Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.
One afternoon, at the bus stop across the street from school they approached Johnny, a sixth grader who wasn’t so good with other people. He walked with his head down looking at his feet with his shoulders pulled over him like a turtle shell. Sitting there on the bench he must have been slouched like a turtle with its arms and legs in.
By all accounts, including one from a teacher who watched the episode from the other side of the avenue, the girls approached the bench, told Johnny to get up because they wanted to sit on the bench. Johnny did. They mocked him for a while and then, as the humiliations built to a crescendo, one of the girls threw her half-finished smoothie. It hit him in the chest and spilled banana-strawberry slush all down his front.
The next morning, I talked with the students, one at a time, in my office. Even though each of the girls had her own version, each minimizing her role in the affair, none of them took responsibility for the incident. I told them this was serious and that I still had to consider what I would do about it and sent them back to class. Then, I talked with Johnny whose story corroborated the teacher’s report, though in his humiliation he was not enthusiastic to talk about it.
I called Johnny’s home and got his mother on the phone. “I am glad you called me,” she said. “Johnny told me all about it. The stuff was all over him. I was going to call you.”
I told her that I would check in with Johnny and make sure he knows that I will keep him safe here.
“Thank you,” she said.
I talked to the girls’ mothers and told each of them that I was going to suspend her daughter. That meant they needed to come to school and pick them up as soon as they could.
I told them I would let their daughters return to school when I knew that things would be different. I explained that when their daughters were ready to convince me that things are going to be different, they should call me to set up an appointment.
Kathy’s mom was horrified, and after asking a few questions to get the facts straight she said: “Thank you. I will call you after I talk with her.”
Lilly’s mother was at work and asked if she could pick Lilly up at the end of the day. I said that that was fine, and that she would wait in my office until she arrived. She was angry, but I couldn’t tell if she was angry with me or her daughter.
Susan’s mother came to her daughter’s defense, and decided that I was overreacting, that this was much too small an offense to merit suspension.
When I told the girls that they would be suspended, they were quiet. None of them tried to defend themselves. The only difference was the look on their faces. Kathy’s turned pale. Lilly looked afraid, but Susan had a confident little smile on her face.
That smile! I had seen that look before on a squirrel. One spring a pair of Mourning Doves built a nest outside the window of my office. I was able to watch their progress: the building of the nest, the starting of a family, and the incubation of the eggs. One day, just as I thought I would soon be witnessing the birth of doves, I saw a squirrel approaching along the ledge outside the window. Immediately I started shouting and banging on the window, trying to be as scary as I could. The squirrel just stared at me, as if to say: “You can’t touch me.” Then he proceeded on to the nest and methodically ate the eggs, as I watched, powerless. Susan was giving me the same look.
Kathy and her parents were at my office at 7:30am the next morning. Kathy sat directly across the table from me and spoke first, looking me straight in the eye. “Mr. Ackerly, I know what I did wrong. Even though I didn’t throw the smoothie myself, I was there and I didn’t say anything. I laughed at what was happening, and I know we made Johnny feel bad. I know I was part of what made him feel bad. I feel bad about it, and I want to come back.”
“Do you think that what you did was harassment?”
Pause. “Well, yes, sort of. I participated in harassment.”
“Yes, you did. Can you think of anything you can do to fix it?” Thoughtful look on her face; pause;
“I can’t really fix it. I can talk to Johnny.”
“What would you say?”
“I don’t know. I would say I’m sorry, but I know that wouldn’t fix it, and I don’t know what else I could do.”
“But you would talk to him?”
“Is there anything else you can do?”
Long pause. “I can tell you that I will not harass anyone again.”
“Can you guarantee that to me?”
She looked down at the tabletop, and then back up into my eyes.
“Kathy, good job. I believe you. I want you to come back.” Then to the parents: “Kathy can come to school today. You have a wonderful daughter here. You should be proud of her.”
“We are,” they said. It was 8:05am.
Lilly’s mom called that morning to say with exasperation and dismay in her voice: “Lilly is not ready to come back, yet.” (I knew she probably had to stay home from work. She was a single working mother.)
Susan’s mom, however, called me mid-morning to tell me how inappropriate my handling of the situation was and to insist that her daughter hadn’t hurt anyone. The next morning, she called again, and asked for an appointment with me.
“Yes. When would you like to come in?”
“As soon as possible. My daughter needs to be in school. Don’t you know that my daughter needs to be in school?”
“I can see you at nine.”
