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My View                                              Pages 14-15

 

A Stressful Standoff and a

Lesson About Trust

 

BY TEENA P. MCDONALD

I was an experienced superintendent in a new district, just beginning the new job. In only the second week, all hell broke loose.

Three sheriff’s deputies were already in the Student Commons when I arrived at the high school. Some 200 students were engaged in a sit-in to protest the closed campus, which had been instituted the previous spring, along with security cameras, in a schoolwide crackdown because of student misbehavior. The tension was palpable, and we feared the situation would escalate out of control.

The assistant principal told me that the students had been asked to return to class but refused. There was a virtual standoff. I took a deep breath and walked into their midst.

A Teachable Moment
Once I had the students’ attention, I shared how there is a right way and a wrong way to make your voice heard. If I were to get a speeding ticket, I said, I would get nowhere being belligerent with the officer, but if I felt I was being wronged, I could address it in the proper way.

One young man shouted something inappropriate. I quickly realized I needed to appeal to positive leaders and said, “I can either let this young man be your spokesperson, or you can decide who you want to represent you and let them meet with me.” Eight students followed me into a small meeting room.

We set ground rules so the conversation would be respectful and productive. Students shared feelings of oppression. The whole group, they felt, had been branded because of a troublesome few. Because of them, the high school had hired a police officer and installed cameras in every nook and cranny. The campus went from being entirely open to closed, without any dialogue with the students.

My message to staff during orientation a week earlier had focused on every staff member’s responsibility to ensure the social, emotional, physical and academic safety of our students. I told the students this and that I believed their voices must be heard, but students needed to be pro-active by letting staff know when issues arise. Our Constitution allows for peaceable assembly, and I saw my role as their advocate. At the same time, the students were skipping classes, which would have consequences. Now, I asked, how do we come to a consensus and end the standoff?

Together we formulated a petition that asked the administration, and eventually the school board, to consider their concerns. We agreed I should speak to the entire group in the commons, something I viewed as a perfect learning opportunity about a proper way to effect change. The petitions were signed, and students returned to class.

I immediately composed a letter to teachers suggesting this was a perfect opportunity to engage the students in deep, rich discussions regarding social justice, what culture is and what it can become in a diverse student body. One teacher recounted how, in graduate school, she and other black students were arrested for questioning a campus officer about his treatment of another graduate student. She had recounted this to her students — how she had faced consequences for her actions, how she had stood up for what was right. She described the questions that resulted from sharing this experience. I got goosebumps as I heard story after story of teachers using potentially volatile situations as opportunities to develop mutual respect for diverse perspectives.

I shared a lengthy memo about this with the school board. What I didn’t know was the history that had preceded this event. Hannah, a longtime member of the board, told me, “Teena, it seems like you want to come in on a white horse and be the hero. It’s tough when the board looks like the bad guy in this situation. I know you didn’t mean for this to feel this way, but that’s how it feels to me.”

My intentions had not been to put the school board in a bad light. On the contrary, I worked to let the students know the board had to make a decision based on the evidence that was provided, in part, by the students and that some earlier decisions had been influenced by prior problems.

It took the students almost three months to prepare all of the data. They put together a PowerPoint to present first to the principal, then to me and finally to the five-member board of education. They did an exceptional job, thanking the board for listening and offering insightful, compelling arguments for a modified open campus. The board was impressed and voted unanimously to open the campus following guidelines the student privileges committee recommended.

An Honest Approach
This experience taught me a valuable lesson. While this situation ended well, it could have ended poorly had the long-term school board member not been honest early on in the process about how she felt about my approach to the board.

An experienced superintendent moving into a new district will benefit, from Day 1, from building trusting and collaborative working relationships with board members; being a clear communicator; appreciating district culture and history; and opening the door to students and their concerns. And, yes, we must be mindful of the difficult position board members are in when they make those tough decisions that affect students.

Teena McDonald, a retired superintendent, is an assistant clinical professor of educational leadership at Washington State University in Spokane, Wash., and a coordinator of the field-based principals certification program. E-mail: tpmcdonald@wsu.edu. Twitter: @McDonaldTeena


 

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