Noble Prizes

My original plan for this first The Real World installment was to complain. I know our new President here in the U.S. hasn’t been in office for very long, and I also understand that he’s operating under very difficult circumstances and has some very big fish to fry: the economy, health care reform, finance reform, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan...the list is long, and I don’t envy the man, though he seems up to the task. Still, I was going to complain anyway, because I was disappointed that Mr. Obama’s speech to America’s school-kids a few weeks ago wasn’t as controversial as his political opponents had feared. I was having trouble imagining that Mr. Obama would say anything especially troubling; but, I must admit, I had been musing about the stir he would have caused if he’d said something about the need to focus more on the most misunderstood kids in our schools: those with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. The kids who consume massive amounts of energy and time at school but who are rarely mentioned in the national school improvement conversation.

The new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has been disappointing along similar lines. Most of his public commentary has ignored students with behavioral challenges, too, except for an admirable call for them to be physically restrained and secluded less. Sadly, it seems to have taken the brutal murder of a high school kid in Chicago to get everyone’s attention, but Mr. Obama, Mr. Duncan, and the Attorney General, Eric Holder, were in the Windy City recently to announce new major initiatives to reduce school violence and bring alienated kids back into the fabric of schools. The President has asked for $25 million to fund this initiative, and that seems like a good start.

The problem is that the money could well be spent on the same old programs and initiatives that have failed to reach our most challenging kids. If we don't help school personnel understand challenging kids better...if we’re not solving the problems that have set the stage for these kids to become alienated in the first place...if the kids don’t come to see adults as helpers (rather than as the enemy)...then I don't have great hope that any amount of money will do the job. I wonder if the President, Mr. Duncan, or Mr. Holder has heard of Collaborative Problem Solving...how it’s been shown to be remarkably effective in reducing the use of physical, chemical, mechanical restraint and locked-door seclusion in the most difficult of settings and with the most difficult of alienated, challenging kids...and how it has a track record for dramatically reducing suspensions, detentions, and discipline referrals in schools. Even if they hadn't heard of CPS beforehand, they have now: a copy of this segment has been sent to all three, along with a certain book.

President Obama seems like the kind of man who would embrace Plan B. In the words of Joe Klein (of TIME magazine), our new President favors “diplomacy over bellicosity,” and what a breath of fresh air that is. Enough of a breath, by the way, for him to have been awarded a Nobel Prize. He also seems like the kind of man who would care deeply about the kids who continue to slip through the cracks in our schools, and who would understand the futility of current school discipline practices and zero tolerance policies. Those practices and policies didn't make a whole lot of sense for the 6-year old boy in Delaware who was suspended from school recently (and threatened with 45 days at an alternative school) for bringing his Cub Scout utility knife/fork/spoon to school...and he's not even a challenging kid. How come this is only news -- how come we only appreciate the absurdity -- when those policies and practices are applied to a well-behaved kid? Such practices make even less sense when they are zealously, vigorously, righteously, and perpetually applied to kids who are challenging! In keeping with the mission of Lives in the Balance, the folks at that Cub Scout’s school -- who I'm certain have the best of intentions -- are now aware of the CPS model, too.

I'm not in a position to award Nobel prizes. But I'd like to give "Noble Prizes" to every teacher, parent, and staff member who is using Plan B (instead of bellicosity) in their homes, schools, inpatient units, residential facilities, and prisons. You all are doing noble, admirable work in the trenches on a daily basis, usually unrecognized. Some of you – those who’ve been willing to be videotaped – can be seen (and heard) in the Voices of CPS section of this website. Keep up the good work. A lot of kids are being helped through your tireless efforts.

Ross Greene
October 13, 2009