Last week I played the following voice mail from my phone:
“This is the Assistant Principal of your daughter’s middle school. I’m calling to talk to you about her excessive unexcused absences from home room.”
To my knowledge, my soon-to-be 13 year old daughter did not have a single unexcused absence from school. Besides, she was an “A” student, a self-starter, a competitive swimmer; she was the easy child.
Before I called the principal back, I texted Susanne.
“Msg from Principal. Do you have unexcused absences from homeroom?”
“More than 5?”
“When was your last one?”
“I think I went once last week” (yes, you read that right)
“What? When did this start?”
“Amanda Susanne Jackson, did this start a month ago?”
This was futile. I left a return voice mail for the principal and emailed her, only to have my email bounce 15 minutes later on my first, second, and third tries. I gave up.
Susanne crept in from school at 4:15 that afternoon. She walks to and from school; we live about 5 blocks away. Two painful hours later we were through the worst of the sobbing and had made it to her hugging, snuggling recovery phase: she was grounded for a month and on “zero tolerance” for anything less than exceptional behavior during that time, with 1-day per offense add-on instantaneous penalties. Suz is our “social consequences” child — if she chooses a wrong behavior, the only consequence with any impact on her is one that curtails her social life.
I still had no idea how many infractions we were talking about, but I knew she had knowingly violated school rules multiple times. To us, this is serious. We want to raise kids who, now and as adults, follow rules even when no one is looking, or challenge the rules through legitimate means upfront. March, protest, plead, write-in or whatever you want to do to oppose the rule, but, if you lose or don’t protest, you follow them. Suz got the “look at the 10 Commandments, look at our U.S. Constitution, look at your middle school rules” speech, as well as the “you will not drive a car your entire teenage years without me beside you in it if I can’t trust you” speech.
Susanne’s rebuttal? Homeroom was before first period, and it was just hard to get up in the morning. She wasn’t skipping it; she just had trouble getting there on time. Sometimes she had so much trouble she missed it altogether, poor little dumpling.
Excuse me? I am here to kiss her goodbye before she walks out the door most mornings. Her explanation could account for a few “tardies,” but all those absences pointed to a knowing decision to skip.
“I didn’t skip any classes, Motherrrr.”
“You skipped 32 classes, Susanne.”
“No, some of them I was just tardy. But anyway I didn’t skip. It’s not a real class. It’s a waste of time.”
Ah, now we were getting somewhere. Turns out Suz- a child whose dominant method of getting her way at all times has been passive resistance/ignoring instruction — was getting her way at school, too. She started coming in late, and nothing happened to her. She opted not to show up. Nothing happened to her. So she decided to ignore the rules, because there were no consequences.
Or so she thought.
One of my emails made it through after all, so I got this note from the new principal:
Susanne has 32 unexcused absences during mentor this year, in addition to several excused absences. I would have contacted you sooner, but this was just brought to my attention.
“THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO THIRTY TWO,” my mind screamed.
“Oh my God! I should have grounded her three times as long!” I thought. I added a blog series to her punishment — nothing is feared more in our household than to become blog-fodder. At the suggestion of a blog comment on Monday, I also added a summer of weekly volunteer gigs, which, to dog-lovin’ Suzi’s delight — at least for now — is at “The Pup Squad,” a local animal shelter.
How could the school have let 32 go by? Did the homeroom teacher never turn in attendance? If so, how did they now know the number? If she did keep attendance, what was she thinking? It turns out Suz knew she was supposed to go to the office of her own volition and get a demerit for each unexcused tardy, and the school’s procedure was to assign discipline based on the number of demerits. Suz did go for demerits…4 times. She got a detention.
The school policy called for detention after 4, in full-day Saturday detention after 8, and suspension after 12.
So, after she got a detention, she quit going for the demerits, but didn’t quit skipping out on — excuse me, BEING TARDY TO (“talk to the hand, Susanne”) — class.
Meanwhile, the teacher continued to take attendance, but never followed up or through, or, if she did, nothing was done in the office. Until the new Assistant Principal arrived. Thank goodness for a fresh set of eyes.
