Principals Can't Build Strong Schools When They Have to Spend So Much Time on Discipline

Recently, East Providence High School’s wrestling team was caught with alcohol, drugs and vaping products on a team trip. As punishment, the wrestling season came to an abrupt and early end. But there was more. One of the wrestlers, who actually didn’t even attend the school but was allowed to wrestle with the team, allegedly put his penis in the face of a sleeping teammate while two other teammates recorded it on their phones and shared the video on social media. A parent contacted the principal of the school and that triggered a response protocol, an investigation, the administration of consequences to include suspensions and the forfeiture of the rest of the wrestling season. A subsequent appeal by one parent to the state commissioner led to further hours and hours of legal proceedings. The state commissioner ultimately upheld the punishment.

Always Putting Out Fires

So where do conversations about student achievement fit into this picture? The reality is that our idealistic notion that principals are empowered to spend most of their time focused on instruction and building a strong school culture looks nothing like what is actually happening in many schools. The current reality for too many school principals is unsustainable and doesn’t bode well for improving student achievement. A data meeting that’s been on the calendar for months is quickly upended when word of illicit substances and videos of students’ genitals suddenly pop onto a principal’s radar. A day of instructional coaching is wiped from the schedule when a principal must spend the day contacting police, alerting the Department of Children, Youth and Family Services, interviewing wrestling team members, and calling every single parent who has a son on the wrestling team. A full-scale investigation breaks out. Administrators interview team members, cell phones are collected to corroborate the allegations. The principal meets with the offending student and his parents. They review text messages. In a follow up investigation, the principal learns that plans to sexually humiliate the sleeping teammate—and videotape it—were in place before the team left for New York. So were the plans to bring marijuana, alcohol, THC oil, a bong and vaping products. The principal summons the parents of all varsity wrestlers to inform them of the punishment. Just think of how much time and mental energy this consumes. And, of course, one parent appeals. In the East Providence case, it happened to be the father of the offender, who felt that denying participation in the statewide wrestling tournament was “disproportionate to the crime.” Thus began the time-consuming appeals process where, before the actual hearings take place, the school has to provide all documentation related to the timeline and details of their investigation. Meanwhile, important principal work related to student achievement cannot happen. Visiting classrooms cannot happen. Coaching teachers cannot happen. Community- and culture-building cannot happen. And this is just one case, in one district, involving a student who doesn’t even attend the school, where countless hours have been spent on his due process. If principals must ensure every student gets the “right” amount of due process, how much time is left for anything else?

Due Process of Discipline Takes Up All Their Time

Dealing with a pulled fire alarm can take up a whole day. Add to that the daily accusations of bullying or a student vaping or smoking pot in school, and any focus on student learning or student achievement quickly gets blown up by the urgent handling of mundane run-of-the-mill infractions. Are principals instructional leaders or disciplinarians? That’s the question raised by a recent case out of Rhode Island. Sadly, the answer is too often the latter. Without a team of professionals in place to work on the social-emotional piece of student behavior and another team to investigate, meet with parents and dole out consequences, a principal can—and often does—spend the bulk of his or her time wading through the mandatory layers of due process. And when the consequence is so unpalatable to a parent that they appeal it to the office of the state education commissioner, the work of improving schools inevitably takes a back seat.
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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