Note: I have been changing the names of all Saint Paul Public Schools officials so far. I’m adding real names to the story now. The actions that took place as part of this story need to be attached to real school officials, who are agents of a system that needs to be held accountable. For while “the system” – the Saint Paul Public School system and the compulsory education system as a whole – are the overarching problem, people are responsible for what they do, even if it’s the “policy” of the organization they serve. But I have little idea where I stand, legally, on this.
Truth is an absolute defense.
It was February 7, 2006.
My journey – which had started in 1990 as a proponent and supporter of public education, the son of a teacher and grandson of two more – was about to turn a half circle, never to return.
My son Zam had a bunch of behavioral problems, mostly in the middle of grade school, mostly caused by acting out after his mother and I divorced. Divorce is almost always a nasty whack in the head, and kids react differently. And of course, like a lot of boys, Zam was not one to sit in a chair and raise his hand and march on cue. As I noted in the last installment, Zam was a challenge for everyone.
But by seventh grade, even though he still wasn’t much for sitting in his desk and doing what he was told to do when he was told to do it, his behavior was pretty good. He was attending Ramsey Junior High, reputed to be one of St. Paul’s “better” junior high schools.
Which didn’t mean he ever caught a break. One day, he found a pair of scissors on the sidewalk. He brought them to school – and when he told a teacher, he got suspended for another “weapons violation”. Note that the scissors were exactly the same as the ones used in the school’s Art Room, and indeed may have been originally taken from there! No matter. A second “weapons violation”, another
three day holiday suspension.
It was policy.
And one day when another kid tackled him in the lunch room – even though every witness, including some teachers – said he didn’t hit back, he got suspended, too. “He has a history of behavioral problems” said the various assistant principals.
And what did they say?
So he sat out his suspensions (which seems to be the only “punishment” in the school vocabulary these days; they “punish” behavior by making kids stay home. Someone’s unclear on the concept, and I don’t think it’s just me…), learned his lessons, and basically endured. I kinda admired him, in a way.
One chilly February morning, Joseph Heller reared his surrealistic head.
It was February 7. I’d overslept, and Zam missed his bus. No big matter – his school was on my way to work. We got to school a minute or two late, and raced in the door as the bell was going off. I accompanied Zam to the office to sign him in.
Mr. Bruce Vaagenes – a spare, very Scandinavian-looking man who is either the only secondary Assistant Principal in Saint Paul who doesn’t have a PhD in education, or is at least the only one that doesn’t demand to be called “Doctor” – met me at the door. After having two children attend Ramsey (daughter Bun had spent two years there), I knew Vaagenes to be a thoroughly fair, professional school administrator.
“Glad you’re here, Mister Berg. We have a bit of a situation, here”.
(Note: When anyone that isn’t a nuclear weapons officer, the safety officer at a nuclear power plant, or a transplant surgeon says “we have a situation”, what it means is that something really trivial has happened, but that they are forced, via policy or a sense of personal drama, to give it additional significance. Pardon the digression).
Mr. Vaagenes told me that Zam’s homeroom teacher, whom we’ll call “Mr. Keppler”, had asked another child – let’s call him “Nate”, a long-time friend of Zam’s – where Zam was.
Nate answered “he’s up in North Dakota! He’s getting a sniper rifle! He’s going to shoot Mr. [another teacher]!”
He was a little boy, in a goofy mood, running off at the mouth.
I affected a smile as I tried to will my stomach not to curdle into an icy ball. “Well, clearly the situation is resolved! Zam is here, not in North Dakota! And there is no sniper rifle, here, there or anywhere!”
I mean, those were the facts. Right?
Mr. Vaagenes shook his head, gravely. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. We have to treat every incident like it’s the real thing”
Let’s stop for a moment here.
This was not the first time I’d heard “it’s policy” given to excuse actions that seemed, to anyone who’s ever dealt with kids, counterintuitive and absurd to the point of moronic. The Saint Paul schools seemed, to me, to handle every disciplinary or behavioral problem in the following procedure:
- Talk with the kid for the first “offense” (as long as no physical contact or “weapons” are involved)
- Give a three day
vacation at home!“Suspension”.
Even though every kid knew that a “suspension” was a three day break, no matter how hard the parents tried to crack down on the kid, “policy” forbade taking any more creative, or even useful, approach. Ever.
“It’s policy” is a bureaucrat’s way of saying “I don’t want to think, and the rules say I don’t have to!”
So – even though we had positive proof that Nate’s story was balderdash, that Zam was in school, that there was no basis in any sort of fact, it was “policy” that the following travesty, comedy, farce had to unfold.
I called my boss and told her I had “a situation”, and sat with Zam and Nate in a back office. The boys were joking, joshing around, as boys will often do when faced with the absurd.
