Do the impossible better: of bullying, empathy, and organizational leadership

Any school is defined by human beings and their relationships. More than any other function of government, American public schools embody all the beauty and horror of human relationships in America. We are ground zero for making this fractious, experimental, violent, and challenging country work.

Considering everything that flows into public education from America, it is utterly miraculous how many of the human interactions that our underpaid and criminally undersupported school staff produce and oversee each day reflect the best of our country and community.

This achievement is particularly miraculous in Florida, where the true power behind public schools — your state government — does not care at all about the human climate or relationships within schools. In fact, it does whatever it can to gin up conflict within them by starving human resources and pumping in stresses and pressures that it can try to use to destroy public education as a public good.

Take that as a fact. Your legislators are not going to help us with the human climate in public schools. Not for students; not for employees. Not for anyone. The better the human experience in a public school the harder it is for grifters who prey on human misery to sell escape. And those grifters are in power. Any kind of bad news from the trillions of human interactions that occur in public schools every day is good news for Tallahassee.

Moreover, schools of all kinds have always, always, always been places where developing human beings display their best and worst instincts. Read any literature from any age. I wrote about my own pretty horrific childhood experience with organized, school-based cruelty in this essay about bullying, which I urge you to read. This happened in roughly 1985, at the hands of my friends, many of whom today are pillars of their communities, and several of whom remain close friends of mine today. What happened to me, a pretty strong and happy kid, holds its own in the horror department compared to most childhood bullying stories I’ve heard as a board member.

Kids those days sucked. And sometimes I did, too.

None of that excuses me, as one of your educational leaders here in Polk County, from doing everything in my power to ensure a loving and consistent climate of human relationships with the resources that we have available. It does not excuse me — or any of us — from doing our best — even if we fail. And failure is always an option.

Anatomy of a repetitive scandal

With that in mind, I want to analyze what I see as a commonly problematic operational pattern in our district. My cursory attention to other districts indicates this happens quite often, everywhere. I don’t think Polk is unique in any way. But that also doesn’t excuse us from doing everything we can to prevent this pattern from occurring here as often as possible.

Both of the recent school scandals that were addressed painfully and openly at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting fit into this rough pattern:

1. A child suffers some sort of injury or harm at the hands of another child.
2. The notification process and first interaction with a parent or guardian goes poorly.
3. The parent perceives that the school’s leadership is not taking the injury or harm seriously — or that protecting the alleged “bully” against overreaction matters more than comfort and protection for the alleged victim. Often, whoever is speaking to the parent or guardian cites amorphous federal privacy rules for holding back information.
4. As a result, ongoing efforts to address the issue are poisoned. Sometimes the parent or guardian expresses frustration in a public and confrontational way. Sometimes the parent breaks behavioral rules or disrupts the school community. Sometimes it’s a social media post that generates some attention.
5. The human beings in school leadership react to that defensively and sometimes apply their authority unproductively; and the original issue gets lost in a destructive battle of wills.
6. All of this explodes into a click bait or local TV media story that viewers or readers forget in a day, if not 10 minutes. But deep wounds linger for the school community — from children to parents to staff to leadership. And so do unfair and inaccurate perceptions about “kids these days,” specific schools, and public education as a whole.

This overall pattern also occurs sometimes in interactions between leadership and staff. It’s a related organizational issue. I roll all of it up into the general category of humane climate within schools. In the clip below, you can see me address all of this just before everybody spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting. Overall behavioral climate and support at schools are an incredibly important element of this discussion and a priority of the new School Board. I touch on that in this clip. But the rest of this article is focused primarily on these bully/violence moments.

The clip actually begins with a discussion of the state’s wildly irresponsible voucher expansion. It relates to this discussion because you only know about bully/violence issues at district public schools because you have an elected board and extensive administrative apparatus to hold accountable for it. I shudder for the abuses that we don’t hear about at the Pastor Tiger schools that your legislators are about to give your tax money to. Private and charter schools exist beyond the realm of any real systemic accountability. Try complaining to their leaders about it if you experience it. You will get: you can always leave. That’s not an option for your public schools.

