Confessions of an Urban Principal/Uncomfortable Emotions
by Frank Murphy
Installment 9 of 9
As I drove up to the school, I saw Philip standing on the corner. He was wearing the same outfit he had worn on the day of the assault. I felt uneasy. The sight of him brought back a flood of uncomfortable emotions. In that moment, I felt threatened and unprotected. This boy had physically hurt me and his mother had threatened to assault me. I wasn’t interested in suffering any more injuries today.
On this same day, Phillip’s mother, Judith Wilson, was a busy woman. At eleven a.m., she made an appearance at the school. She presented two letters to the counselor. One letter requested that Philip be tested in order to determine his eligibility to receive special education services. The second letter made the same request for her daughter in fifth grade.
At one p.m., Ms. Wilson arrived at the district’s legal office for Philip’s disciplinary hearing. A lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office accompanied her. Mr. Ong and Mr. G., our school police officer, were with me. The public defender was aggressive. The conference had barely begun when she expressed her intention to cross-examine us. The hearing officer promptly pointed out that she wasn’t in a courtroom. The three of us related our accounts of the assault without interruption.
When we were finished, Philip and his mother gave their statements. Philip simply said that he didn’t like to be touched. Ms. Wilson said that on the first day that she met me, she requested that Philip be tested. She also claimed that she gave me a copy of a restraining order against the boy’s father. Both of these statements were untrue. The public defender stated that the restraining order described alleged physical abuse inflicted on Philip by his father. She argued that the boy did not like to be touched as a result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. It was her contention that the school police officer caused the boy to react in an emotionally-disturbed fashion by touching him. If the boy had been receiving special education services, she asserted, this incident would never have occurred.
The public defender concluded that the school police officer and I should have known the boy was emotionally disturbed. It was her position that Philip shouldn’t be punished since his actions were a manifestation of his disability.
The hearing officer told us she would review our statements and notify us of her decision at a later time.
We had been crammed into a windowless conference room. It was a stuffy and uncomfortable place. The air was thick with tension. It was relief when we were finally finished.
At four p.m., Ms. Wilson and Dr. Rider met with Greg Thornton, the Chief Academic Officer of the school district. At this meeting, they pressed their complaints against me. Ms. Wilson’s main complaint was that I was responsible for her children’s excessive absences. She stated to Thornton that I was not permitting her children to enter the school. Earlier at the disciplinary conference, I had made it clear that the numerous absences of this boy and his siblings were a result of their mother’s decision to keep her children out of school. I presented the letter I sent to the mother after she had taken her children out of school. In that correspondence, I clearly stated that her children were not suspended. Ms. Wilson denied ever receiving this letter. I suspect that her public defender had told her to get her children back into school.
I later learned about Ms. Wilson’s meeting with Thornton from a member of the regional office staff who was present at the meeting. I didn’t hear from Mr. Thornton concerning the outcome of this conference. Most likely my feelings or thoughts on this matter weren’t of interest to him.
The day after the hearing, Ms. Wilson brought Philip and his sister back to school. Her three other children were still absent. According to her, the seventh grader had been placed in an in-patient program for emotionally disturbed children. The kindergarten boy was in an orphanage. She didn’t offer an explanation regarding her other son.
Ms. Wilson appeared at the school office very early in the morning to reinstate her children. Ms. Sample hadn’t yet arrived to work. After ten days of consecutive absences, the school computer network automatically moves the names of chronically absent children into an inactive roll. I didn’t know how to put her children back onto the active school roll. I had Mrs. Martin ask Ms. Wilson to wait for the school secretary to arrive so that she could process the reinstatement. This request upset Ms. Wilson. She asked to use the office phone. She called Dr. Rider and registered another complaint.
This Thursday marks the last day of March. On Tuesday we returned from an abbreviated spring break. Unlike the customary week-long hiatus, schools had been closed for only three days this year. The weather had been dreadful for all of the holiday weekend, consisting of dark and gloomy days with constant rain.
This break didn’t do much in the way of picking up my spirits. Winter just didn’t seem to want to loosen its grip. A dreary and overcast sky persisted on the first day back to school. My day did brighten later with some welcomed news. The hearing officer from Philip’s case had made her decision. Philip would be transferred in a week’s time to a disciplinary school. I will feel safer when he is gone.
Just as my mood started to improve, so did the weather. These last two days have been beautiful spring days. I’ve been actively observing classrooms, meeting with parents and monitoring the lunchroom. My primary job of leading the instructional program and managing school operations has kept me busy. My secondary jobs as a counselor, crisis manager, police officer and all around “strong man” have not demanded too much of my attention. My high maintenance boys have been calm. I feel like I’m still on vacation. March is ending well. It came in like a lion and is now choosing to exit like a lamb. There are two and a half months left to go before this school year ends.