Q&A: Handling 'Kids the Public Schools Don't Want to Handle'

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A. Michael DeSisto, 43, is described by associates as an "unconventional" educator. He runs two unconventional schools, one in Florida and one in Massachusetts, for troubled high-school students.

Mostly affluent and white, the 350 students who attend his schools have histories of drug abuse, drinking, violence, prostitution, and attempted suicide, among other problems. They have been referred by counselors or school officials across the country who believe that Mr. DeSisto's unusual educational philosophy ("back to basics with love") and the schools' environment--which places heavy emphasis on discipline, structure, and psychological therapy--might aid them in ways that other schools could not.

The cost of his program--$10,000 a year, plus about $2,500 for therapy--could be prohibitive for many families. But parents who can afford it, like Mary Ann Skaug, who moved from California to Florida so that a son with drug-related problems could attend, regard it highly. About 20 percent of DeSisto students receive public support from their home states, says Tony Plummer, an official at the Florida school.

It was parents, in fact, according to Mr. DeSisto, who encouraged him in the first place to establish a school where he could put his philosophy into practice. About four years ago, when the former theology student was serving as the head of a private school on Long Island and was fired in a disagreement with its board of directors, the parents of students at the school withdrew their children and raised $180,000 to support the establishment of a separate school.

Since then, Mr. DeSisto has opened the second school in Florida and has been the subject of articles in Life and People magazines. Currently, he is preparing a series of television programs about people and how they interact to be aired in Canada.

Florida and Massachusetts have approved Mr. DeSisto's schools as providers of special-education services.

Mr. DeSisto, who holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Massachusetts and has taught at Adelphi University, Elmira College, the New York Military Academy, and in the Berkshire, Mass. public schools, requires that parents become involved in their children's education and rehabilitation. The parents meet regularly in groups--with their children at the residential schools and apart from them--for discussions.

Both the faculty and the students are in some form of therapy, primarily Gestalt, which emphasizes the exploration of feelings. Mr. DeSisto argues that it is necessary for the students to understand their feelings if they are ever to correct the destructive course their lives have taken.

He elaborated on these views and why he holds them in a recent conversation with Susan G. Foster.

QAre teachers in public schools today properly prepared to cope with the diversity of the students?

AI think we keep differentiating and splitting up issues in such a crazy way. I think they really are prepared, but I don't think we let them.

QWhat do you mean?

AOne of the important roles of the job is being a parent figure. The job of the parent is to set limits. I think we make kids schizophrenic and crazy as they go through school. For example, we take the discipline role and we give it to security guards and the police. When the teachers in the schools are allowed to be the authority figure and set limits, then a lot of the problems can be diminished. A lot more learning will go on.

One of the things we've all learned is that we don't want to be involved in an emotional relationship, especially if anger is involved. So, we keep making excuses for students and lessening the limits.

QWhat do you mean by lessening the limits?

AWe think that if we grumble at students, it's going to stop them and that they'll be all right, rather than considering the interaction [that occurs in setting limits] as very important in itself. When we insist that our students have to do homework every night, they do it. These are kids who never went to school before, and they do it. They want you to make them do these things. Once we decrease the limits in public schools and back off on the small things, there's nothing left but the big rules to break.

QDefine some small things.

AWhere they sit in classroom. It can be the kind of clothes they wear in the classroom. We have rules about that. It can be the door you walk in. It can be anything makes the kids feel that somebody's in charge here and the place is under control. Children will test an environment especially if their home environment is unstable. They will test the little things.

QWhat do you say to teachers who object to being the disciplinarian?

AThey are the disciplinarian. The job necessitates interaction with children. If you're going to have an interaction, you're going to have to set limits because that is the job of transferential parenting, taking the parent's place. During school, teachers are the parent figure, and they have to set limits. If you want to teach and just teach math, then you can get a machine to do it. The necessity of the parent is the interaction. The limits kids get in schools should be set by teachers.

It is the teachers' job to discipline and to keep order. It's not the parent's job and it's not the policeman's. People who have discipline problems make discipline problems and then walk away from them. The good teachers in the school don't have discipline problems. ...

Schools are not democracies. They are families. There are a "mommy" and a "daddy" who run it and the adolescent children. The kids might have a democracy among their peers but [in school] there are mommies and daddies whose job it is to make decisions. ... School administrators and teachers are basically parent figures.

QHow is what you're doing any different from what is being done in the public schools?

AThe basic thing is we're handling kids the public schools don't want to handle--all the "bad" ones. The ones who end up cutting classes; the ones who are smoking dope in the bathrooms; the ones who might have been violent. They are a group who for the most part are labeled emotionally disturbed.

The public-school system doesn't work with them; [school officials] can't work with them. What they'll do is put them in special-education classes, or they end up in vocational classes.

QIs that wrong?