Your ability to report and force attention on these issues at public schools is a tremendous safety advantage in its own right. But here are some of thoughts on how we can and must improve how we equip our people to manage and resolve these very difficult “bully” challenges.

The importance of the first interaction

Number two in the sequence above is where corrosive conflict is born. If “the notification process and first interaction with a parent or guardian goes poorly,” everything immediately gets harder and more destructive. We should be pouring training and direction and resources into getting this first interaction as right as we can get it. It is the hinge point for everything else.

First, the notification has to happen promptly, preferably immediately. Efforts to contact the parents/guardian that are unsuccessful need to be documented. Leave messages. Screen shot cell phone call attempts. We need to be able to demonstrate that we tried very hard to inform the parent/guardian as soon as possible.

Then comes the crucial notification discussion. This typically falls on an assistant principal or principal. In my opinion, these moments should be the ultimate responsibility of the school leader, the principal, with clear support from the superintendent as necessary. Parents of hurt children want to hear from the leader. And I think these serious incidents are rare enough that it becomes a perilous folly to delegate them. Any time or energy a principal may save on the front end, they more than lose on the back end if it goes bad. If I led a school, I would want to have these conversations with parents personally, with my AP present for development and input.

To my knowledge, and I have asked about this quite a bit, we have no district-level guidance or training or expectations or tools for administrators to turn to in these crucial moments. They’re basically on their own, at the mercy of their own savvy and personality. You can be a competent principal, who runs a tight ship, and still not have a particular talent for emotional intelligence in these moments.

Indeed, I consider emotional intelligence the most important trait for an educational leader. But it’s also impossible to measure with any stupid metric. So it is not cultivated as part of educational leadership training or prioritized in hiring decisions. So if you’re a principal lacking confidence in your emotional intelligence in those moments, it’s vital that you ask for help and that district-level staff be available to help you.

Express human empathy

That’s because these moments are incredibly hard. If we get them wrong — or even if get them right and the parent/guardian isn’t satisfied — trouble is going to follow. And we may all end up forgetting the children at the heart of the issue as conflict consumes everything.

I have pushed — thus far unsuccessfully — and will continue to push for clear, practical, realistic district-level guidelines and tools for helping school-based leaders give themselves the best chance at success. I can tell you this: every person having that first interaction should imagine themselves in the parent or guardian’s position. Leaders should ask themselves: How would I feel hearing this about my own child? What would I want to know?

At a bare minimum, we should alway say: “I’m sorry this happened to your child. I am sorry he or she had this experience. We will do everything legally in our power to look after, comfort, and protect him or her. I know how I would feel in your position.”

That doesn’t accept blame; and it doesn’t commit to specific actions. It does express common human empathy. And that can go a long way. I’ll provide an object lesson in a moment.

If step 2 goes bad, and a district employee’s behavior or speech is even partially responsible for it, it falls on us, the district, to try to fix it with humility — even if we believe the parent/guardian’s reaction is out of line, over-the-top, or attention-seeking. I think good leadership often requires some strategic swallowing of pride. We have to make the effort. And that may mean apologizing if we said or implied something unhelpful.

A leadership moment that did not happen

In interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I knew about the precipitating incident at one of the schools at least a month ago. The parent/guardian contacted me about it. At that time, step 2 had already gone badly, and we were well down the road toward 3, 4, and 5.

I immediately worked through the district chain of command. I sent a note to the superintendent and appropriate regional superintendent. I clearly laid out the parent’s point-of-view, without endorsing it.

It was my hope that prompt senior district staff attention could help repair any damage done in the first interaction and avoid precisely what happened Tuesday night. For whatever reason — and I don’t know the reason — that effort did not succeed. But there was effort.

It may be that it was impossible to please the parent. It may be that we didn’t work hard enough at the senior leadership level. I don’t know. I do know that I don’t have good guidelines and policies to share and benchmark — from the senior district level — on how these interactions should go. I wish I did. I do not believe the district equipped this principal — or any principal — with effective tools and expectations for handling these incidents.