At 9:15am Susan and both her parents arrived in my office. The mother sat directly across from me, her husband to her right, and Susan off to the left, at the head of the table but a bit back from it, slouching in her chair. Her Mom spoke first.
“Susan wants to come back.”
I turned to Susan and asked, “Do you want to come back?”
“Good. Talk to me.”
“What? What do you want me to say? I want to come back.”
“I don’t want you to say anything in particular. I need to know that things are going to be different.”
At this point her mom broke in, “Look we talked to her, she doesn’t think she did anything really wrong, but she admits that she threw the slurpy, and that it hit Johnny even though she was just trying to throw it out and missed, but she says she knows it messed up Johnny’s clothes and she is sorry. She assures us that she will be good. What more do you want?”
“Mrs. Peabody, this is not a court of law. I am not a judge. I am an educator. This is a school, and my responsibility is your daughter’s education. Susan, I need you to take responsibility for what you did. I need to know that you are not going to harass other people. Do you know that you have been mean to other kids?”
“Sometimes, but not more than anyone else. And sometimes people are mean to me.”
“Can you tell me that things are going to be different?”
“I don’t know what you mean?”
I looked at both parents. “Susan is not ready to come back. She cannot come to school today. Call me when she is ready.”
“Look,” said the mom. “You are supposed to be an educator. Don’t you know that this behavior is normal?”
“Yes, Mrs. Peabody, this sort of thing can happen. It is normal for kids to be mean to each other. It is also normal for the adults to say ‘No’ to it.”
“Then you will not let her back?”
“Not till I know that things are going to be different.”
Both parents stared at me and then stood up stiffly and gestured to Susan to leave.
Susan and her family were back in my office the next afternoon after school. This time Susan spoke first. Still slouching in her chair some distance from the table, she said. “Mr. Ackerly, I know that what I did was wrong. I hit Johnny with the smoothie. Please let me back in the school.” The look on her face and tone in her voice said: “I know that this is what you want me to say, so I will say it.”
“Did you do anything else wrong?”
“I called him names?”
“Will you assure me that you will obey the school rules and in particular that you will not be mean to anyone anymore?”
“Yes,” she said, with that little smile on her face.
In my heart I knew that nothing had changed inside her, but she had minimally done what she needed to do, and said what she needed to say, so I said: “All right. You can come back. But Susan, if you break anymore rules you will leave the school for good. I can’t have anyone here who harasses people.”
Neither Susan nor her parents said anything. Susan still had that confident little smile on her face on her way back to class.
Both Kathy and eventually Lilly, took responsibility for their behavior and for them things were different. They both went on to have a successful year without further incident.
But I realize in retrospect that I missed a step with Susan. I should have asked her to make appropriate apologies and restitution to Johnny. That would have been the right thing to do. Nonetheless, I doubt it would have helped, because in order for Susan to change her parents needed to change. I needed the parents to form a strong partnership with me and Susan’s teachers in order to agree on a strategy that would change Susan’s behavior.
Could I have changed the mother in any way? Could I have worked with the father to make the change necessary? Perhaps. I did want to help Susan, but she didn’t seem to want my help and her mother’s only concern was that she be at allowed back at school; she didn’t want Susan to get the education she needed.
I knew things weren’t going to be different, and they weren’t. Susan’s homeroom teacher, Karen, who also had her all morning for science, algebra and recess, saw me in the lounge after recess to say that she had been perfect all morning long. We began to congratulate ourselves. That was 10:30am. Two hours later, however, Karen told me that Susan had broken six school rules in the last two hours, that she had been completely contemptuous and had topped it all off by spitting in the face of one of her classmates at lunch.
I expelled Susan.
But that is not the end of the story.
Kathy came up at a faculty meeting a month before graduation, as we were talking about awards, as a candidate for the citizenship award. One teacher said that it would be wrong to give it to a student who had been suspended. Another said that Kathy deserved the award, that she had proven herself to be the best citizen in the class by far. She had not only kept out of trouble, but had made many positive contributions to the community of the school. A debate ensued. I was very pleased with the outcome. One teacher who had remained silent for most of the discussion said, “Kathy should definitely get the citizenship award, and the fact that she made a mistake and corrected it is the main reason. We are here to make a difference, and we did. She showed in her behavior that she knew exactly what we are about and wanted to prove it to us. She has to get the award.” The vote was unanimous, and Kathy received the award for citizenship at graduation.
For over 40 years Rick Ackerly has worked with students, teachers, and parents as a principal, father, and education consultant. We’re proud to have him guest post for us today, and hope he returns soon.