Talking Head Blog: Stepping in Blood

Stepping in Blood
For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er
Macbeth Act 3 Scene iv

Any school leader, dealing with issues of serious misconduct, will no doubt have a deep understanding of what Macbeth means when he says these lines. It sometimes seems that we have had to travel so far down a particular road that even if it is becoming increasingly clear that we are not going to solve the problem we feel that it will be easier to keep going towards a terrible outcome than turn around and try something else. For a Principal there is no easy answer.
At the heart of any behavior problem, there is a conflict of values interests and rights. The issue of substance abuse is a good example of this. Anyone who has worked with teenagers will attest to their “almost genetic” predisposition to testing the boundaries and experimentation. Substance abuse in High Schools (and increasingly Senior Primary) is a given. Any Principal who claims to have a drug or alcohol free school is guilty of criminal self-delusion.
In this context, the question is not only how do we reduce the incidence of substance abuse in schools, but more importantly, how do we react when the inevitable occurs. This leads me back to the dilemma referred to at the beginning. Schools approach this problem along a continuum ranging from total pastoral support to zero tolerance. Whatever the adopted position, three issues are critical:

What is in the best interests of the pupil.
What is in the best interests of the school and common good.
How do we protect the rights of both in these circumstances.
Children who abuse substances at school, rarely do it alone. The kid who brings Vodka laced orange juice to school, inevitably wants to share it with her friends. There is a collective participation that allows the children to suspend their individual responsibility.
If we did it, that makes it easier to justify the action to our teachers and parents should we get caught. The children who participate are seldom harming anyone but themselves except to the extent to which they encourage wider participation through peer pressure.
As teachers we derive a lot of our authority from the legal concept of “In Loco Parentis”. In practice this means that we have to exercise the same care and authority that a parent would if placed in this position. Authority, however, also extends to our staff and parents. Switching between the modes of thought that apply to the different relational positions is difficult and often at the root of the escalation of conflict.

Children also receive conflicting messages from Parent’s, School and Social Values. Schools may tell them that drinking at school is an expulsion offence, but the teachers have a beer after the rugby match or wine at the PTA fundraiser. Parents point out the dangers of drinking while ensuring that they have a fully stocked entertainment area, and the mass media actively encourages the use of drinking to promote social acceptability.
The critical issue, (I have realized from recent experience) is that the Principal cannot claim to be simultaneously protecting the interests of the school and those of the pupil. You cannot exercise “Policy” authority and “In Loco Parentis” authority authentically without a fundamental conflict of interests. If you find yourself in this situation it is essential that you assume the authority of the Principal and ensure that there is another adult there to act with the authority of a parent.
As a matter of principle, a Catholic school can only consider taking the step of excluding one of its students if it meets one of two very specific needs. The first is that exclusion would be in the interest of the school community and that the student should no longer be present within that community. This type of decision is typically taken in the case where the student presents some sort of danger, either physical or psychological, to the other students, or where the student has destroyed his relationship with his peers and teachers to such an extent that she is going to be ostracised by his peer group and experience little success within the school environment.
The second justification for expulsion would be that it is in the interests of the student to move to another school environment where she can re-invent herself and where a past record will not continue to colour the attitudes of pupils and teachers towards him.

School is a place where students are expected to make mistakes. Punishment for those mistakes can only be justified insofar as it provides students with a learning experience. The punishment is intended to show the learner that there are consequences to their actions and that they have to be willing to face these consequences. The punishment also allows the student to make restitution for the wrong they have done and to heal the relationships between themselves and their school community. It is only when the misconduct is of a severe nature that it is possible for a school to argue that the healing of the relationship cannot be achieved by any sanction short of exclusion. (see the diagram below for a more detailed analysis of the options)
The Sizers point out that teachers have an understanding of what is meant by good behaviour and effective teachers will attempt to “model and communicate this understanding to their pupils. They are working within a specific context which is both personal and social and which effects their underlying belief of how best to bring about order in the school, by managing the behaviour of their pupils.” (T Sizer and N Sizer The Students are watching: Schools and the Moral Contract (1998) at p 58).
The authors go on to state that “for better or worse a reciprocal relationship exists between a teacher and each of her pupils that is determined by the attitudes to one another and grows out of their interactions in the classroom and the school”. (Sizer and Sizer (supra) at p 59). They state further that “teachers and pupils categorise (sort) one another and create social niches for each other to inhabit. This sorting grows out of the context and is determined by and determines the relationships.” (Sizer and Sizer, supra, at p 64).
The school’s disciplinary powers are subject to the control of administrative law. In broad terms, this means that all disciplinary procedures must be fair and their outcomes justifiable. The duty to act fairly has many components. It is self-evident that it requires decision-makers to be impartial. Fairness requires that affected parties have the right to be heard. The right to a hearing, however, is not a mere formality. Those entrusted with authority must listen carefully taking into account all relevant considerations and ignoring irrelevant considerations. They must evaluate the evidence and reach conclusions based upon that evidence. They must strive to act consistently.
Returning to Macbeth, I have noticed that many of the conflicts that I have dealt with are characterised by moments when a better outcome can be achieved if I had only been able to recognise those opportunities. We “step in blood” and are not able to notice the turn-back moments. To bring about better resolutions and reduce our difficulties and stress I believe we need a number of supporting structures and procedures to be in place.

Firstly we have to surround ourselves with people who. are willing to speak truth to power. We need to hear dissenting voices from people we trust.
Secondly, we have to give ourselves time and headspace. We have to be able to think about the problem calmly and rationally and consider the potential consequences of our responses.
Thirdly, we need to read academic literature and case studies. We must understand the principals, laws and policies that govern our actions.
Finally, we need to network. We must share our experiences and the wisdom gained from hard lessons. Very little is new in the world and if you talk to principals from across the world, you will be struck by the similarity of the problems experienced.
If we do not do these things we run the risk of ending up like Macbeth saying life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”
Colin Northmore (Head: Sacred Heart College)