Had they enforced their policy, Susanne’s behavior would have been “nipped in the bud.” I’m disappointed we didn’t get that chance. She’s too young and headstrong to be allowed to think she can sneak this by everyone. As it was, she went months thinking that breaking the rule 32 times didn’t matter. But breaking a rule 32 times matters in real life. If you don’t believe me, skip work 32 times, shoplift 32 times, or cheat on your spouse 32 times, and watch what happens when you get busted for all of them on the 32nd time. Even before you’re caught, each instance tears a tiny whole in the fabric of your character. It matters.
I answered the principal’s email, only to have my reply bounce again. I left another voice mail. Per Susanne, the principal informed her via a chat in the hallway — a “you are the luckiest girl in this school” chat — that they would assign her two additional demerits, bringing her total up to 6. So, Suz was about to get a free pass on 26 of her 32 tardies/absences from homeroom. Even though in all likelihood she would have stopped as soon as she had been caught, Suz had THIRTY-TWO AND SHE KNEW SHE WAS BREAKING THE RULE; she was only being charged for 2 of them now, so it was almost of no consequence at all to her (yes, she was grounded at home, but still).
This did not seem like much accountability expected of her on behalf of the institution who held the rule. Was this a “learning message?” If so, we feared Suz was learning she could get away with murder when she felt like it. Just be cute and sneaky.
Who was dropping the ball on accountability? Who was accountable in the first place?
- Me/us as parent, to set the rules and actively hold the child accountable to them — spot-check the child, ensure that she is where she says she is, pay attention to those nagging little doubts that creep in
- My child, to follow the rules, whether anyone is watching OR NOT
- The teacher, as an employee, to follow the school’s rules by enforcing them (same for any admin employees involved)
- The school, as an employer, to monitor and enforce their own rules and hold their employee accountable, and to be accountable itself for upholding its standards/mission — to Suz, to us as parents, and to all the other parents and students at the school.
Whew, that’s a lot of accountability there.
So where does that leave us in an incident like this one? To my way of thinking, if the school fails to enforce accountability with the teacher (or whoever let this situation go unchecked), shame on the school. If the school and the parent/us fail to enforce accountability with the student, shame on them both.
We’re taking care of enforcing her accountability with a healthy dose of consequences at home; that’s our accountability and we accept it. But we didn’t feel the school had upheld its accountability by letting Suz get away with only 2 demerits, not even enough to earn 1 detention/push her to the next level of consequences in the school’s progressive discipline policy.
Suz needed more consequence, so we asked for it. I asked them to give her a Saturday-full day detention, called “SAC” at her school. They thought I had lost my mind.
In a good way.
They gratefully accepted my invitation to schedule her for SAC, and she is set to go this Saturday. Yay! I’m already at work with Suz preparing her to-do-at-SAC list of extra credit activities (picture her rolling her pretty blue eyes here). She also gets a well-deserved “U” for unacceptable in conduct.
Lessons learned ? Oh so many about our child and our complacence, but the biggest lesson I learned is that there are school administrators out there who are willing to help us create responsible adults, but we need to support them. Our school administrators were so conditioned to parents whining that their little precious angels didn’t deserve SAC that they didn’t even try to put Suz on one, because they had failed to follow their own rules.
But their failure shouldn’t excuse Susanne’s behavior entirely. It would not have been fair to suspend or expel her, but she should not have gotten away with nothing. And it turns out, the principal thought so, too.
I have a friend who commented my last blog that her daughter’s teacher — of her own accord — reversed a parental discipline decision. The friend had prohibited her daughter from participation in a class Valentine’s party. The teacher thought that was “too harsh” for the child’s action and let the child attend anyway. Reminds me a little bit here of the teacher in our situation who was not holding Susanne responsible for the known 32 absences by running to the office and asking why her truant had not been expelled. Luckily, we had a principal step in, a brand new principal who wasn’t worn down by years of parents badgering the school to get their kids past the rules, parents with much different philosophies than my friend or me.
Yes, our kids are precious little angels, but they should reap the consequences of their actions (on an age appropriate basis), or they will become irresponsible and unlikeable adults. I’m here to raise kids to adulthood, not win popularity contests with their friends.
Yay Johnston Middle School in Houston, TX, Yay new Assistant Dean Amber Pinchback of “House J,” for taking a broken situation and working with the parents toward the right result for the child instead of the risk management position schools often retreat to because of us as parents.
(And boo Susanne Jackson, you are still in big trouble, kiddo )