ASpecial-education classes are usually for learning-disabled students. These kids are not appropriate for special education. But the schools will do anything they can to try to get them through the system and get them graduated, especially since the enactment of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.


AThe schools feel as though they must get them out and give them a diploma. We get those who've got diplomas from schools and they really don't deserve them. But the schools run them through because they're afraid they are going to have to spend money on them if they don't. So they downgrade the students' classes. They give them a diploma and then they are no longer responsible for them. The students don't want to be in school, so they take what they're given. They think the schools have been nice to them. The reality is [the schools] haven't taken care of them according to anywhere near what their needs are. The only thing they've done is swallowed them up.

QYou obviously disagree with that. Why?

AThey are not really emotionally disturbed kids. But the schools don't know what else to label them. They are very bright, very creative, usually good-looking, highly manipulative. They can wrap the whole system around their finger. They have great eyes; you look in their eyes and they dance. These kids will tell the whole world to [buzz off]. They test you; they do all the things they're not supposed to do, and they let everybody know they're doing it as opposed to doing it sneaky and under wraps.

QAre you saying this type of behavior is okay?

AThe real sin [that is held against them] is that they let everybody know. Sure, they steal, but everybody steals something sometime in their lives. It's that these kids do it in such a vocal, public way. They insist that everybody know about it; that's their big crime. But they do it because they want help.

QYour schools have been called "the schools of last resort." What does that mean?

AYou would have to see the kids to truly understand. We have kids who've been turned out of hospitals. Can you imagine a kid, 15 years old being thrown out of a psychiatric hospital because he "acted out" too much and smoked dope in a psychiatric hospital? Do you know how horrible it must be for a kid to know that no one can handle him? That they can throw him out of a crazy house because they think he's too crazy?

QDo they think of it in those terms?

AThey certainly do. And it scares the hell out of them. They know how bad they are. They know.

QBut it doesn't scare them enough to conform?

AThey can't. It only makes them worse. It's interesting because all of us react in different ways. When some people are nervous, they eat. Others don't eat. When some people are scared, they pull back and withdraw. Some people get scared, and they talk more. When these kids get real scared, they become more outgoing. They are trying to make contact. And they keep on until they get someone who will take care of them. I wish I could tell you the number of kids that I've just held. They want you to restrain them. They want to know that they're going to be safe.

QWhat do you do in your programs?

AWhat we do with them is college-preparatory work with three compulsory years of English, two of math, two of science, two of social studies, as well as optional language classes and a lot of rules--like, you can't wear blue jeans to class. There's also a lot of direction.

QSo you give them a rigid structure?

AA lot of structure. But also a lot of personal interaction. There's a lot of love that goes on between us. Each school is like a family, even though there are almost 150 students. We might even be a father figure, but they know we love them and they know that we're the ones who make the rules. The limits and the caring are the two most important aspects. Also the fact that we're involved in it with them. We're all in therapy. We believe that therapy is something that we could all use.

QIt sounds as though your program promotes an area that experts say too many students lack, guidance and counseling.

AYes. But within the framework of the program. People will ask 'Well, what about the three R's?' But why can't feelings be part of this? Why do feelings have to be segregated and taken home. ...?

QHow do you respond?

AWhen we're dealing with these kinds of kids, who make you mad, we have to realize why they behave as they do. For example, when someone steals, there's a sensation, a soothing. They are getting something. You can't ask a kid to give up that and not substitute something.

In some ways, they've lived more than all of us. I mean they've acted out; they've been strong; they've been gutsy, they've been determined; and they've had courage. They might not have been those things for the right reason, but you can't just take that stuff away and make them be good. You've got to substitute or else you're killing a part of them that's alive. It's also very important that you connect them into the whole system. Their families and the faculty have to be involved.

QWhat do you do to keep that energy alive in an educational setting?

ABy respecting them as people and not being threatened by them. By allowing them to speak. By treating them as human beings. All the decisions of the dorm are made by a consensus of the kids. Every kid has power. Whenever we hire staff, it's through the consensus of the faculty. Only the faculty can fire faculty. But, the kids can get a consensus and have the teacher removed from a class. When this happens, the teacher is allowed to stay on and work towards re-establishing the relationship.

QWhat's the purpose of that?

AWhat it does is give everyone responsibility. So many times really good people make mistakes on the job. They get fired. They go somewhere else and they are wonderful. Why lose them?

You get the same thing in kids, too. It's the idea of not giving up on kids. I don't believe you can teach faculty not to give up on kids if you don't teach them not to give up on themselves.

QCan the public schools do what you are attempting to do?

AYes. You can do the same thing anywhere. I would love to become superintendent in a small town. We never throw out kids. The public schools do, and that's why we have them. I believe that they don't have to get rid of them. I believe that kids and families can be helped right in their communities a lot of times. You'd save a lot of money by doing it as we are.

Vol. 02, Issue 21

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