Thursday, April 30, 2009

An Apology and a Call for Dialogue

My recent statements on disciplinary practices in our public schools have stirred up some disappointment, frustration, and anger in the community. Before going any further, I should first express my unequivocal apology to all administrators, teachers, staff, and students in our public schools. I was working with some flawed data and issued some statements that were uncalled for. As a result, I undermined, disrespected, and hurt the very people that I am constitutionally mandated to help and serve as a member of the CNMI Board of Education. I apologize for any harm I may have caused.

With that, I also feel it is important to clarify a few matters.

First, while the data is flawed, I went to great lengths to verify it. As soon as I came on board in January 2008 and was tasked to chair the BOE School Reform Committee, many parents and students raised concerns that suspensions were being abused at some schools. Rather than react to hearsay and isolated incidents, I decided that the Reform Committee should hold meetings at schools and villages to learn more about this issue, among other issues, at a grassroots level. We also requested data from the Commissioner of Education on suspension rates over the past five years, starting in school year 2003-2004. To verify the data, the Reform Committee then compiled this information, sent it out to the PSS leadership and the rest of the BOE, and presented it at a meeting at Saipan Southern High School on March 4, 2009. The Commissioner further discussed both the data and the issue of discipline with the PSS leadership and at the monthly PSS principals’ meetings in March and April. In the meantime, the Reform Committee continued to gather more input at community-based meetings where parents continued to express concerns over the alleged abuses of suspensions.

However, despite going through all of this for over a year, the data still came out imperfect. I wish it had not, and while I’m not sure what else I could have done, I wish I could have done more. It is clear that we must continue studying this issue to understand it better.

Second, contrary to the claims that I am going “soft on students”, my goal was and is to promote dialogue about this important issue, not to necessarily come down hard on one side or the other. In fact, in my April 22 report to the BOE, I raised these questions:

Does an increase in the number of suspensions indicate better enforcement of PSS disciplinary policy, or a switch to a more punitive approach towards student discipline?
How does the increase in suspensions affect student attendance and graduation rates?
Why is there so much variance between schools? Does this reflect a lack of consistency between schools, or does it uphold each school’s authority to handle its own discipline problems in its own way?
Is there a need for a policy change to enforce more consistency between schools, or should each school be empowered to implement its own approach to discipline?
How much are schools doing to balance the need for a disciplined environment against the needs of students that are suspended?
Is adequate counseling and support provided to students that are suspended?
Is there a need for innovative approaches to student discipline beyond just punitive measures?

Furthermore, in my report, I recommended the following to the Commissioner:

ü Review each school’s internal disciplinary procedures to ensure that they are in compliance with BOE/PSS policy and meeting the needs of students.
ü Study and investigate further to identify the causes for increased suspension rates.
ü Provide training to teachers, staff, and administrators on behavior modification as an alternative to punitive disciplinary actions.
ü Ensure that students are accorded adequate counseling services to address addictive/compulsive behaviors such as betel nut chewing and smoking, which account for a large number of disciplinary infractions.

Again, I was not going soft on students, nor was I going hard on them. I was doing my best to make sure their needs were being met.

Third and last, I do believe that we must strike a balance between ensuring a disciplined school environment that is conducive to learning AND ensuring that even students that are disciplined are getting the help they need. That is why, with the exception of violent offenses, BEFORE a student is suspended, BOE Regulations 2602 and 2606 mandate that schools exhaust “standard day-to-day corrective disciplinary measures” including, but “not limited to, in-house detention, parent conferences, counseling sessions, campus clean up, community service, required apologies, behavioral intervention plans, and any reasonable creative disciplinary measures.”

Perhaps some members of our community would disagree with this BOE policy. I, for one, think it’s a good policy because it encourages us to exhaust every possible way to help students learn and grow from their mistakes.

Again, I apologize for causing any undue harm to our school administrators, teachers, and staff. They are working very hard under very hard circumstances, and should be applauded for all that they do for our students. I hope that we can move past this and engage in a meaningful dialogue about the role of discipline in our schools. In fact, I welcome anyone in our community to submit their thoughts and perspectives on this issue via email at I firmly believe that by engaging in this sort of dialogue, we can all work together to help each and every student succeed.