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Parent Revolt, MoCo Style: With Power Point!

Once upon a time, when parents at a school had had enough, they would write a letter to the superintendent or pack a PTA meeting to make their case.

And of course those time-tested methods of parent revolt still happen and still occasionally work. But in Montgomery County, where parents are more likely than just about anywhere else on the planet to have advanced degrees, media training and at least one lawyer living in the house, parent revolts tend to have a character all their own.

So school system officials have grown accustomed to hearing from lawyers about the kind of classroom problem that in most places gets handled in a teacher-parent conference. And now, at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Gaithersburg, an unusually large and insistent parent uprising about a principal who allegedly has lost control of her school comes complete with Power Point presentation.

The parents' case rests on what they say is unusually high turnover among the school's staff, an inability to deal with bullying and other disruptive behavior in classrooms, an administrative decision to reward poorly behaving kids by removing from the classroom not the bully but the victims of such pushing around, and a complacency on the part of the administration (one top school official is quoted as telling a complaining parent, "It's 2006, kids talk back to adults.")

In a petition that won support from more than 330 parents, in a stream of letters to community newspapers, and in meetings with Montgomery schools officials, parents have argued that principal Mary Wilson is unable to manage the students at her school.

But Wilson and some of her supporters initially fought back by claiming that the parents' complaints were racially motivated, a result of a rising proportion of black students at the school. According to the Gazette newspaper's account, Wilson, who is black, has described the complaining parents as a small group preoccupied by the increasing black student population at Marshall:


''We are a community where we have an apartment community and where we have homes," she explained. ''Since I've been here, I've been trying to bring that community together. A lot of the problem from my end looks like they have to do with the demographic shifts," the principal said.

Marshall's student body is 49 percent white, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic. The school does well on standardized tests, but there is a considerable numbers gap dividing high-achieving Asian and white students, and middling-scoring black and Hispanic students.

The Gazette quoted Wilson as saying that the real bullying was coming not from children, but from the parent group:

"Bullying is bullying, and I've seen that in this group of parents," she said. ''I think they need to be concerned with how they address other parents."

More recently, Wilson is trying to reconcile with the parents, and she and several of her teachers will take a course at the end of this school year on managing student behavior.

School systems have a tendency to rally around besieged principals--which is understandable given that mob rule is not exactly the message that superintendents want to send about how their schools are governed. But when well more than half the parents in a school take the time and trouble to speak out, something is clearly wrong. And a little training session for the principal is never the right answer. Strong school systems find ways to bring in respected, assertive leaders, if not as principal then in another supervisory position (someone to create a new disciplinary approach, for example.) Defuse the situation, then give the superintendent's staff a chance to figure out what leadership is right for the school.

By Marc Fisher |  June 6, 2006; 7:38 AM ET
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Comments

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Not knowing the situation, really, how can a woman of color claim with a straight face that increased minority enrollment in a school means more disruption and poorer scores. That's racist and demeaning to all students of color.

Posted by: Don | June 6, 2006 10:01 AM

Disruptive behavior should be dealt with irrespective of the race, creed, or color of specific students. For the principal to play the race card and demonize parents who want to end bullying, and end a blame-the-victims approach, is reprehensible. She should be thanking these parents for wanting to improve conditions in the school. Schools run into problems when parents do not get involved, and take an apathetic laissez-faire approach.

I would add that I have experience as someone who was bullied in a classroom when I was in 7th grade (by someone of my skin color, so this was not a racial issue), and the '60s-generation teacher seemed to blame me for failing to understand the other boy, rather than the teacher disciplining him. No matter how much I sought to avoid my attacker, I was physically (and verbally) assaulted every day -- and yet it was somehow my fault, supposedly (a blackboard jungle). In retrospect, I wish I had escalated this to my parents, because it was traumatizing.

I applaud these parents for not only trying to protect their children, but for trying to create a safe atmosphere for learning and appropriate behavior that will benefit all children in the school. We do a disservice to bullies (irrespective of "demographics") if we do not teach them at an early age to treat all people with respect and tolerance.

Posted by: Don't Blame the Victims | June 6, 2006 10:19 AM

Should be "Defuse the situation," not "Diffuse." Come on, Fisher. You know better.

Posted by: Language police | June 6, 2006 10:50 AM

For Marc's benefit, from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English, by way of http://www.bartleby.com

"These near-homophones (pronounced dee-FYOOZ and di-FYOOZ, with only the unstressed syllables differing) are usually distinguished by context, but to choose the wrong spelling can be inadvertently funny, because the usual meanings when context is not definitive are almost directly contradictory: to defuse a tense argument is to render it less explosive and hence harmless, whereas to diffuse such an argument is to spread it around even further and thus perhaps make it worse. (The adjective diffuse is not homophonous with these verbs: it is pronounced di-FYOOS.)"

Posted by: Another Language Cop | June 6, 2006 11:05 AM

Do kids at these schools get extra credit for not going to the restroom? Did everyone see that story in the Post today? What a stupid policy. Those school administrators who came up with that one ought to have their salaries tied to the number of bathroom visits they make. (Deductions for each visit to the bathroom.)

Posted by: MoCo | June 6, 2006 12:07 PM

In the 6th Grade in 1980 I was punished for going to the bathroom too much in one day (I ate bad food) by being forced to clean the graffitti off the bathroom walls. I will never forget that awful punishment for being sick.

Posted by: Don | June 6, 2006 12:39 PM

You know, it's just so sad when it still comes to this kind of behavior from grown college educated human beings.

Race, Class, Separation....we'll never conquer unity as Americans.

Thanks

Posted by: Frankey | June 6, 2006 12:41 PM

You're right, Marc, the school administrators need more than a simple little course in dealing with discipline at the school; they need to be replaced entirely if their solutions to bullying is to remove the victims, not punish the bullies themselves, and to blame the parents of concerned students for voicing themselves.

