Boiling Down the Latest “Coffee With Khan”

This morning, more than 100 parents turned out for a “Coffee With Khan” at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. Counting Brooks teachers and administrators (including Principal LeeAndra Khan), as well as District 97 administrators, roughly 150 people crowded into the Brooks cafeteria.

Sparking the high attendance were two incidents this past week, one involving a student who was found to be in possession of a knife and one in which a student received medical attention after a physical confrontation.

Below are some of my observations that flow from this latest Coffee, boiled down in layman’s language so please forgive any words, phrases or metaphors that may not be perfectly, or pedagogically, articulated.

  1. There is a tension between `old-school’ (more punitive) approaches to misbehavior and the emerging paradigm of a restorative response to that misbehavior.

When it comes to disciplinary philosophy, Brooks is unlike the middle schools that parents attended a generation ago.

Principal Khan powerfully conveyed this shift when she provided two points of emphasis, and thus meanings, to the question that commonly comes on the heels of misbehavior: “What happened to that student?”

Instead of posing the question in the sense of “what were the consequences that the offending student received?”, the restorative philosophy seeks to understand what has occurred in the child’s life to that point. In short, “what happened” in the preceding days, weeks, months, or even years that may have led to the actions in question?

The “old school” paradigm seeks some sense of short-term punishment that reflects hollow justice and does little to solve the underlying issues that led to the incident in the first place.

The restorative model looks deeply into the rear-view mirror of his or her life to foster changes that last well into the future. I applaud this approach, but recognize that it requires patience for all involved. It can be infuriating for parents, and children, who have been wronged in one or more instances. I genuinely understand that.

There is a delicate balance between looking out for all students’ safety and addressing individual students’ misbehavior. There are obviously some actions that should prompt expulsion or even a criminal-justice response.

But, by and large, we need to set our sights on something better than the “criminalization” that has been the longstanding response to misconduct in educational settings.

  1. The two-hour session was a microcosm of our children’s behavior (and misbehavior).

At the outset, Principal Khan laid out the “norms” for the meeting. They included no side conversations and requesting that people write down their questions on index cards. The goal was for a more orderly dialogue, rather than one marked by interruptions peppering her and other administrators with questions.

Nobody disputed those norms initially…but more than a few people violated them. It only took a relatively small number of adults to derail the dialogue at times. Understandably, emotion bubbles up when we’re talking about our children—but the fact that good people did not see fit to restrain themselves is an instructive parallel: good kids sometimes make bad decisions.

  1. Certain adults need to act more responsibly on social media.

Principal Khan, and a few parents, made this point very diplomatically.

Regrettably, some local Facebook groups have degenerated into toxic cyber-spaces where gossip, innuendo, passive-aggressive bullying and peddling in half-truths are celebrated, gallingly and appallingly, as “community dialogue.”

Some were heaving a worrisome amount of that junk at the Brooks administration, most notably Principal Khan, and it did much more harm than good.

While most folks’ social-media discourse is respectful and fair, it only takes a small (often exceedingly prolific) minority of irresponsible individuals whose potshots poison the waters for all. Friends and neighbors: if you have a concern or criticism, take it up directly with those individuals who are directly involved. Let’s be positive models for our children as they grow up in a world where social media plays such an influential role in their day-to-day lives.

  1. Parents offered plenty of great ideas.

There were many terrific ideas and insights shared with Principal Khan and other educational leaders. Among them: significantly reducing or removing altogether students’ use of cellular phones during school hours, and developing swifter communications from the school to all teachers and parents, which could help pre-empt the rumor mill and its harmful effects.

Some of the ideas advanced on Friday may be implemented, while others surely will not, for any variety of reasons. Regardless, it was encouraging to be reminded of the abundance of bright, thoughtful, caring people in this community. We are made stronger when we rally around a common cause—in this case, of improving our children’s educational experience.

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