Calif. District Has Had It With Rude Parents

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The Capistrano Unified district in Southern California is cracking down on its latest behavior problem: overaggressive grown-ups.

Faced with a growing number of incidents in which school staff members have felt threatened by parents or other adults, the school board passed what it says is the state's first "civility policy" targeting adults.

"We teach kids to control their tempers," board President Crystal Kochendorfer said in an interview last week. "We expect adults to do that, too."

In reality, the district's civility policy is a strong reminder of existing district rules and state laws involving disruptions on school property.

For example, the policy states that anyone who threatens the safety of students, or whose actions could provoke a violent reaction, will be asked to leave school property. That is already standard procedure in most schools.

But Capistrano employees are also being urged by the new policy to admonish members of the public to act civilly if they use obscenities or speak in a "demanding, loud, insulting and/or demeaning manner."

And employees are free to hang up on parents who are abusive on the phone.

"Staff has had the backing of administration on this in the past," Ms. Kochendorfer said. "Now, I think it's clear to the public."

The 1 1/2-page document, approved March 30, also calls on district leaders to draft a "safety and/or crisis intervention techniques program," the details of which are still being worked out.

"The focus so far in the media has really been on parents, but [the policy] is reciprocal and applies to school staff," said Julie Jennings, the spokeswoman for the 40,000-student district, whose headquarters is in scenic San Juan Capistrano and covers 200 square miles along the Pacific coast south of Los Angeles.

"It's not a policy setting us up to do whatever we want," she said.

Increasing Problem

Just how serious is the problem?

According to school officials, incidents of verbal abuse and threats have become commonplace in the mostly middle-class district, and are directed at everyone from teachers to secretaries and administrators.

While the district does not keep statistics on such incidents, Ms. Jennings said officials estimate that there is at least one a week.

For example, a mother's recent tirade against officials at Fred Newhart Middle School over her son's dress-code violation resulted in a call to police, who escorted her off the 2,000-student campus.

In another incident cited by the district, a parent who became upset with an adult staff member while picking up a child at school drove off in such a huff that the employee was hit by the side-view mirror of the parent's car.

"This policy allows our staff to feel protected and empowered to take action if they need to," Ms. Jennings said.

But a father involved in another incident said school officials could do more to prevent parent outbursts.

Bruce Rockwell, a high school teacher in the area as well as a parent, admits he went overboard last fall by sprawling in front of a school bus. But, he said in an interview, school officials started the "chain reaction" when they couldn't tell him why his 12-year-old daughter's bus was an hour late getting home.

It was the second day of school and the third time the bus was late, Mr. Rockwell said. When the bus arrived, he got in front of the bus in what he called an act of civil disobedience. He later found out from his daughter that the bus had broken down en route, and a replacement bus had to be sent.

"If they want to make a policy that's going to make a difference," Mr. Rockwell said, "they could find a way to let parents know when buses break down."

Mandating Behavior?

Mr. Rockwell may have a point, said Mike Kiefer, the director of the Ypsilanti, Mich.-based Center for Civil Leadership, which trains school leaders in monitoring their behavior and working collaboratively.

"You can't just come out and say we're going to be civil and stop this dysfunctional behavior," Mr. Kiefer said. "What you do then is increase stress and create more uncivil behavior."

More important, he said, school officials, beginning at the top, must model the kind of behavior that they want from staff members and the public. Sometimes, parents have legitimate reasons for being angry, he said, such as feeling left out of their child's education.

"If you expect parents to be civil," he added, "you have to mirror that behavior back to the community."

Ms. Kochendorfer of the Capistrano school board said public response to the policy has generally been positive. She has, however, heard concerns similar to those of Mr. Kiefer.

"One woman said that she was sensitive to people losing their temper because they're frustrated working with bureaucrats," she said. "But frustration does not excuse violent, aggressive behavior."

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