When she got kicked out of class a second time for swearing at a teacher, Jayla faced not a principal, but a true jury of her peers: fellow students.
Jayla appeared before the High School in the Community (HSC) Honor Council, a new panel set up to adjudicate minor conflicts and behavioral problems in school.
The panel, run by Bronx public defender-turned-social studies teacher Sarah Marchesi and English teacher Matt Presser, has heard a series of student-teacher disputes over the course of the year. Students get experience interviewing witnesses, analyzing the source of conflict—and coming up with solutions to resolve that conflict.
The most recent case offered a frank discussion about “disrespect”—and about what the school can do to foster better teacher-student relationships.
Jayla, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, agreed to appear before the panel after she got kicked out of class one day. Her teacher, one of 10 who joined the school in September, typed up a student referral documenting the offense.
Jayla “was kicked out of class for the 2nd time yesterday,” the document reads. “In both cases (of her being kicked out) she was very rude and disrespectful, both of which took a toll on my dignity,” the teacher wrote. In the latest incident in a computer lab, the teacher asked her to complete an assignment.
“Damn,” she allegedly replied, “OK, just get out of my face and I’ll do it.”
“What strikes me is that she is part of a campaign for greater respect at HSC and yet has shown little of,” the report continues. “At this rate, a parent will have to be contacted about the behavior.”
The teacher and student agreed to bring the case before the Honor Council for a resolution. They agreed to abide by whatever the student jury determined to be a proper sentence. Wednesday’s was the seventh case the Honor Council has heard this year. Others have concerned how to investigate the theft of a cell phone, and how to deal with kids who use their phones in class.
Students in the Honor Council took the case seriously. First they studied the referral sheet. Then they brought in the first witness, Jayla, for questioning.
Jayla walked into the classroom one day several weeks ago at around 10 a.m., with a friend in tow for moral support. She sat in a chair in front of a U-shaped formation of desks, where a half-dozen peers awaited her.
Tariq Richardson kicked off the session with an open-ended question: “I read the referral. What happened?”
As Jayla began to answer, Presser typed a live transcript of the proceedings, projected from a MacBook onto a screen in the front of the class. For most of the 50-minute period, he and Marchesi hung back and let students drive the discussion.
In her testimony, Jayla gave a different account than the one on the green piece of paper.
“We were in the computer lab,” she began. “I was doing work and [the teacher] came in and asked why was I [not] doing the work that I was supposed to be doing.” The teacher “had an attitude and instead of just saying it, he started yelling. … he got mad and kicked me out.”
She said she had been creating a flow chart and video; she claimed she had done the work, but accidentally deleted it from the computer.
“Did you see the report that [the teacher] made about you?” asked Angelique Smith (at left in photo).
“Just now,” Jayla said.
Jayla disputed the facts of the case. She said she was kicked out once, not twice, that day. She said she felt “disrespected” by the way the teacher treated her.
“In what way did he disrespect you?” asked Angelique.
“By his tone of voice and the way he approached me,” Jayla replied.
The conversation veered into a broader discussion about what it means to show and give respect.
“Do you believe respect should be a given or that it should be earned?” asked Nate Pettit.
“Respect goes both ways,” Jayla replied. “You’ve got to give respect to earn respect.”
Her statement was the closest yet to accepting responsibility for the situation. Students zeroed in on her words.
“Do you think you’ve earned respect from [the teacher]?” asked Nate.
“No. I don’t know,” Jayla replied.
“Why do you think you didn’t earn it?” asked Tariq.
“I didn’t give respect,” Jayla conceded.
Amy Zheng later returned to the point, guiding the student to reflect on her actions with a pointed question.
“You said before you have to give respect to gain respect. If you feel you hadn’t given [the teacher] respect, why you were offended that he hadn’t given you respect in return?”
The witness appeared flustered for a moment. “Because he didn’t come to me in the appropriate manner,” she said.
Students also asked Jayla about a campaign she is supposed to be part of to promote respect around school.
“If you’re part of a campaign, should his expectations be higher” for your behavior around school? Alexus Martin asked.
“I don’t know. Yeah,” Jayla replied.
“What are you doing to spread this campaign?” asked Amy Zheng.