The parent continued to stay in contact with me. And it became clear that a group of parents were planning public action. I communicated that to senior leadership in various ways. I told the superintendent last week to expect some concerned parents at the board meeting. I had hoped she would have a statement to make similar to the outstanding statement she gave about not arming staff. But that didn’t happen.

It’s important that parents and the public understand the humanity of staff

I also made very clear to the parent/guardian that I would not be calling for anybody’s firing, nor would I publicly criticize the school. I was trying, as hard as I could, to be an honest broker of a better outcome.

I was glad to see strong turnout of staff from the school Tuesday night. I got to watch everybody’s face during the entire event. I saw public servants suffering and weeping as they perceived their commitment to the children they serve as under attack. Think, for a moment, about how that felt, with all that they endure every day.

I want to say for the record: I believe the staff at this school is the opposite of callous. You don’t show up and suffer, largely in silence, if you don’t care — deeply — about what you do and the kids you serve. And it’s also worth noting that, with one or two exceptions, the folks criticizing the “school” went to some pains to separate staff from leadership in their comments. In most cases, they praised the staff’s care while criticizing leadership handling of specific bully/violence events. I am not endorsing or rejecting their criticism of leadership; I’m just clarifying who was the target and what was said.

There are many people who will think this was a terrible event. And it was definitely hard to sit through. However, because the school’s staff, including the principal, cared enough to show up and suffer, they put their own humanity on display for both the criticizing parents and the School Board and audience as a whole. That was extremely important and helpful. I thank them for it, as I thank everyone who suffers for this difficult profession.

The teacher and para who eventually spoke on behalf of the staff did so beautifully and meaningfully. They did so without attacking or diminishing the parents. They made me proud; and I think they made the district proud. It was extraordinary grace under fire. And we owe them our thanks and support.

I am hopeful that this will prove a cathartic event that helps focus resources and attention on better preparing school leaders to manage these situations and providing much-needed behavioral support. But hope is not a plan. I’m going to keep hammering this. We owe all of our people clarity and support in managing what is probably the toughest part of the job.

I have now spoken with staff and parent/guardians at both schools that made news recently. [I’m deliberately not naming anybody or any school to avoid Google-tagging.] I have asked everyone to imagine everyone else’s point-of-view as human beings. And at least at one school, the one that was the subject of most of Tuesday’s discussion, a staff member reported to me that bullying/violence issues have improved as a whole in recent years under the principal’s management and leadership. I think it’s only fair that I note that perception.

And here’s what’s incredibly challenging about it.

You can believe, without contradiction, that the overall bullying climate has improved and that kids and parents have suffered from individual bad experiences and interactions. They can co-exist. That is how life works. It’s a huge administrative challenge for every school and every human organization, especially those who have to operate under public scrutiny. And it requires dedicated assistance and focus from senior leadership to prevent bad anecdotes from blowing up systems that may well be improving.

The FERPA conundrum: how can teachers, staff, and schools defend themselves against false or misleading allegations?

We also need to get very serious about what federal privacy guidelines actually prevent us from doing in talking to parents about these issues. FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It protects certain information about children from public release.

I hear it invoked in two different ways during these types of incidents.

  1. To avoid discussion of what happened and what’s being done to protect that child who is the alleged victim. We can’t tell you how we’re protecting your child because of the FERPA rights of the other child. That’s way too broad.
  2. I also get, Well, these allegations aren’t right, or they’re misleading, and I could tell the whole story here, but FERPA law won’t let me say anything about it. How can I defend myself against a lie?

I’ve been very critical of the Stoneman Douglas Commission. I think it’s done almost nothing to protect kids, while driving huge, divisive wedges into school communities. But I do agree with its criticism of FERPA use. I think we often use FERPA as a crutch and an excuse to avoid or deflect hard conversations.

This is not to say that all information is fair game. We must use great care in how we discuss these issues with stakeholders, victims and accused alike. However, using great care means you also do not use blanket statements like, I can’t talk to you about what happened and what we’re doing because of FERPA. But we’re handling it. 

