Disciplinary Déjà Vu

September 16, 2012 

Prompted by recent reporting in The Telegraph, Maconites have been engaged in a lively discussion over the past few days. Have Bibb County School Superintendent Romain Dallemand, his disciplinary deputy Edward Judie, Jr., and Bibb’s Board of Education moved the ball forward on discipline problems in Bibb’s public schools since the arrival of Dallemand and Julie?

Based on the early evidence, apparently not. Prospects seem even bleaker. It’s hard for most Maconites to accept the notion, apparently soon to be tried, that our community should protect young criminals from legal responsibility for misdemeanors committed against fellow students and teachers on school property for things like assault and battery -- you know, minor offenses like box knives to the face, punches to head-locked heads, fierce kicks to critical organs -- that could well be criminally prosecuted if committed just around the schoolhouse corner. And that’s not to mention the proposed safe harbor for other “petty” crimes like gang activities including criminal threats, drug running, gun running, prostitution, theft and the like.

Since when did public school become a greenhouse for criminality? What on God’s earth were our leaders thinking even to imagine such a scheme, let alone endorse it?

But before we fire this desperately aimless group of leaders without further adieu, let me tell you about a file that I pulled aside from the late state Sen. Robert Brown’s papers. I came across it while sorting through a truckload of fascinating materials for the new Russell Library for political history at the University of Georgia, which is the lucky recipient of Brown’s historically significant trove.

Back in the 1970s, Brown was employed by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning American Friends Service Committee. One thing Brown did for the AFSC in 1978 was to oversee an essay contest in Macon, with cash prizes to the top three essayists. The subject? School discipline, which Brown even then described as “the No. 1 problem in schools.” The specific challenge for contest entrants was “to suggest creative ways to constructively change the kinds of discipline methods currently practiced.”

The entries were remarkably similar to the comments heard around town today, 34 years later. “Parents are initially responsible.” “The unstructured part of education, beginning in the home, determines to a great extent the degree of success any child in the schools.” “There is no such thing as a natural troublemaker intent on making our schools a bedlam; there are only individuals seeking to have someone care about them, one way or another.” One contributor proposed an elaborate seven-stage discipline plan. Another proposed “attendance rules with ‘teeth’ that are backed by the board of education.”

You could hardly tell the difference between those comments and many of the ones being bandied about today. There was only one contest entrant among dozens who explicitly broached the issue of race. He wrote, “I am black but I have the courage and intelligence to know that this letter still tells it like it is.” He then highlighted the following lines in three paragraphs from an April 10, 1977 letter to the editor of the Macon Telegraph & News:

“To most blacks, especially the younger blacks, school is foremost a social outlet. They do not come to school with a serious approach to learning. They have no respect for each other, for the teachers, for the administrators, or the costly buildings and equipment they use. To be simply civil or courteous in a classroom, lunchroom or hall is degrading to the average young black.

“The public schools coddle the unruly and trouble-makers. In some cases these young hoodlums run the schools, traveling in groups, intimidating students, teachers and principals. Whatever happened to no-nonsense suspension and expulsion and the parents held accountable for their reentry, if ever?

“The solution could be for the black leaders of this community to start educating the black parents and young people that their shortcomings and faults are no longer excused. And if the blacks refuse to acknowledge their larger share of the school problems and cannot correct their own, then public education is hopelessly in a stalemate.”

These thoughts, endorsed by that brave black man from Macon in 1978, should give us pause before we pillory Dallemand and Judie years later. Disciplinary problems in Bibb’s schools are nothing new, and may be even worse now that fewer parents can be found to work with, and if they can be found, may be barely beyond childhood themselves. Maconites have had many decades to address the school discipline problem. Hapless Dallemand and Judie walked into quicksand the moment they stepped into town.

None of that excuses their bad early moves, including the dangerous new proposal to shield “minor” criminals in schools from the juvenile justice system, without considering the impact on the rest of the kids trying to make something of themselves, and without considering the teachers’ important interests. This administration’s proposal to shield all “petty” criminals under an educational shroud threatens to make many of our schools magnets for crime.

Dallemand and Judie need to regroup. As black leaders, they might seriously consider the sage advice of that courageous black Maconite in 1978 who called for Macon’s black leaders to explain to the disruptive segments of the students and parents of the Bibb County schools (who are even more overwhelmingly black today) that disruptive “shortcomings and faults are no longer excused.” If Dallemand and Judie can finally get that message across, to black school leaders to a largely black school community, we may get a miracle here after all.

David Oedel is the parent of a Bibb County public school student and professor of law at Mercer University Law School.

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