“Nothing,” Jayla confessed. She said she doesn’t take it seriously because it’s part of a student club, not an academic class with grades.
The interview ended with the class bell.
Because of numerous cancellations of the once-a-week student club period, the Honor Council had to wait until a few weeks later, this past Wednesday, to finish adjudicating the case. It wasn’t ideal timing, because it was over a month after the classroom incident occurred on April 23. But the conversation proved fruitful.
The teacher, who asked that his name not be used, took his seat before the student panel. His decision to be there was voluntary. The panel does not see all disciplinary cases, just a small fraction of them, in which the teacher and student agree to have their case heard. In doing so, they agree to abide by the solution the Honor Council comes up with.
The first question the teacher faced was tougher than one the student had received.
“You kicked her out for saying ‘damn’?” asked Donald Boone with incredulity.
“No, it was an accumulation of language,” the teacher replied.
“So she was saying other things?” asked Donald.
“No, just her tone,” the teacher replied. “It was an accumulation of days” of disrespectful language.
“We were in the computer lab that time,” the teacher explained. “It was later on in the period. There were a couple remarks that she made to me. … At that point, my patience had worn thin and I asked her to leave.”
“How was your tone to her?” asked Nyshawana Gary.
“It was calm,” the teacher replied. “By yelling or arguing or making some kind of confrontation, that usually makes things worse. So usually, you have to ask calmly [and] say, ‘Get out.’”
The conversation proved a chance for students to explore a familiar situation from the teacher’s point of view.
“How did you feel when you got home?” asked Tariq. He asked if the incident lingered on the teacher’s mind.
“Absolutely,” the teacher replied. “Even when I sent you out [of class] the other day, I was thinking about it. That goes with me home, so when a situation like that comes up, it takes a toll on me. I feel disheartened.”
Donald looked down at the referral sheet. “I see here, you said she wasn’t following the 5 Ps”—aka “prompt, polite, prepared, productive, and positive” behavior.
“Seems like it got on your nerves?” Donald asked.
“It didn’t get on my nerves,” the teacher replied. “It just upset me that she wasn’t learning.” And “she’s part of this respect campaign, and she wasn’t showing any respect.”
From there, the conversation led to a frank discussion about the state of student-teacher relationships at the school.
“Were there any ways that this could have been stopped?” Tariq asked.
“How could it be prevented in the future? the teacher replied. “[Jayla] and I should sit down and discuss.”
“So y’all still haven’t talked?” asked Tariq.
“We have,” the teacher said. “But it’s been rough because I’ve only seen her maybe twice [since April 23] so I haven’t had a chance to engage her on her behavior, whether it’s different or not.”
“How do you feel about teens disrespecting teachers? Do you feel it’s a general problem or more of a personal one?” asked Angelique.
The teacher said he takes each case as it comes. “Before I jump to judgment on why someone’s being disrespectful, I need to understand why they’re going through that situation. We all have good days and not so good days. I try to have high patience. If that was the first time, I think that would’ve been bad on my part. I don’t ever want to rush to kick someone out because I just don’t know what had happened a day before, a class before, an hour before, 10 minutes before. Life is very unpredictable.”
“Have you tried talking to her outside of class?” asked Angelique.
“Building relationships is very hard,” the teacher conceded. “She’ll always tell me she’s doing OK. She’ll never say, ‘I’m having a bad day.’ I don’t think we have that relationship yet. … So building a relationship becomes difficult. If [Jayla] and I had a better relationship, there wouldn’t be any disrespect.”
“Can you think of a better way for HSC to help its teachers build relationships with students?” asked Amy.
Marchesi (pictured), who had been quietly letting students run the show, interjected to applaud Amy for a “genius” question.
“There’s a lot we can do, Amy,” the teacher replied. “Maybe having an advisory in the morning. Going back to a homeroom? Seeing you guys more often. I don’t like that we only see each other twice a week. And if you’re absent a day? Then we’re down to once a week. I’ve literally seen [Jayla] once, maybe twice, since this has happened. I definitely wish we had more time. Maybe a longer school day so we can do more team-building activities after school. There’s a lot [we can do].”
The respectful, solution-oriented questioning set a basis for the teacher to open up to the group.
