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N.H. Parents Organize To Take Aim at Discipline

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Nashua, N.H.

Mary Sousa and her husband, Chris, were lured here five years ago by this New England city's highly rated public schools. Now, the couple is on a crusade to make them safer.

The schools their four children attend have become frightening places, the Sousas contend, where students intimidate, bully, and attack each other in packs. Classes are often disorderly, they say, and troublemakers disrupt lessons with idle chatter and blurt out obscenities at teachers.

Violent incidents, such as shootings and knife assaults, are hardly the norm in this 12,600-student school district, system officials say.

But standing on her neat front lawn this month, Ms. Sousa spoke as if she were fortifying her territory against an attack. She said she wants to stop violence and disruption in the schools before they get worse.

So last year, Mr. and Ms. Sousa founded the parents' group Citizens for Discipline in Schools.

Using their kitchen table and home telephone as their command center, the Sousas said their mission is to push for tougher discipline policies that are enforced consistently from 1st grade through graduation.

Though the Sousas believe that lax parenting may be at fault for a good portion of school-discipline problems, they said it's more effective to prod an administrator into changing school procedures than to lecture neighbors about child-rearing methods.

Catching On

Parents across the country have long lobbied for stricter safety and discipline policies in their children's schools, but the Sousas appear to be the first parents to start an organization devoted to that purpose.

"We don't want teachers to spend half their class time dealing with troublesome students," Mr. Sousa said as he collated handouts for an upcoming group meeting. The 41-year-old video-company manager is so committed to his cause that he spends much of his free time lobbying his neighbors and friends to join--or at least to donate photocopying services.

"Someone needs to speak up for the 95 percent of kids who behave," he said.

So far, the message seems to be catching on.

Since the Sousas founded their group 13 months ago, membership has increased to 225 parents.

And since Ms. Sousa, 38, began traveling up and down the state to meet with other parents, Citizens for Discipline in Schools chapters have formed in 15 other New Hampshire towns. And in recent months, the Sousas have gotten calls from parents in Vermont, Maine, and New Jersey who are eager to form similar alliances.

"Parents have no outlet," Mr. Sousa said, pointing to a map showing a steady progression of groups snaking northward toward the Canadian border. "This is something they can latch onto."

That these coalitions have blossomed in New Hampshire, a state known for its independent-minded citizenry, is no surprise. In a state where the motto "Live free or die" is printed on license plates, grassroots movements tend to take hold.

And because 90 percent of public school aid in the state is generated at the local level, community voices carry considerable weight in school-policy debates.

New Code of Conduct?

In just over a year, the citizens' coalition has successfully lobbied the Nashua public schools to convene a committee made up of community representatives, parents, teachers, and local police officers to draft a districtwide discipline code.

The proposed K-12 plan, which the school board is expected to vote on this summer, would replace a disparate set of discipline guidelines that vary from school to school.

The draft policy, which the Sousas largely crafted, spells out in greater detail which student offenses warrant leniency and which call for harsher consequences. The Sousas say the current approach allows teachers far too much latitude on punishment.

Now, if a junior high school student threatens to assault a teacher, for example, the teacher could choose to suspend the student or simply ignore the misbehavior. Under the proposed rules, the teacher would be required to immediately remove the student from the classroom and to notify a parent of the threatening remark.

The proposed code also calls for punishments to be consistently administered in every classroom.

John F. Cepaitis, the assistant superintendent of the Nashua schools, said that though discipline problems in the district's schools have worsened over the past few years, that increase is a reflection of changes in the community.

Mr. Cepaitis said that, overall, he welcomes the parents' input, but he argued that teachers ought to have the flexibility to devise their own punishments when students commit lesser offenses.

"No one wants a police state, right?" he said.

District officials have agreed, however, to begin a fund-raising drive to build the district's first alternative school for students who commit offenses, one of the Sousas' demands.

Special Needs

While the founding chapter here has made progress, some of the fledgling groups in other parts of the state haven't made as much headway.

"There's no discipline here, and the district isn't doing anything," said Mary Dziepak, who last year launched a parents' group in the central New Hampshire town of Laconia. She said that after volunteering in her daughter's middle school, she was struck by what she called lax enforcement of classroom rules.

"The school's attitude is 'See no evil, hear no evil,'" she asserted.

Though the middle school established a new conduct code last year, Ms. Dziepak said disciplinary problems are unchanged because the policy is not consistently enforced from room to room.

But the principal of Memorial Middle School, where Ms. Dziepak's daughter goes to school, disagreed. Arthur Ellis said that Ms. Dziepak's view represents a minority opinion.

He added that in a survey taken this year, the majority of parents said the school's new discipline code is effective. "I don't know what the grousing is about on the other side," he said.

A major complaint of the parents' groups is that students' who behave badly in school are often not punished because they are labeled as having special needs. This creates a two-tiered system that undermines a teacher's authority in the classroom, the parents say.

"There's a double standard for children with disabilities," said Cindi Pescinski, a parent who lives in Sanbornton, N.H.

Ms. Sousa agreed. "My oldest daughter has attention-deficit disorder," Ms. Sousa said of Amy, 16. "But if she is disruptive, she should be hauled out of class in a heartbeat." The couple's other children are 15, 14, and 10.

That argument disturbs some educators who say that the special consideration given to students with disabilities and others is done for a reason. They contend that in the rush to administer uniform discipline policies, the rights of some of the most vulnerable children could be trampled.

"We always need to be concerned that we preserve and protect the individual rights and well-being of students, including special education students," Gary Marx, the spokesman for the 16,000-member American Association of School Administrators, said last week.

Some school administrators across New Hampshire privately have criticized the parents' coalitions for what they see as the groups' overbearing approach. The administrators argue that it would be more effective if these parents made their suggestions and then allowed the majority to rule.

"We should be working together on this," said one high school principal who recently formed a discipline task force. "We really need these parents' support because we are after the same thing."

Unions Applaud Groups

But while the coalitions may have ruffled some administrators' feathers, teachers' unions say they couldn't be more pleased that such parent groups have taken hold.

"You are doing what we hope every community in America would do," John Mitchell, a deputy director of the American Federation of Teachers, told 60 parents gathered this month at the first statewide meeting of the parents' groups.

The AFT last fall launched a broad campaign arguing that academic excellence can only be achieved if order is restored to the classroom. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

Mr. Mitchell said the 900,000-member national union is considering a plan to recommend that districts across the country create citizens' advisory groups similar to those in New Hampshire to oversee school-discipline issues.

But as the Sousas watch their ranks grow, they confess they are worried their message will become ensnared in party--or union--politics.

Though most of its members identify themselves as Republicans, Citizens for Discipline in Schools doesn't take political stands or endorse candidates for public office.

The Sousas have resisted taking positions on other volatile education topics such as corporal punishment or school prayer, arguing that such action would dilute their agenda.

But the couple said they have no plans to stop their school-discipline efforts. "This is a movement now," Mr. Sousa told the room full of parents assembled for the regional meeting. "We are trying to take back our schools."

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