We need a very deep dive, with specific guidelines, about what we can tell stakeholders in these situations. And perhaps we develop a system in which the full story is told to the superintendent and made available to the board for review out of public disclosure. That would at least allow us put our own personal credibility on the line in addressing these issues.

In the meantime, I can say that I don’t think our people are obligated to remain silent if someone is lying about them. If you’re a school staffer, and you have evidence that an allegation is a lie or clearly wrong, you can share it with me, and I will do what I can set the record straight.

However, I also have to say that I’ve seen no evidence that the parents in these recent cases are being dishonest. Nor, to be fair, has anyone publicly accused them of that. But I have had staff tell me that some parents are not telling the full story or have some aspects wrong. These disagreements are more a question of context and narrative framing of facts, rather than the facts themselves. Instead of trying to work together to resolve these differences, we’re litigating them openly and inconclusively.

That is why it is so, so important to get these interactions as right as we can from the start.

A way forward

The FERPA crutch lay at the heart of another incident that I think — I hope — I may have helped de-escalate and contain on Wednesday, literally hours after Tuesday night’s meeting.

A parent left an irate phone message for me about a hitting incident at an elementary school, where the initial notification and discussion had gone poorly.

I called this parent back immediately. I apologized that this had happened. I listened to the parent’s concern without commenting on the facts of the case, which I do not and cannot know with certainty. And by the end of the call, we were having a very civil and productive conversation. The parent expressed appreciation.

As soon as I hung up, I sent a note to the superintendent, and copied the entire School Board, and asked her to contact this parent immediately because the initial interactions had gone badly. [Sunshine Law allows you to send a blanket informational point-of-view to the entire board, if there is no discussion.] Much to the superintendent’s credit, she got involved immediately.

When I talked to the parent later, the parent seemed satisfied with the interaction with the superintendent. And the situation seemed to have de-escalated and moved toward a productive way forward. There are no guarantees that it continues this way; and there are no guarantees that it will work for every case in the future. But prompt, empathetic de-escalation from leaders gives us the best chance to succeed in my view.

In fact, if I were superintendent, I would have a standing order that I get involved with any bully/violence issue in which the principal does not think the initial interaction and notification went well.

All humanity has a bullying problem

The Ledger’s big story about the Tuesday night discussion partially revolves around the question of whether an individual school has a “bullying problem.” That’s the wrong question. All humanity has always had a bullying problem.

Adult households are full of bullies and cruelties. Workplaces suffer from bullies. Baseball teams have them. Churches. Legislatures.

Any organization built around humans, including schools, has a bullying problem. And yes, private and charter schools absolutely have bullying problems, which is why nobody wants the stupid “bully” scholarship the Legislature passed last year. Kids want to stay in their school, with all the good stuff it contains. They just want the focused cruelty to stop so that can get back to enjoying their experience.

The better question is: do our systems and commitment give us the best chance to accomplish that for each individual? At this point, I don’t think so. Our systems and commitment at the district level do not, in my observation, give our principals and staff the best chance to succeed.

It’s the responsibility of senior leadership to change this, recognizing that even if we get everything right, ugly incidents will still occur in a district of 105,000 kids. It’s also vitally important to understand that previous generations of education systems didn’t even ask themselves that question. Public expectations, pressures, and scrutiny have changed.

In my previous bully article, I wrote this:

I see no comprehensive fix for the human suffering contained within the word “bullying.” Today, the emerging societal expectation that one does exist poses perhaps the most vexing internal challenge for any educational organization. That’s what has made “bullying” a measurable act of administration — a nameable, countable thing…

…The human beings of our modern educational institutions are doomed to fail at managing these intense and conflicting pressures — which bear on all the other pressures society and government inflicts on them. But previous generations didn’t even try. For better or worse, that option no longer exists for the adults of our schools today.

The indifferent cameras of local TV news demand that our people do the impossible with perfection. That’s never going to happen. It didn’t happen in my time. It won’t happen in 20 years.

But that does not mean we’re not obligated to attempt the impossible as best we can. The very act of trying, really trying, can save experiences and lives.