All too often - because it's really the case just about everywhere else - one of the major factors in poor education and school problems is a lack of parental involvement. It's actually rather inspiring to read that parents of so many students would come together like this.

Posted by: corbett | June 6, 2006 1:02 PM

As one who was bullied in school, I noticed an interesting thing: Female authority figures would often side with the bully, while male authority figures would all but whack the bully upside the head.

This may be due to the fact that female are biologically "programmed" to be attracted to alpha males, and bullies are alpha males. Females are biologically repulsed by "weak males," so their innate response is to punish victims.

This throws into question whether females should be leaders in places like school systems, where a firm -- but fair -- hand is needed.

Posted by: Dennis B | June 6, 2006 5:38 PM

"A lot of the problem from my end looks like they have to do with the demographic shift"

If this is a direct quote, this principal has a bigger problem than being unable to handle students.

How about a remedial course in English?

Posted by: lily | June 6, 2006 7:19 PM

Thanks for noticing the word usage clinker, folks. I cannot begin to imagine how that one sneaked in there, but I've made the correction and appreciate the eagle eyes.

Posted by: Fisher | June 6, 2006 8:03 PM

Have you noticed that it is all about making life easier for the principal, instead of addressing the problem? Remove the victims instead of addressing the bullying; play the race card instead of acknowledging and addressing the parent's concerns. What does the Principal think she is paid to do?
Also, I noticed that Ms. Wilson's response does not address the high turnover among her staff. Would be interested in learning the reasons why the staff left.

Posted by: CJ | June 7, 2006 9:54 AM

I am a parent of elementary school kids but they are not enrolled at TMES. I have had long discussions with parents involved with the TMES situation. I believe that Marc has not analyzed the situation completely and that his last paragraph of opinions is based on one side of the facts.

Teacher turnover rate is high - why? Is it possible that the parents are so controling in this school that the good teachers move on because they are not allowed to do their jobs?

There was a follow up meeting with the school management that included a PPT file response to the statements made in the PPT file in your article. Why was this not posted?

What is the break down of the ethnicity of the 330 people who signed the petition? Are all the people who signed the petition parents of students who are currently enrolled in the school? (More than half..450 kids roughly, 800 parents - 330 out of 800 significantly less than half)

I do not think the whole story has been presented.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 7, 2006 9:56 AM

I am a parent of elementary school kids but they are not enrolled at TMES. I have had long discussions with parents involved with the TMES situation. I believe that Marc has not analyzed the situation completely and that his last paragraph of opinions is based on one side of the facts.

Teacher turnover rate is high - why? Is it possible that the parents are so controling in this school that the good teachers move on because they are not allowed to do their jobs?

There was a follow up meeting with the school management that included a PPT file response to the statements made in the PPT file in your article. Why was this not posted?

What is the break down of the ethnicity of the 330 people who signed the petition? Are all the people who signed the petition parents of students who are currently enrolled in the school? (More than half..450 kids roughly, 800 parents - 330 out of 800 significantly less than half)

I do not think the whole story has been presented.

Posted by: Miller | June 7, 2006 9:57 AM

what a bunch of bs. The staff and students very well know the identity of the bullies and disruptive students. But we live in such a coddling, weepy, gotta-have-a-quota society that they are allowed to continue their destructive behavior. C'mon people! eject the disruptive ones so the kids who are there to learn can do it without fear.

Posted by: Matt | June 7, 2006 11:57 AM

Dennis B: "Females are biologically repulsed by "weak males," so their innate response is to punish victims."

Having a little trouble with the ladies Dennis?

Posted by: arch | June 7, 2006 1:20 PM

1. It is impossible to simply remove some students from the classroom for misbehavior--Many students who repeatedly commit serious misbehaviors are classified as having a disability and are therefore protected by IDEA or ADA depending on the problem. Under IDEA, for example, a student can only be removed for ten days of class in a year a longer suspendion requires a due process hearing to determine if the misbehavior is a manifestation of the disability and that can trigger a Functional Behavior Assessment which will be used to determine if the current setting is appropriate. It is often impossible to remove the student during the FBA because it would impair the quality of the data. Likewise a student might be approved for an alternative placement, but is stuck in the classroom until a place opens up for him/her.

2. Staff turnover--this is serious if veteran teachers are leaving the building for cause. If it is merely a case of novice teachers turning over, older teachers retiring, maternity leaves or teachers leaving for newer schools in the area then this is not an indicator of poor administration but merely a period of bad luck.

Posted by: Chris | June 7, 2006 2:50 PM

Well, there -are- demographic shifts going on in MoCo, and elementary school principals should be aware of them. Elementary school principals should also have a clue-- and, if not a clue, then some training-- about how to deal with these changes, which doesn't seem to be the case at TMES.

The county's 'smart growth' policy (which I support) channels growth into increasing density-- and increasing density means increasing opportunities for social conflict. That's just human nature-- so conflicts like this shouldn't be a big surprise to the powers that be in MoCo. Some clarity and leadership at the highest levels in the county administration could actually help here, in my opinion.

Posted by: Matt | June 8, 2006 9:40 AM

my parents are super super controlling i cant stand it. i cut myself this summer 2x i think it was part of self punishment as well as control. i wanted to hurt myself because they always were comparing me with my sister and even my little brother. im at a new high school, and ive made many friends who have invited me to a movie and dinner. since it has only been to the school for about 2 weeks, they dont want me to go. even when i was little, i couldnt go to birthday parties, because they didnt want me to. and ppl got offeneded when i finally went to 1 and thought i was favoring the person. they are always paranoid about me getting kidnapped. they dont trust me at ALL.

Posted by: lily | September 14, 2006 7:55 PM

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