Mr. Vaagenes came into the office with two blank sheets of paper. “I want you boys to write down what happened”.
The boys took pencils and started writing.
I’m going to digress again for a moment, here.
I know I have some attorneys who read this blog on occasion. Some of them work in criminal law. The know that I should not have allowed my son, or Nate for that matter, to start writing anything.
But as it happens, I am not a lawyer. In the school system I grew up in, a parent didn’t need to be a lawyer, because problems just got handled. Not always well, of course; I don’t pine for the days when teachers kept paddles in their rooms, and used them.
But teachers and principals back then knew two things; that they were free to apply common sense to their problems, and that they had to have some respect for the parents they dealt with – even the non-lawyers – because at the end of the day it was the parents who they had to answer to.
So for example, 30 years ago when a boy made up a cock-and-bull story about another boy that was plainly, comically false, it’d earn the storyteller a stern talking-to, and maybe a detention.
Today, it’s changed. If I can give a bit of advice to any parent out there who is thinking of sending his/her kids to the public schools, it’d be
RUN AWAY! RUN FAR AWAY AND KEEP THEM AWAY! “Be a lawyer. Document every damn thing that happens. Learn the rules and the administrivia and the endless reams of bureaucracy and procedures and policies – because if you don’t, the system will use them to bury you. Your ignorance of how to be a damned lawyer will be held against you”.
Things have changed. Very, very much for the worse.
I heard any number of teachers who’ve heard the story blame “Columbine”. “We have to take these things seriously now!”, one teacher acquaintance insisted.
It’s rubbish. By responsing to with stiff-necked, unthinking reaction rather than thought, reason and common sense, all one teaches students is that authority is stupid. By responding to every “situation” with no risk whatsoever of becoming “Columbine” as if it were in fact a deadly threat, students learn lessons about the stupidity of bureaucracy that may indeed be valuable lessons later in life, but really don’t do much for “education”.
One responded “but there are just too many kids in schools these days to put that much thought into every time one of these cases comes up” – a statement that writes its own response. Schools must be smaller.
But I digress.
It was after the boys finished writing that Mr. Vaagenes told me that ”Policy” required him next to call the “School Service Officer” – a cop – over from Central High School.
I could feel my face forming into a red wedge of rage.
“What? You mean this “statement” is going to be used, legally? Shouldn’t you have told me this?
Apparently “policy” didn’t require him to tell me, or the boys, this little nugget of info.
“I want to see it now!”
Mr. Vaagenes showed me Zam’s “statement”. Zam was clearly confused by the whole thing; he’d written a page about him and Nate discussing writing a comic strip about a sniper – or that’s how far I got before Mr. Vaagenes took the page back.
I turned to Zam. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but make sure you don’t say anything to anyone if I’m not right there with you. OK?” I dug into the “comic strip” story – he and Nate had discussed, outside of school hours, at my house one evening, writing a comic about a sniper, but – and this was important – Zam had nixed the idea, because he figured it could get him in trouble.
After years of getting into impulsive trouble, Zam had learned his damned lesson!
In other words, he did the right thing. He had done exactly what his mom and I and any number of teachers told him to do when tempted to do anything ambiguous enough to violate a “policy” - he and Nate agreed it wasn’t a good idea, and they didn’t draw the comic!
“Look, Zam”, I said, panic welling in my stomach, “this is serious. Did you ever talk, even as a joke, about shooting a teacher?”
“No”, Zam replied.
I got him straight on the particulars of the story, and the absolute imperative to not talk to anyone if I wasn’t there.
The cop showed up about fifteen minutes later. “I’m going to have to take the boys down to booking, where they’ll be charged with Making a Terroristic Threat. If you have no questions, we’ll need to head downtown”.
“Making a Terroristic Threat”.
A fanciful conversation, outside of school hours, about a comic strip that was never drawn – that ended in both boys making the right decision!
An even-more-fanciful tale told by a boy in a fit of goofiness.
How, in any universe this side of Joseph Heller, does any rational adult arrive at that conclusion?
The officer took the boys out to the patrol car. “Remember”, I told Zam. “Don’t talk to anyone if I’m not there”. He nodded.
I drove to the police station, and asked the officer at the front desk to see my son. After a few passive-aggressive minutes, he said that I couldn’t.
So I waited. And waited. It took them a solid half an hour to call me, but they finally did…
…because, it seems, Zam wouldn’t talk without me in the room.
Point for the good guys.
An officer led me into an interrogation room that made Law and Order’s 23rd Precinct interrogation room seem like a Martha Stewart project. The door rattled open, and I saw Zam sitting with a cop. Being interrogated.
Because another kid had made up a story about him.
And I whispered under my breath “Fuck the Saint Paul Public Schools.”
The thought stayed with me for a long, long time.