I was stunned to hear what had happened at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette, California. Seventh-grader Merek Mastrov, who is 12 years old, missed a total of 90 minutes of Zoom classroom time. What step did the school take in response?
Merek’s dad got a letter saying his son was truant and subject to arrest.
Wait. Did they say arrest?
Yes, according to California law, Education Code Section 48264, after missing three 30-minute Zoom sessions, if they are considered unexcused, a school can send a letter saying the child is considered a truant of the state and is subject to arrest. Merek’s father soon discovered other parents who had received similar letters threatening their children with arrest. He now plans to write to lawmakers about changing policy. While he understands schools must work to keep students engaged, he feels this measure is unfair. Especially for a tweener like Mastrov who’s just 12.
On the other side, there must also be understanding. School principal Betsy Balmat explained, “The letter is part of our responsibility to the state for our student attendance review boards.”
What Is Happening to Us?
Our world is stressed by a COVID-19 pandemic and a severe economic downturn. Further, it’s noisier than ever with many voices, including both media and social media. Educators fear their messages aren’t getting through to students and parents. I have to assume the reason any state would pass a law like this one is it felt such a law was the best way to get the attention of families. While it’s important we maintain a routine, the threat of arrest for a 12-year-old, even if it’s meant to sober up the parents, is not helpful.
In fact, this recourse reminds me of how frequent hyperbole is on social media.
I believe one of the reasons people post messages with several exclamation points at the end or with bold or capital letters and lots of emojis is because they want their message to stand out in a world full of noise. Twitter desires to stand out, but through this process exaggerated messages and fake news made their way onto the platform. We live in a world of hyperbole where it seems everyone is trying to be heard. So, today it appears:
- We can’t just relay our point of view, we have to say we’re outraged.
- We can’t simply send our message, we must add caps and exclamation points.
- We can’t merely interact with families, we must leverage the threat of arresting kids.
Most of the time, when the emotion expressed outweighs the issue at hand, there’s another issue to be faced. It may be a person’s need to validate their sense of identity. It could be they are borrowing an offense from someone else. For a place like Stanley Middle School, I assume the severe penalty is in play because schools rely on student attendance for funding.
Everyone is trying to be heard in a world that’s anxious and stressed. Our amygdala kicks in; our emotions run high. So, we scream louder. We make bolder threats. This doesn’t end well.
The High Road Is a Better Path
I consistently write about the need for social and emotional learning in today’s students. However, we have no hope of developing social and emotional literacy in our kids if we think we can do so without modeling it ourselves. Our students watch us, and they’re savvy, not stupid. You may not feel like they listen to you very well, but they will not fail to emulate you.
When they see unregulated emotions, ridiculous rules, or poor leadership from adults, even the good words we speak seem hollow and empty. As school administrators, teachers, and parents, we need to be convinced that we cannot teach emotional intelligence unless we embody it. What we most need today is emotionally intelligent schools, where principals and teachers model that they have learned social and emotional competencies. These include:
- Identifying negative emotions when we feel them.
- Self-regulation and impulse control.
- Active listening and empathy.
- Examining prejudices and biases.
- Strong and healthy relationships.
Eric Johnson taught high school world history for 17 years. Without knowing it, he also taught social and emotional learning. He was an emotionally intelligent adult. A few years ago, Antwon entered Eric’s class just looking for a fight. Antwon was a student with a chip on his shoulder. From week one, Eric attempted to build a relationship with him, (as well as his other students), and model the competencies I mentioned above. He seldom sought help from administrators; Eric believed it was his job to manage his classroom of students.
One day, Antwon exploded.
In reaction to a fellow student, Antwon began yelling and dropping F-bombs in class– totally inappropriate and opposite of the high-road culture Eric had created. Eric knew he had to think fast. He instantly placed his students in study communities with student leaders in charge of each one. He then asked Antwon if he’d like to get away from class for a few minutes. The two of them stepped outside and sat down in the shade. Eric hoped this would only take a few minutes. The two sat in silence for a moment as emotions subsided. Then Eric asked, “Antwon, are you OK?” Pause. “What you just did doesn’t sound like you. On a scale of one to ten, what’s your anger level today? Is something wrong at home? How can I help?”
Each of these questions was posed calmly as Eric looked straight into Antwon’s eyes.
Antwon broke. He acknowledged his father had just beaten his mother and left the house for good. Eric listened actively. Emotions flowed freely and appropriately. Within 10 minutes, the two had crafted a plan for Antwon to regulate himself and return to class. When the two did, Antwon offered an apology to everyone, without Eric prompting him to do so. Each student was wide-eyed as they watched a clinic on social and emotional learning from an educator who traveled the high road.
If your school needs a social and emotional learning curriculum, we’ve got it. It’s taught with images and conversations much like Eric’s above. Check it out HERE.