For a year before returning to college, Catalyst intern Lisa Lewis worked as an aide in the discipline office of a Chicago public high school. This is her story; the names have been changed.
I started work at Chi-Town High with two years of college and extensive office experience, so the principal told me I’d be helping out in Mr. Belmont’s office, where messy piles of dog-eared forms were waiting to be entered into a computer.
Mr. Belmont, I soon learned with a sinking feeling, was the school disciplinarian.
As a petite 22-year-old, I felt the need at first to fortify myself with shoulder pads, high heels and a walkie-talkie. But students sometimes mistook me for a teenager anyway. And my exaggerated gruffness simply provoked odd looks. So I promptly donned jeans, let my voice go back up an octave and settled into my job, baby face and all.
7:45 a.m. Unlock discipline office.
Usually a few suspended students were standing in the hall with their parents, waiting to be reinstated by Mr. Belmont. Most had been suspended for one to five days for such transgressions as smoking in the bathroom and cutting several classes. Occasionally, a student would be out nine days for gang activity, possession of a weapon or the like. (Editor’s note: Starting last fall, students caught with weapons in school are automatically expelled.)
Right away, I would switch on my groaning dinosaur of a computer—whose screen sometimes froze for an hour or more—and begin keying in data from the hundreds of disciplinary records I kept in a neat “in” pile. Once entered, each detention, suspension or arrest had to be filed into a student’s folder and checked off on his or her discipline card.
By my third month, the discipline cards were up-to-date, and the various referrals and reports were in order. By then, the school also had installed a new computer program that accepted more information on each student. Instead of filling out and sorting cards and forms, I just scrolled down to a student’s name and typed in the most recent problem.
8:30 a.m. Relieve Mr. Dearborn, the teacher aide in charge of the in-school suspension center, for his half-hour break.
Mr. Dearborn was a champion yeller whose theatrical outbursts were mocked by his students. He handed out months-old magazines, mostly Scholastic Update, a thin newsmagazine for high school students that was loaded with ads for candy bars and pimple creams. Along with the magazines came lists of questions about the articles, questions such as “How many people live in Bangladesh?” and “Who’s the U.S. Secretary of State?” Many students never did these assignments, and Mr. Dearborn was so busy trying to keep the noise down and students in their seats that he usually let them get away with it. Compounding the problem was a lack of space; the tiny classroom could comfortably seat only 20 students, but often held 30, about equally divided between boys and girls.
The students were incredibly bored. Mr. Dearborn rarely changed the reading material; each issue of Update could expect three months of use. He sometimes brought in free weeklies like N’Digo but those, too, stayed around a long time. Sometimes the kids, who were not generally keen on reading, begged him for new magazines.
All the students went to lunch together and were not supposed to talk to other students. However, in a lunchroom packed with hundreds of teenagers, Mr. Dearborn couldn’t yell loud enough to be heard. He could grab wayward students by the shirt sleeves, but his two hands didn’t go far with 30 kids.
As for Miss Lewis, students seemed to think that because I had a sense of humor, I’d let them drink soda and munch on chips. When I asked them to put the snacks away, they did, but I knew from my own high school days that there are ways of stealthily feeding oneself Doritos. There was always at least one kid who told me that a “medical problem” required a trip to the bathroom—right now. The routine usually included much jumping around with crossed legs.
From my observation, in-school suspension accomplished its immediate objective: it was so boring that most kids stayed out of trouble to avoid it. But there were some recidivists, about a third of the group. The worst thing was that it set kids back in their education for up to three days, the maximum stay.
9 a.m. Spend a few hours trying to find students who were to be suspended.
Mr. Belmont made all decisions about punishment, usually without any discussion with students. Each day, I would gather all the teacher complaint slips, track him down in the hallway and wait for him to mete out punishments on the spot. Then I would complete the paperwork and data entry, track down each kid and bring the offender to the office, call a parent and notify the attendance office.
On a typical day, I had five to seven students on my hit list. Tracking them down was a job in itself. I had to look up the student’s class schedule and then, at each new period, go to the class where the student was scheduled to be. Frequently, though, the student was cutting class, or the class wasn’t in the room listed. Other staffers sometimes gave me tips on where the kid might be, but those tips often didn’t pan out. All in all, about two-thirds of each day’s “suspendees” were nowhere to be found, even after trips to as many as five classes.
Calling parents was also problematic. Parents were hard to track down, and though the majority accepted the news and were cooperative, others were hostile and blamed the school for their children’s problems. Sometimes, they came in drunk or high on drugs or even defended their children’s fighting. Once, a girl’s mother came in cursing, walked up to her daughter’s teacher and slapped her for disciplining the girl.
