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Should Schools Fine Parents When Students Misbehave?
by Liz Dwyer
Did you ever get in trouble for misbehaving when you were in school? If so your parents may have been the recipients of the dreaded Note or Phone Call From the Teacher. Or maybe you took things to the next level and received a detention, or you got suspended. Well, Chicago's Noble Network of Charter Schools is under fire for making families cough up cash when their kids break the rules.
Marsha Godard, a parent at Chicago Bulls College Prep, one of a dozen high schools run by Noble, paid nearly $2,000 in fines due to her 16-year-old son Tavonta Gray's behavior. Godard recently told DNAInfo.com that he has been suspended 15 times, fined for infractions, and was required to take a $1,400 behavioral session last summer in order to continue at the school. The school is "only in it for the money," Godard says.
Noble spokesperson Angela Montagna says its campuses charge "a $5 fee, a disciplinary fee," which "goes to offset the cost of administering the discipline." Noble believes making parents pay engages them since "when it's in their pocketbook, they're much more involved." They pressure their children to change their behavior so they don't have to pay the fines. "80 percent of all detentions are given to freshmen, and then it goes down after that, where seniors are getting virtually none," Montagna says.
In 2012 Catalyst Chicago reported that a civil rights advocacy group, the Advancement Project, was considering a lawsuit against Noble. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request, they found that families of the 7,900 students attending Noble schools—who are nearly all black and Latino and 89 percent come from low income homes—paid "$188,000 in detention and behavior-class fees during the 2010-11 school year—and nearly $387,000 since 2008-09."
So what kind of behavior are we talking about? Parent Donna Moore also told Catalyst Chicago that her son, who was then a sophomore at another Noble campus, Gary Comer College Prep, didn't get detention for threatening school safety or talking in class. He received more than 30 detentions for things like having his shoes untied or bringing potato chips to class.
Last spring, James Troupis, the principal and founder of GCCP, detailed what it took to get 100 percent of his first senior class accepted to a four-year college or university. Troupis didn't mention disciplinary fees but he noted that,
"Constantly increasing expectations touches all aspects of our work. Any student who doesn’t finish her homework must stay an additional hour and a half after school. Every teacher stays at least 30 minutes every day after school for office hours and gives out their contact information for students to call or email anytime."
Four of GCCP's students also shared their stories, including then-senior Arnesia Banks, who was looking forward to her freshman year at Boston College. Banks, who is the first in her family to go to college, wrote that because of the low expectations and lack of consequences for her at her previous school she "thought it was no big deal to run the halls, not go to class, talk back to my teachers, and skip school." But, said Banks,
"The first time I skipped school at GCCP, I had to meet with the dean of discipline and several teachers who had come to show they cared about me. They laid out my options: get three days of suspension or three days of detention. I had been suspended and gone to detention in grammar school—I knew that suspension was "easier" because I wouldn't have to do school work. In the end, at what proved to be a crossroads for me, I took the detention."
Banks didn’t say fees were instrumental in changing her behavior. So what worked? "Seeing that so many people cared about me," she wrote. That made her want "to take responsibility for my actions and prove to the dean, my teachers, and myself that I was not a stereotypical, unmotivated black teenager." She "wanted to show them I was intelligent, persevering, and hardworking," so she "never skipped school again." Indeed, research shows that building relationships with students is what's most effective at improving student behavior.
Troupis connected me with another graduate of GCCP's first class, Jade Dryer, now a freshman at Xavier University. Dryer says the school, "told us about the $5 from the start," so if parents, "didn't like that rule, they should have thought about sending their child to another school."
Some of her friends left GCCP, says Dryer, because "they weren't able to adjust to the rigorous academics or they weren't able to abide by the rules." But, she says, "none of them left because of the $5" fee. "They thought they wanted to do what they wanted to do, so they went to a school where they could do that and get away with that stuff," she says.
Dryer says she herself was "kind of a behavior problem" and racked up $40 in fees over the course of four years—which her mother made her pay out of her own pocket—but she never took issue with the fees because she knew her behavior was wrong. Detention—or not being able to participate in school activities—isn't always a big deal to kids, adds Dryer, but forking over cash matters. "You think, 'I gotta change something I'm doing so I'm not being charged $5 each time.'"
However, if you visit public schools in Chicago's suburbs you'll see teens in wealthier, whiter communities bringing chips to school, talking or falling asleep in class, and even skipping school—it’s all immortalized in those classic John Hughes films like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"—but no one's requiring those families to pay fees. Do we believe that kids of color can't behave without fines—or that parents from those wealthier, whiter communities don't need to pay them because they intrinsically care more about their children's behavior than the parents of low income black and brown kids?
Dryer doesn't feel like the fees discriminate along racial or economic class lines, however. "It's just a lesson learned. That's life. If you go to jail to get out you have to bail yourself out," she says. "Comparing it to jail, I'm just saying if you make a mistake, you have to pay for your mistakes sometimes."
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