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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Discipline and Off-Campus Behavior

By Roger T. Sauer — April 14, 2004 7 min read
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Everyone remembers the homemade videos. A mass of jerseyed high school girls being kicked and punched. Paint poured over them, along with other fluids both disgusting and vile: feces, urine, fish viscera.

Yes, the infamous Glenbrook, Ill., “powder-puff football game” between Glenbrook North High School’s senior and junior girls gained national notoriety and significance: for educators, for parents, for the legal community, and for towns and cities around the country.

As the school year enters its spring season, and high schools face the possibility of similar annual rites, pranks, and rituals, some lessons can be learned from last year’s hazing.

The incident on May 4, 2003, caused us to challenge many of the assumptions we make as educators about the nature of our young people and the understood relationships among them. It also forced us to examine the commonly held distinction between “school matters” and “community matters.” This re-examination of school and community boundaries could first be seen when the Illinois school disassociated itself from the fray, then, on advice of its legal counsel, sought school sanctions, up to and including expulsion, against the attackers. Legal challenges on the sanctions were brought; all were dismissed. Some students, as well as some adults who supplied alcohol to the students, were later convicted of charges related to the event.

More importantly, the community of Glenbrook and its schools spent the next six months studying this event, debating the issues, and thoughtfully offering recommendations for the future. Their draft 72-page document is one that ought to be read by high school administrators and staff members and by community leaders ( “Report on Issues Related to the May 4 Hazing Incident,” requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader).

One of the key issues it addresses is the “nexus” between schools and the communities they serve in matters relating to youth misbehavior and crime. This issue is taken up quite forcefully in the report’s discussion of how the community task force sought and received input from the citizens of Glenbrook.

Among the public comments received, only one had the view that the response to the May 4 incident should have been a police and prosecution matter; that there is no nexus between those events and any on- campus activity and, thus, there should be no on-campus consequences for off- campus behavior. This view argues for the segregation of the community into separate spheres, with each focused on a specific mission.

All the other input—and much of the report—suggests the opposite, arguing for an enlarged idea of the relationship between student behavior anywhere and student privileges on campus. In fact, the consensus of the task force was that there should be cooperation between public bodies and private organizations to develop a coordinated effort to enhance the students’ educational experience and the community’s involvement in building a more socially aware and socially responsible environment.

In a meeting not long ago, I spoke to a group of superintendents and principals from across the country on discipline codes. A question raised by one audience member went something like this: If a student were wearing a school football jersey while walking home, and he or she were caught shoplifting, could the school take disciplinary action? The crowd was pretty evenly split, and we proceeded into a series of “what ifs.” But this got me thinking about the factors we might take into consideration for this or other incidents.

In a typical American high school of a thousand students or so, there are literally tens of thousands of student-to-student and student-to-adult interactions on any given day. Fortunately, due to pervasive common sense, school structures and organization, security, and guidance, very few of these rise to the level of a disciplinary infraction. In fact, the longevity of our high schools is testimony in part to the fact that there are relatively few problems. Even the tragic school shootings over the past decade have done little to challenge the assumptions that underlie the American high school. And despite efforts to downsize and make more intimate these institutions, few communities are building smaller high schools.

The longevity of our high schools is testimony in part to the fact that there are relatively few problems.

Besides the thousands of school interactions, there are even more outside the school and school- activity day. Each of these interactions comprises a specific and unique set of facts. The facts, in turn, can be seen as the intersection of participants and context, both in time and space. If one were able to systematize these elements, one could begin to tease out those that might indicate a “school- related” as opposed to a “non-school-related” incident.

Using some of these basic elements of participant and context, one can “test” an incident as to its susceptibility to school involvement. (Think in terms of the legal tests devised by courts to determine the constitutionality of governmental actions; for example, the “Lemon” test on school and church topics.) Here is a series of questions that school personnel, school boards, and communities might consider when dealing with out-of-school infractions after the fact, or in developing policies and procedures:

1. Were the participants enrolled students at your school? School sanctions would not by definition follow a nonstudent. It is not unusual for students and nonstudents to get together. The juvenile and criminal courts may treat them the same. Schools cannot.

2. What was the time? Five minutes after school or after a dance is a lot different from mid-July or a weekend.

3. What was the incident’s proximity to the school entity? Consider buses, staff property, ancillary service areas, or areas near “away game” sites as places of legitimate concern. Also consider whether the school is isolated or within a neighborhood.

4. If off campus, were there incidents of concern at school preceding or following the incident? Fights, “rumbles,” and conflicts easily move from school to neighborhood and back again. If an action took place away from school but began within a school context, there may be a place for school intervention. Similarly, an off-campus incident that has an impact on the orderly operation of the school can and should be addressed.

5. Who were the participants? Consider adults as well as students, and students from other schools as well as your own.

6. What was the number of participants? One student might be a fluke. A group of 10 is less easily dismissed.

7. Who were the victims, if any? Again, consider the impact not only on one’s own school but on others. Age and school enrollment make some issues more critical. If the victim of an incident is from a district school, even if the act was on a weekend, there could be a clear school connection. This is often the case in e-mail harassment.

8. Was there a clear presence of school identification? Were students wearing school insignia? Were they all on a team or well known as school students? Did the act use district property, such as an e-mail system?

9. Was there prior knowledge by school personnel? Control implies liability. If an administrator or teacher knew of an event but did little to stop it, then the school could be liable. It pays to be aware of informal student-communications systems. Sometimes, administrators have not only the right but the duty to report rumors of upcoming off-campus shenanigans to authorities.

10. Are there explicit rules or expectations for all students or specific groups (for example, athletes)? An explicit rule that is broadly disseminated about off-campus behavior will do a lot to dispel uncertainty. We ought to consider also athletic rules and honor codes that often ask schoolpeople to judge students on the basis of both school and nonschool activity.

11. What does your attorney say? It always shows good faith to check with the school attorney. In the Glenbrook case, it was the attorney who later determined that the girls could be sanctioned by the school.

There may be other questions to ask. This test is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to identify those factors that might, separately or collectively, point to a school-community nexus.

Discipline codes and rules governing off-campus behavior need to be understood and, one would hope, consented to by many stakeholders: students, staff members, board members, parents, and local authorities. Developing a policy on these matters that includes a test such as the one I have described is an effective way to bring those parties together. In Glenbrook, Ill., the conversation took place after the incident, but it has had a salutary effect nonetheless.

Other school communities need only to look at the season and ask if they are prepared.

Roger T. Sauer is a senior associate of School Resource Associates, an education consulting firm in Salem, Ore., that specializes in school-discipline-related issues.

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