by James A. Bacon
Last week a brawl broke out in the cafeteria of Varina High School in Henrico County, leading to mayhem and a lockdown of the school. On Sunday, 200 parents, teachers, school officials and some students gathered to discuss how the community can prevent future incidents. I found the comments, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, to be encouraging. No one blamed the police, or the school system, or poverty, or society at large. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that parents need to step up and hold their children accountable.
“We’ve just got to do a better job as parents,” said Tyrone E. Nelson, Varina District supervisor. “We have to hold each other accountable when we are dealing with our children.”
“We need parents instead of the police to be the presence,” said Tara Adams, a former president of the PTA. “Stand up. Be adults and be accountable.”
However, observed Times-Dispatch reporter Jim Nolan, “It was not lost on the gathering the the parents and students most likely to be in need of hearing the message were likely not in the audience.”
Bacon’s bottom line: In other words, the audience consisted of parents who already do hold their children accountable for their behavior and who show every sign of caring deeply about the quality of education their children are receiving at Varina. With all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the students on the receiving end of school and police discipline, this meeting serves as a reminder that there are plenty of students from responsible families whose education is disrupted on a regular basis. The mass fight in the cafeteria was an extreme manifestation of a more pervasive problem reflected in smaller altercations and incidents. Thanks to the Sunday gathering, responsible families had a venue to express a perspective that does not get heard enough.
The Varina incident comes as the Henrico County Public Schools system overhauls its Code of Community Conduct, which describes the rights and responsibilities of students and parents, outlines the progressive consequences of continued bad behavior and describes “corrective” strategies.
The new approach has had a positive impact on the number of incidents at schools, William Noel Sr., director of student support and disciplinary review, told me for an article I never ended up writing. Unless the infraction is egregious, he said, there is a process in which the administration meets face-to-face with the student and with parents. A behavior plan and student supports are put into place. The idea is to teach the child to make better choices, while recognizing that there may be reasons based on what’s happening at home why the child is “acting out.”
Sounds touchie-feely to me. But at the time of the interview a few months ago, the approach seemed to be working, as measured by a declining number of infractions. If it’s working, that’s great. But I also think there’s wisdom in what the Varina parents were saying yesterday. The onus of improving school discipline shouldn’t fall mainly upon the schools. Parents have to play a role as well. And that won’t happen unless the responsible members of the community speak up and set expectations of acceptable behavior.