by Bill Rich
As the chief school disciplinarian, I learned to involve students in correcting their own misbehavior. It was important to me to spend time on small issues since this reduced the frequency of the big issues such as fighting. This often meant helping students to see that if they tried a different approach with friends or teachers, things could go better for them. Thus, the kid in trouble for being late, would come up with a “wake up” strategy for home and I would encourage him to “buck up” and take responsibility for his own life. No need to rely on mommy as a 3rd grader.! If a teacher yelled at a kid, I would work with the teacher on more constructive strategies but also let the youngster know to just “buck up” and take responsibility for the natural consequences of throwing paper in class. Any boss would yell at them for that kind of behavior so stop whining.
But inevitably, asking people to take responsibility, whether kids or parents would end up occasionally causing some harsh words. So cursing was always an issue at school, even the small elementary school where I served as principal. Since it was not my first principalship, I had worked out how to handle cursing from children and adults based on modeling other principals. So if adult school employees cursed at children, I simply followed a step-by-step progressive discipline process starting with verbal warning and ending with a letter in the file. I never had to write such a letter because most school people were so embarrassed that they made the mistake of cursing at a student, that they didn’t do it again. Anyway, most of the time, the student had done something that would upset a saint so it was not as if teachers cursed all that much.
My method was simple. I used the California Ed Code as the basis for correcting students. Section 48900, (i) reads that a pupil can be suspended if he or she “committed an obscene act or engaged in habitual profanity or vulgarity.” What a great law! What is vulgar? Whatever the principal says is vulgar! If the student said, “Go to hell,” for instance, I would have the kid call her parent and tell what happened. This caused embarrassment and usually stopped the problem. If the parent couldn’t be reached, I xeroxed EC 48900 and circled section (i). The student had to write what she said on the back and return it signed by the parent. If there was no signature returned, I mailed it and administered the punishment, mainly missing recess and picking up bags full of oak leaves.
This policy about cursing was well liked by parents who didn’t want their kids to be out of line in the wrong situations, especially parent club parents. And it was this group along with the beloved secretary who pulled a prank that I laugh about today. They doctored a copy of a memo I sent home about a problem we experienced with students ‘charging’ lunch. I noted in the memo that some parents wanted their children to simply “buck up” and take responsibility for forgetting lunch while others wanted their children to be given lunch no matter what. It is not too difficult to guess what they doctored. My favorite admonishment, “buck up” was changed to “fuck up” and they all waited in outside my office door in silence as the school secretary put it on the top of a stack of papers on my desk with a letter of complaint and ,said, “You better look at this quick,” and left closing the door behind her. When I burst out shouting, “Did this go out??!!!” they broke into a chorus of laughter, applause and cheering at the prank they had pulled. I knew I had arrived at this school and would get whatever support I needed to make any changes I needed to make. I was in principal nirvana.