The bearer of bad tidings, I was, to many students, “that b—-.” Gradually, I learned to let threats and profanity roll right off of me.
11 a.m. Have a 20-minute lunch, in which teachers often talked to me about the kids they wanted me to suspend.
I couldn’t suspend anyone, though; I just carried out Mr. Belmont’s directives. It was always the same core group of teachers who complained, and they generally were older, burned-out teachers with retirement on their minds. Most sent kids to the discipline office regularly, and while usually I didn’t see teachers in action in the classroom, I often wondered if their fatigue and bitterness had rubbed off on their students. Perhaps they no longer had the energy to empathize or the restraint to deal with discipline problems without yelling or making threats.
Sometimes teachers created their own discipline problems. One teacher sent students to the discipline office in droves; nearly all of them said she had provoked them by insulting their parents or yelling at them the minute they got in class. I had witnessed this myself and seen how verbal barbs like “Your mother doesn’t know how to raise you” inflamed some students. In my time at Chi-Town, I never saw this teacher reprimanded or counseled by any administrator.
Part of the obstacle to better teacher-student relations was what I called Clash of the Cultures. Most Chi-Town students were black or Hispanic, and from poor families. Most Chi-Town teachers were middle-class whites.
The school once had a predominantly Jewish, middle-class student body, and some of the older teachers could not get used to the hostile and unwilling attitudes of some of today’s students. They had become teachers at a time when tardiness and gum-chewing were among the worst discipline problems. Now they had to deal with kids whose parents didn’t care if they stayed out all night, kids who fought hard and sang rap songs about killing cops. They had entered the system as degreed professionals, eager to impart knowledge, but ended up spending half their time on discipline. They were unable to teach the subjects they loved, at least in the way they had learned to teach them.
1 p.m. The mad dash to enter the day’s disciplinary decisions into the computer begins.
Since Mr. Kimbark, the attendance officer, suspended students for excessive tardiness and class cuts, I had to enter his data as well. But first, I had to sift through the papers on his overloaded desk blotter to find the data. Combined with Mr. Belmont’s forms, they made for a good hour or two of fast and furious data entry.
Usually I was interrupted by at least one emergency, such as an arrest for marijuana possession, a gang fight or—one of my favorite cases—a student who called his teacher “cabbage head.” The troublemakers typically sat around for an hour or two, and as I chatted with them, I learned to my surprise that they were among the brightest and most imaginative in the school.
2:30 p.m. Revise the “block list,” the daily listing of students barred from school or suspended, complete with due-back dates and teachers requesting a parent conference when they returned.
A copy of the list was posted in the main office to alert teachers, but most teachers forgot to read it—so “suspended” students often sneaked back to school unnoticed.
With the intensity of our jobs—Mr. Kimbark often worked 12 hours a day trying to keep up with attendance records—sometimes these daily records weren’t wholly accurate. Still, we did the best we could.
Also, Mr. Belmont would sometimes tell a student he or she was suspended and send the student home without telling me or anyone else and without filling out any paperwork. The attendance office then would be left wondering where the student was, which created an administrative hassle.
The lack of coordination between the two offices also meant that kids often returned after suspension without a parent—which was required—and attended classes a couple of days before I found out about it. This only weakened the school’s authority in their eyes. Obviously, it also subverted the goal of getting parents to talk to teachers about their kids.
3:45 p.m. Get into a bubble bath and cry, for the first week anyway.
My hide soon thickened and I was able to enjoy the zaniness of my job, despite its stresses. It’s not everyone who gets to hear a teenager’s defense as to why he mooned the teacher!
As time went on, I sensed several reasons for students’ misbehavior: a desperate need for attention, frustration at not being able to read or to relate to the textbooks and curriculum, fear of other students. The school didn’t have the time or resources to deal with these problems effectively. Its dedicated counselors and social worker did much good, but they were overworked.
Mr. Belmont, on the other hand, did little but smoke and drink coffee all day. He was supposed to be on hand to counsel students after deciding their punishments, but he wasn’t. He was supposed to help me locate students to be suspended and to keep his own paperwork on suspensions, but he didn’t. At best, Mr. Belmont made a few pat admonitions, like “Don’t lip off to your teacher.” After students departed, he often muttered “trash” or “scumbag” under his breath. He seemed to hate his job.
Chi-Town High proved to be a real education for me. And while I found many of its lessons amusing, I also came to the conclusion that discipline should be a higher priority. The point is not just to punish students who misbehave, but to give all kids a sense of safety and pride in their school. Ultimately, when we lay down the rules and enforce them, we’re telling students we care about them.