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DSA In the News

Re-examining discipline

Published on 8/20/2010

Sixteen-year-old Xavier B. wasn’t supposed to return to school until January.

The South San Francisco teen was caught selling marijuana at school and was expelled. His story isn’t unique.

Derrick G., a 13-year-old, got in trouble for bringing a butterfly knife to school right before summer break. He was expelled and had to spend time in juvenile hall. He also was not scheduled to return to school until January.

During the 2008-09 school year, 342 students were expelled in San Mateo County. Seventy-two of those were from the South San Francisco Unified School District, according to the California Department of Education. Often times, the teens end up at either a continuation or community day school. While both are good alternatives, the smaller communities without as many extracurricular opportunities are not a fit for all.

Patrick Lucy, who works for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, was tired of running into kids he watched grow up alongside his own daughter end up making bad decisions.

“I was pissed,” he said.

Thankfully, Lucy is the kind of guy who gets motivated when he wants things to change. He set out to change what happens after these students make decisions that get a student kicked out of school. This month, the South San Francisco Unified High School District had seven boys and their parents participate in as yet unnamed five-day pilot program aimed at giving expelled students the chance to reflect, evaluate their decision-making skills, learn about opportunities and return to school. But it’s not just about the kids. Parents and legal guardian participate as well, making the program an educational experience for everyone. Those seven students all started at new, traditional schools within the district on Tuesday — just like the majority of students within the district.

The idea started out of frustration. Lucy saw students get expelled, spend their time outside of the classroom and then go back to school. Sometimes the student was in a different school but there was no other help for students and parents.

Lucy recalled being a youth who didn’t listen to his parents, so why would we expect that from these kids? He didn’t. Instead, Lucy asked for help from probation officers, and people involved with rehabilitation programs Project Ninety and the Jericho Project to speak with the students. Doing so allowed adults — many of whom have made many of the same bad decisions that got the kids expelled — to talk about the ramifications of continuing to make negative decisions.

“It has been surreal for me to see all this come together and the impact it has made on all of us,” said board President Liza Normandy, which included the people who helped it come together, speakers, students and parents. “There were tears, hugs and through it all we all learned. ... Those guest speakers were powerful and gave our youth hope, advice and guidance to make the choice to make it better. As a member of the Board of Trustees, I am proud that we were able to provide such an alternative for our students.”

Joel Rebello, counselor for the district who worked with the group over the five days, saw the best responses from the students when talking with people from Project Ninety and Jericho Project.

“They told the boys to speak up. They already got in trouble. That kind of honesty, and to bring it up in front of the students, [really impacted the students],” he said.

It wasn’t just about talking. The students visited the jail and spent one day doing community service cleaning up the Baden High School campus.

Lucy stood before the guys and their parents on the program’s last day — Monday night — and asked who thought the outside work was punishment. A couple of hands went up. Did anyone disagree?, he asked.

Some did.

“It’s like we’re giving back for the stuff we did,” said 13-year-old Derrick G.

Lucy agreed. Getting into trouble is not just about the person who ends up punished; it affects others too.

“You’ve taken up a lot of people’s time,” said Lucy who noted the paperwork and meetings that go along with a possible expulsion.

Then there is also the impact on the person’s family. And negative decisions do impact families.

Take 13-year-old Robert T., who was having a tough time at school, for example. He was getting into fights and the final straw was when he got caught selling codeine pills, all due, he said, to peer pressure. His mom saw this but admitted to being lenient about it all.

Derrick G.’s aunt felt disconnected to what was going on. She pointed to the difference in age and literally a lack of information about his world as it is vastly different from that of her own childhood.

Kids and parents/guardians alike took quizzes to learn about their decision-making style, or lack thereof, drugs, alcohol and peer pressure. And altogether, the group learned about things everyone missed like how many calories are in one ounce of alcohol or the best way to deal with someone on heroin.

“This is really education for the parent as well. I feel empowered,” said Derrick G.’s aunt.

She may not know all the answers, but she felt better prepared to deal with the issues now.

And the parents weren’t alone. As the last meeting got to the halfway point, a parent asked what the teens wanted to change about themselves.

Changing the decision-making process was a universal answer amongst the youth. And all were excited about the opportunity to go back to school, a different one from the one they attended when they got into trouble and were optimistic about the fresh start.

Mel C., 17, started at South San Francisco High on Tuesday. Since he was expelled in January, he hasn’t been doing much. Without the program, that’s what he would be doing today — literally. Instead he’s in class, working toward an education he may not have otherwise achieved.

Trustee Maurice Goodman stressed the importance of supporting students who simply made a bad decision.

“I see a lot of these kids in myself. These kids are me. We see a lot of ourselves on them. We want to focus on them. … This is a change-their-life opportunity,” he said.

The alternative to expulsion program is just beginning. It’s an attempt to look at discipline in a different light. Goodman was hopeful to see the program be offered more often and to more students going forward.

Rebello echoed the hope for reaching more students.

“A lot of my kids could use this,” he said.

He plans to hold a focus group with the students in the future to check in. Parents also put contact information together at the end of the program. Lucy suggested if anyone needed help to simply ask, reach out to someone else.

Starting a new program during a time when most districts are laying people off may seem counterintuitive. This pilot program is volunteer-based at this point with the only cost being Rebello’s hours over the five days, since he’s a district employee, said John Thompson, assistant superintendent of personnel for the district. Of course, Thompson doesn’t expect to sustain it at that level always, but the learning experience will hopefully create a new opportunity for students within the district.

Normandy has already noticed a difference in the small group of teens who took part in the inaugural group.

“As I dropped off my freshman to South San Francisco High School on the first day school,” she said, “I ran into one of the alternative to expulsion students and he had on his new shoes, a smile and shared his commitment to make his life better not just for himself, but for his family.”