of student support services and special education, instead of directly to Supt. Fred Navarro.

The district has also hired two social workers and plans to bring on several interns from USC's School of Social Work. This will provide "another layer of support" for struggling students, Huntington said. More moves are likely to follow.

D'Agostino and Huntington paint a picture of a district intent on following clear and established policies. At the same time they pledge to pay close attention to the complex assortment of messaging, motivations and mitigating circumstances that affect student behavior. It's what D'Agostino refers to as "a balance of accountability and compassion."

The district's moves are also occurring against a backdrop of efforts nationwide to reexamine discipline policies. Earlier this year, for example, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Atty. Gen. Eric Holder urged educators to move away from suspending students for minor infractions, and from disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect minorities.

As he settles in to his new job, D'Agostino has been making the rounds at schools throughout the district, in what he calls "a listening tour." Among his observations: Educators must be attuned to cultural shifts that affect student behavior. Students' familiarity with technology and social media, for instance, breeds feelings of individualism and encourages frank expression. That can be a positive trend, but it can also be difficult to rein in when boundaries of appropriateness are crossed.

D'Agostino also notes that while the stereotype of hyper-engaged helicopter parenting gets more attention these days, it's just as common to find parents who are disconnected and unaware of their children's activities. Teachers must make the effort to get to know families and understand students' back stories, he said.

Amid this complicated stew, it's vital that schools clearly communicate behavior policies, and proactively create a climate of high expectations, D'Agostino and Huntington stressed. That's why schools review policies at the start of each school year, teachers go over class rules before instruction starts, and staff members continually reinforce the tenets of good citizenship.

"There's a lot to be said for a comprehensive approach," D'Agostino said.

As he takes on this big job, it's time for the rest of us to move on as well, without acrimony, and engage in a constructive dialogue about how we want to shape student discipline policies and practices going forward. The first and best way to address our children's behavior is for adults to show them how to act with civility, decency and a sense of fair play, even where discord exists.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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