-by Jack M. Jose
“Here” is Gamble Montessori High School.
Early in the 2013-2014 school year, my walkie-talkie crackled to life with an urgent call to a classroom. In the hall I passed a girl, new to our school, who was yelling threats and trying to break free from the grip of our security assistant. I could not immediately tell who she was threatening.
One of the adults who had been present in the hall when the incident started, Roberto A., started to tell me the story by expressing his amazement. “Jack, I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life.” He related that the new student was convinced that someone was looking at her “wrong”. Offended, she stood up and started shouting at Michalia, a student who had been at Gamble since 7th grade. The shouting is what prompted him to enter the room and to call for me on the walkie. Michalia stood up and shouted back “I don’t have any beef with you.” As Roberto moved closer, the new student punched Michalia, who took one step back and said, “Somebody better get her. Somebody needs to tell her that’s not what we do here.”
“That’s not what we do here.” This is a most remarkable response to being punched. Many people would say that being hit would excuse Michalia if she chose to fight. I know that once upon a time, Michalia would have fought for less. I know that she felt immense social pressure to solve the problem by fighting, and that each year a small number of students make the other choice when in a similar situation. I also know that many times, parents defend and even encourage this response. That’s why her decision was hard.
Michalia resisted all of this, and accepted – trusted – that the adults in the school would act on her behalf and she did not need to fight. In doing this she was also showing tremendous grace toward her antagonist.
“Somebody better get her. Somebody needs to tell her that’s not what we do here.”
Even in the heat of the moment, Michalia remained cognizant of what we do – and what we don’t do – at Gamble. We have worked very intentionally to create an environment where Michalia, and many students like her, could make that choice. While we can’t explain her thinking exactly, we can explain the work that helped make it possible. We have spent a lot of time training teachers and staff and creating systems to allow students to be heard, to feel safe, to vent their frustrations, and to find appropriate ways to deal with conflict. I know that we made her decision easier because an adult immediately intervened. But it is these other interventions that helped build her trust. We have …
Created policies and procedures
- created a mediation program and self-referral process
- built a positive school culture plan that accounts for peer-to-peer misbehavior
- based our discipline plan on readings about restorative justice including reading the book The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools: Teaching Responsibility; Creating Caring Climates
- empowered teachers to make key decisions in student discipline
- provided outlines and staff PD for the Faber/Mazlish book How to Talk so Kids Will Learn
- trained our staff in mediation three times and retaught the mediation referral process annually
- provided an outline to mediation and How to Talk… in the staff manual
Taught the expectations to students
- provided an annual orientation meeting covering the rules about physical and emotional misbehavior and the mediation process
- overtly taught the difference between bullying and more common types of peer-to-peer misbehavior
- taught students the legal definition of “self defense” in Ohio, so they know the difference between that and fighting.
This is hard work. We have had difficult conversations in our school about consequences for students who fight, and the relative value of removing them from school. We have not eliminated fighting. But we have created a culture in which students know they can request a mediation, and where they can be heard by their teachers, and where, on many occasions, students make a choice other than to fight.
When I pulled Michalia out into the hall to get her version of the story, she was understandably agitated. After answering my questions, she asked me, “Am I going to be suspended?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Well, I raised my voice, and that was really loud. And we almost fought.” She paused. “I really wanted to hit her.”
I folded my arms. “I bet you did. No, I am not going to suspend you. In fact, I want to tell you how impressed I am. That was … well, that was pretty brave. Now,” I started to walk away. “You need to get back in there – you’ve missed enough instruction for one day.”
Jack M. Jose