“What are your thoughts at home when you thought about the situation?” asked Tariq.
“I would hope that [Jayla] didn’t hold a grudge against me,” the teacher replied. “I was also thinking what could I have done differently.”
“Do you feel like you did something wrong?” Tariq asked.
“That day, I don’t personally feel like I did. But I could try a little harder to build relationships,” he said. “We have a lot on our plates. So yeah, I could try harder to build a better relationship and to spend more time with kids when I don’t see them” because of scheduling issues.
Marchesi guided the group to ask more questions about the teacher’s approach to discipline.
The teacher noted that one approach—one he had used with a kid in that very same room Wednesday—was to have a mediated sit-down after kicking the student out of class. The student “told me his problems, why he did what he did and we worked on a solution,” the teacher said.
“Do you handle all classroom situations the same?” asked Alexus.
“No,” the teacher replied. “If a kid is throwing a chair at me, I’m going to handle that a little differently. If a kid is in a fight with another kid… Some kids are really sensitive. If you tell him to ‘get out’ in front of everybody, you have to really know the kids.
“We need more time as teachers to get to know the kids.”
With poise and maturity, Alexus (at right in photo) opened a set of questions that could have come from a professional social worker.
“Have you spoken to administrators about time to get to know kids better?” she asked.
“Yeah,” the teacher replied.
“Do you feel as though the talk was effective?” Alexus asked.
“Usually it’s recommended to call home and have the parents come in,” he said. But he said high schoolers are transitioning to taking responsibility for their own actions, not just heeding their parents.
“Do you think calling home is effective?” asked Amy. (Students broke their lawyerly objectivity to give their opinion: It’s a middle-school tactic that no longer works in high school.)
“It’s OK in the short run,” the teacher replied, but it doesn’t always help the teacher-student relationship.
As the 20-minute questioning period wound down, talk turned to solutions.
The teacher confessed he had not dealt with this type of disciplinary challenge before.
“Is this your first year teaching?” asked Angelique. The teacher said yes.
“So you don’t have any actual experience handling a child who has been disrespectful?” she asked.
“This isn’t my first teaching experience,” the teacher replied. But in student teaching, teachers see students for shorter periods of time. “This is the first one where I’ve had this long with a student to develop an action plan.”
The teacher proposed letting Jayla propose her own solution to improve her behavior. That worked well, he said, in a recent case in which he had evicted Tariq from the room. Tariq asked for “more challenge and responsibility inside the room,” he said. “It made Tariq feel reflective and he took responsibility of his actions.”
At the end of the questioning, the teacher pronounced it a productive day in court.
“This was a great conversation,” he said. “Instead of going to the administration” with discipline problems, he suggested, teachers and students “should come here.”
After the teacher left, Marchesi took a moment to review the transcript with the class. With just a couple of exceptions, she noted, the day’s questions were “open,” didn’t “assume the answer,” and allowed the witness to give his side.
Students have grown tremendously over the year in their ability to ask open-ended questions, she said.
Marchesi said she thought the witness spoke so openly Wednesday because the students treated him with respect.
After hearing both sides, students set about drafting a resolution to the case. Alexus suggested the group “ask the two of them to sort it out,” as the teacher had suggested.
After some discussion, the group agreed. In an official “Honor Council Civil Rights Success Contract,” they sentenced Jayla to sit down with her teacher and “come to a conclusion with a reasonable consequence for the incident.”
“If [Jayla] refuses to have an adult conversation with her teacher, then she’ll have to accept the traditional punishment that administrators would have chosen,” the council decreed.
“We believe that this is a fair consequence because it gives both parties closure and an opportunity to be heard,” the council wrote. “It also serves to build a relationship between the teacher and student, which we understand is hard to build but is possible and valuable.”
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• Teachers Clash With Union Prez Over Turnaround
• 91-39 Blowout Comes With A Lesson For Victors
• New Haven Rallies For Solanlly & Chastity
• Social Promotion Vow Put To The Test
• HSC Heads To Capitol For New Diplomas
• She Awoke To A New Life—& A New Mission
• High School Of The Future Debuts, Briefly
• Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
• Nikita Makes It Home
• 15 Seniors Head To College Early
• No More “B And A Smile”
• Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
• Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
• School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”