[Editor's note: In April, I posted a story about how Lincoln High School reduced its suspensions 85% by using a new method of school discipline. So many people were intrigued by how Lincoln High works that we thought you might be interested in these essays by Lincoln's staff and students.]
By Jim Sporleder
Principal, Lincoln High School
How do we create an environment that allows students with high toxic stress the same opportunity to learn and grow as students that aren’t experiencing difficult times in their lives?
This challenge required us to look at our interaction with overtly angry students and their discipline through a different lens. To accomplish this shift in thinking, each of us had to learn that when a student who is stressed to the max explodes in class or at us, that behavior isn’t about us. When we were able to do that, we had the freedom and the focus to be able to reach out and identify the cause of the behavior.
This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice. It takes time. And sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Students who are living with toxic stress don’t trust adults or authority figures. We have to gain their trust through building a caring adult relationship with them.
Here’s an example.
Last Fall, toward the beginning of the school year, school resource officer Kevin Braman, intervention specialist Brooke Bouchey and I were standing in front of the school in the morning to greet students as they arrive. This is something we try to do every morning. At the end of the school day, we stand outside and tell them goodbye. Both times provide us an opportunity to do a quick check of how each student is doing.
“Good morning, Samantha (not her real name),” I said. “How are you doing?” Samantha was a new transfer. We knew that she was doing a lot of drugs, out on the streets late at night, and that she had a background of severe abuse, neglect and abandonment.
“You tell Mary that she better keep her mouth shut or I’m going to smash her face,” she snarled. It was a normal response. Nevertheless, I called her into my
office to see if I could get to the root of her anger. I let her know that I appreciated that she hadn’t hit anyone because it would crush me if we had to have her arrested — a positive approach of letting her know what my expectations are in regards to school safety. Sullen and quite, she simmered while she listened and left without saying anything.
As the school year progressed, we stayed consistent with our greetings and she stayed consistent with her threats and her anger. Eventually, I was confident that she would not carry out her threats, but I kept telling her that I really appreciated her not doing anything that would get her arrested.
This April, after spring break, we noticed a change. Her anger was gone. One morning she told us: “I feel a lot better on the inside. I care about people more and I don’t have the anger that I used to have. I’ve quit taking drugs, and I ride my long board (skateboard).”
I asked about her interest in skateboarding, and she said that it was a positive way that she could stay busy to stay off drugs, to stay healthy, and it was an activity that she could enjoy between the time school let out and when she had to go home.
One day, when we were talking, she told me that she felt that she had changed since arriving at Lincoln.
“How do you feel you’re changing?” I asked. She said that she was working harder in her classes because she knew that the teachers really cared about her. She was very proud of herself for quitting drugs. And she said that she wanted to work on being a better person. “Sporleder,” she said, “I love this school. It has really helped me a lot.”
A new world opened unexpectedly to her when she joined the school choir. The Lincoln music teacher Margaret Yount and our after-school site director Jeremy Gradwhal arranged for the school choir to work with the choir from the Park Plaza Retirement Community on a joint concert. The youngest senior citizen from the Park Plaza choir is 85 years old.
What transpired was nothing short of a miracle. The two groups became one. The senior choir was all over the cooks at the retirement center to make sure there were cookies made for the kids when they arrived for practice. Samantha loved being with the seniors and the friendships that she made.
The concert was held the first week of June at the China Pavilion at the Walla Walla Community College Theatre. It performed to a full house. The senior choir sang four songs of traditional Christian hymns. The Lincoln students sang four songs of contemporary rock. The two choirs sang the last four songs together. The songs were a mix of contemporary music, a stretch for both groups. The following Monday, I saw Samantha in the lunchroom eating a sandwich. I sat down and told her what a blessing it was for me to see how much she had grown as a person and how proud I was of her.
I told her that she was a blessing in my life and thanked her for the incredible growth that she was showing all of us. Before I could walk away, she said, “Sporleder, there’s one more thing that I am really working hard at: I want to become kinder to others.” I assured her that she was well on her way to achieving that goal.
We’re in summer school now, and Samantha shows up every day. A few days ago, she came by my office and asked to talk. As she sat down at the small table in my office, I said, “Do you realize that your scowl is gone? I can just look at your face and see the difference in your life from the beginning of the year to now.”
“I want to tell you something,” she said. “This weekend, I called my dad in Seattle and told him that I forgave him for all of the horrible things that he did to me.”
“How were you able to dig that deep and be that forgiving?” I asked.
I will remember her words until the day I die. “Sporleder, I have realized that I have to forgive my past so that I can move to the future. My heart feels like it has grown inside and I can’t explain how good it felt for me to forgive and for me to look forward.”
For seven months, it was tough communicating and interacting with Samantha. She was so angry that every word out of her mouth was negative and accompanied by a scowl. But perseverance, compassion, acknowledgement, and connecting finally melted the barrier. She’s able to see that her empowerment comes from within, and she acknowledges the love and support she feels from the Lincoln staff. It was our ability to not take her negative attitude personally, to use every opportunity to connect and to build a caring relationship with her that helped her trust us enough to relax, open, learn and blossom.