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Shaming kids in public not the way to go

Des Moines Register

Rekha Basu, rbaus@dmreg.com 9:04 p.m. CDT June 12, 2014


A Des Moines middle school this week agreed to abandon a questionable approach to improving student behavior that publicizes every student's infractions to the entire school community and whoever might be visiting.


It was a victory not just for Natasha Newcomb, whose son will be in seventh grade at Harding Middle School, who complained. It's also a victory for anyone who believes public humiliation is a bad way to teach good behavior.


For two years, each week Harding Middle School has been posting in public areas every student's name with color-coded behavior assessments beside them. If someone was observed being late to class, speaking out of turn or anything else, everyone would know. What's more, once a week, the homeroom teachers would openly discuss students' misbehavior and encourage other students to weigh in. But the one being discussed was not given a chance for rebuttal.


A Harding administrator says such peer pressure fosters responsibility and has led to a dramatic decrease in incidents. But Newcomb's son, Christopher, says students used those opportunities to "exact revenge" on their classmates. It should be noted that he has never been written up for anything.


The idea originated with Vice Principal Stephen "Jake" Troja, who previously worked in treatment at Woodward Academy, a residential facility for delinquent boys. Troja says that in his first year at Harding five years ago, 500 students had 1,200 days of suspension. "Many consequences were not working," he said.


He saw staff and students constantly fighting and wanted to change that by empowering students to be leaders. So he started the Wolf Pack club, in which students pledge to model good behavior and volunteer, in exchange for getting a voice in what happens. Good behavior ratings make students eligible for many activities, such as extra field trips. The club began with 18 students but now has 430.


After three years, suspension days had dropped to 200, he says.


Then two years ago, the school decided to extend the practices to all Harding students. There are currently 725. "We posted every student's behavior, whether they were in the club or not," Troja said, noting last year there were only 130 suspension days. But he acknowledged parents were not told about the practice, and there was no way for them to opt their kids out.


That's a problem. Anytime a voluntary activity of that magnitude is imposed on the whole student body, parents should be notified. Would schools make a Gay and Straight Alliances or ROTC club mandatory for all students without saying so? And if publicizing behavior is supposed to improve it, why not publicize that school-improvement practice? Parents deserve to know if their children are being negatively discussed by peers.


Though she believes Troja does care about the students, Newcomb had her son removed from the group. "I'm sure the teachers are using common sense in the discussions, but the premise in itself is flawed," she said.


One legitimate concern is the 27 percent of Harding students who have learning disabilities and may be held responsible for things they have little control over. In one instance, Christopher reported a teacher publicly discussed a student's schoolwork. And what about students who act out because of problems at home? The last thing they need is to be humiliated on top of it.

Several other middle schools have clubs like this, but their practices are not imposed on the whole student body. Subjecting only a population like Harding's —where 68 percent of students are minorities and 94 percent are of low enough income to qualify for free or reduced price lunches — to these provisions sends a troublesome, even if unintended, message.


Newcomb says conversations about good citizenship can be conducted in a way that doesn't leave some students feeling superior to others. Behavior problems should be dealt on the spot, not a week later, she says.


She approached both Troja and the school board with her concerns. This week, Troja responded, saying though all students will still receive weekly ratings, only Wolf Pack members' ratings will be posted in common areas. Students will be given, and explained, their ratings privately. They can then choose whether to have them discussed in groups.


It's good that the school was responsive, but a practice that entails publicly shaming kids shouldn't have been in place for two years without parents being notified. Even the best intended plans can have unintended consequences and psyches are fragile at these ages. While it is difficult to teach students who are acting out, a diverse public school is not a treatment facility whose goal is to change behavior.


It's ironic that for all the school's emphasis on good behavior, it took a parent to model what that really looks like by sticking her neck out for the best interests of every parents' kids.