If you have had a chance to read this week’s cover story you may wonder how we could print such a lengthy first-person account without providing a single word of rebuttal from the public school system that the author takes to task in his article.
Could this dark episode really have happened in one of our premier area school systems, you might wonder. And could it have happened in the way the author describes it?
Good questions that deserve some answers.
The fact is that I considered eliciting a response from the Princeton Public Schools, where Michael Graziano’s son came under scrutiny for what school officials described as “inappropriate” touching and other forms of “sexualized behavior.” But I rejected the idea for two reasons.
1.) The school district will get its chance to respond if it wants — consider this column the first invitation for a response and the offer of ample space in the next issue of the paper.
2.) Subjecting the piece to review by the school board would surely turn up some quibbles about the facts: You can imagine the time line being off here or there; or a teacher’s request being in fact a suggestion, and so on as the various parties separate bird poo from pepper. And all of that would just detract from the essence of Graziano’s story. This Princeton parent may or may not have every i dotted correctly or every t perfectly crossed, but I suspect he has the gist of the story correct. And that’s because it’s his story, not the school board’s.
And maybe there’s a third reason. I too have had a brush with the school authorities trying to handle what they perceived to be dangerous and disruptive behavior by my son. While my little confrontation was much less dramatic than that of Graziano’s family, at the end of the ordeal I had the same reaction as Graziano: I got things squared away in part because I was used to dealing with large bureaucratic institutions, in part because I was used to gathering facts and putting them into coherent form, and — last but not least — I had a flextime job that permitted me to pull off work in the middle of the day to find out what the hell was going on in and outside the school.
When it was all over I wondered — as does Graziano — how some workaday parent could overcome a juggernaut of educators hell bent on pegging his or her kid into some neat and clean — and possibly inappropriate — hole.
So here’s a recap of my story. In 2005 I had a boy at Community Park Elementary School in Princeton. He was a rascal, didn’t always do his homework, and his class clown antics occasionally got disapproving notices from teachers.
But one day the comedy turned into thuggery, at least in the eyes of school personnel. While everyone was milling around after school my kid was seen rushing up behind a classmate, a girl, and with a blindside tackle slamming her to the ground. How brutal was this attack? So brutal, I was told, that the girl’s grandfather — a retired police officer who surely knew brutality when he saw it — was shocked!
The boy’s mother — my ex-wife — and I were summoned for a meeting with the teacher, the principal, the school psychologist, and — if memory serves — someone else at the district level. The opening statement was that the meeting should result in action, not just the scheduling of another meeting. Everyone nodded in solemn agreement. After a half hour or so of examining my son’s behavior the decision was made to send him to psychotherapy sessions to determine what his deep-seated problems were and then to effect a cure. Someone mentioned there was a specialist in Princeton in “play therapy” who could possibly help.
But I came up with a thought: Don’t we as adults tell the children to count to 10 before they react to something that upsets them? Everyone nodded in agreement. So, I continued, why don’t we all wait a day or two before we schedule that first appointment? All agreed.
I had had some doubts about the whole incident. At this age my kid loved to announce that he felt that certain kids were “annoying.” Usually he couldn’t explain why, but he was annoyed nonetheless. But the girl he tackled was not on the “annoying” list. In fact, he liked her. And when I questioned him about the tackling incident he went into his best kids’ omerta mode.
The next day at around lunchtime I left work, drove to the school, and went around back to the playground. It was a melee, being supervised by two octogenarian aides who I doubt could see to the far corners of the playground to which the kids had scattered. Games of skill and chance (from my rose-colored memories of youth) had given way to war games. Kids with sticks lunged at each other. At the highest slide, a group of kids manned the upper level, while other kids attempted to climb up the slippery slope. If they made it to the top then the kids already there would try to push him or her off — quite a fall.
And then there was the tackling. The game was to run up to anyone standing around doing nothing else and knock them to the ground. And the stand-out player in this contest was the same girl my kid had tackled in front of the school at dismissal time. She was as good as any boy. My kid’s only mistake was continuing the game at the wrong time and wrong place.
In defense of the school: Teacher and administrators must work in fear that a violent crime could be committed by a child whose earlier misbehavior had been overlooked. The school should take notice of unusual behavior and alert parents sooner rather than later.
While the public school system isn’t perfect, I can also think of dozens of times when teachers and administrators and — in my case — band leaders applied elegant solutions to difficult situations. One of the best pieces of advice was at a parents’ open house for students moving from elementary to middle school. The principal, Bill Johnson, said that this was the age when kids would start telling their parents they didn’t need them anymore. Don’t believe it, the principal said. In fact now was the time to imagine that you had a long umbilical cord connected to your kid and every once in a while you should pull it in.
Especially for working parents, who may be tempted to look at the school day as a respite from parenting duties, there is never a wrong time or a wrong place to get a close-up view of your kid and his school.