Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (5 of 8)
In the past few weeks, Ms. Miller has been nipping at my heels. She engages me in bits and pieces of conversation here and there. She whispers in my ear whenever she sees me. Today, in the late afternoon, I was standing behind the school counter in the main office. Ms. Miller was picking up her children from the after school program. As soon as she saw me, she said, “I need to speak to you, Armand is having a problem with some boys.” Her face was intense. Her eyes drilled me with a stare. “These boys touched Armand on his butt. I don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they were just playing. I don’t know. Maybe they were doing something else that I don’t go for. Do you know what I mean? Me and my family don’t like that kind of stuff.”
I tried asking her some questions: “Where did this touching happen? Was it in the classroom? Did it happen when the class was going to the bathroom at recess?” She didn’t answer. “Let me talk to the teacher, I’ll see what is going on between Armand and these other boys. Ms. Myers is a really good teacher. She will get right with the boys.” She still didn’t reply. She seemed far off in thought. When she started to talk, it seemed more like she was thinking aloud than responding to me.
“Some boy touched Armand on the chest with his hand like this,” she demonstrated on herself how the boy had slapped Armand. “I don’t like him being touched like that by another boy. It bothers me.” She paused. Her eyes seemed to be looking at some distant place. In a moment she continued: “Some boys kicked Armand in the butt when he was going to the bathroom. Some boy has been picking on my son. He has been hitting him. I don’t know why he’s hitting him. I hear from the other children in the class that this boy has mental problems. He has some man who walks around with him and sits in the room. I think this boy takes some kind of drugs. It sounds like he has problems. It’s not right that he is picking with Armand. I want to meet with his mother. I want something done.”
I thought she might be referring to Devon, a boy in Armand’s class. He does have a therapeutic support aide. He does take medication. He is a special education student who receives service from an outside agency. Devon had been classified as “in need of emotional support services.” These services are to be delivered on an itinerant basis. According to his Individual Education Plan (IEP), he remains in a regular education class. A designated staff member, the counselor, psychologist or principal provides him with a weekly counseling session. His IEP was created at his previous school, and although our team thinks this plan barely addresses his needs, we have to abide by it. It was written just prior to Devon’s admission to a private intensive psychiatric program, from which he was released just a few weeks ago.
At the start of this school year Devon and his mother moved into a nearby apartment unit managed by a social service agency that provides a wide range of supports to drug dependent recovering females with children.
A large number of students transfer into our school each year. At least a hundred new admits will be registered between the end of September and early May in a typical school year. Of these students whose families frequently move from one neighborhood to another, a half dozen will be very difficult children to manage. Their parents can also be difficult. Life has not been easy for them. They are the most disempowered in a disempowered community. I want to help them but help is not something they take easily. They are defensive. They push people away from them. The problems they create within the school community frequently distract me from my responsibilities as the instructional leader of our school.
Saundra Thompson and her mother belong to this group as well as Devon and his mother. I spoke to Devon’s teacher, Sue Myers. She informed me of several problems that Devon had created in her classroom. And Devon had been hitting Armand. I assured Ms. Miller that we would handle this problem.
I saw his teacher, early the next day before the start of classes. I asked her why she thought Devon was picking on Armand.
“Armand is quiet. He sits by himself. He doesn’t bother with anyone. He is a good student. The bully kids kind of bump against him and say things to him. The other kids in the room know how to brush off these silly boys. But Armand just doesn’t know how to ignore or repel them. Devon has become his main tormentor. When Armand goes home, he tells his mom everything that happened to him during the day. The next day she comes to school to deal with his problems. She needs to back off a bit and stop getting involved in every detail of Armand’s day. I’ve tried to tell her, but she doesn’t listen. I just don’t know how to get her to hear me.”
“I don’t know how to get her to listen either,” I said.
“It’s unfortunate that Devon is in the same class as Armand. If we don’t fix this, I envision a hard time ahead for Armand.”
I want Ms. Miller’s boy to feel safe in school.