When a Chicago Public Schools teacher smells marijuana

At tomorrow’s Chicago Public Schools Board meeting, Barbara Byrd-Bennett will present revisions to the Student Code of Conduct that, according a CPS press release, “recognize that the best way to support student learning is to keep kids in school and limit out-of-school suspensions, promoting a restorative approach to keep students in the classroom.”

I’ve taught at alternative, selective-enrollment, and neighborhood high schools over the past eighteen years.  Each school approached discipline differently.  I’ve seen the Student Code of Conduct be underused so that administrators (and even teachers) ignored swearing, bullying, and disrespectful behavior.  I’ve seen the Code be overused where students could earn multiple detentions in one day: for being tardy, for being out of uniform, for swearing.  At another school, the implementation of the Code seemed to work.

I believe in strong school discipline. I do not allow disrespectful or disruptive behavior in my classroom.  I can control that.  But as a classroom teacher, I cannot control what happens schoolwide.

I also believe in restorative justice, an approach that helps students and adults reflect on bad decision making and learn from mistakes.  I also recognize how much time and personnel restorative justice takes.

Over the years, the most challenging situation I’ve faced is what to do when I sense the bitter scent of marijuana.  According to the recent CPS Student Code of Conduct, this offense of “use or possession of illegal drugs, narcotics, controlled substances, ‘look-alikes’ . . . for the purpose of intoxication in or before school” falls into Group 5 (out of 6) and can merit a five-day suspension.

So when I get that oh-so-subtle whiff when I walk by a student, I’m supposed to write him or her up so a dean or administrator can follow up.  Most times, I don’t.

If I do, I’m put into the uncomfortable situation of proving the student is high.  “How do you know?” is the question I’ll usually get in an era of administrator paranoia, an era when school administrators fear a lawsuit from a skeptical parent who will claim, “My child is being singled out.”  So here’s what I’ve done over the years.

When a student walks into our classroom and smells like he or she sprayed on maryjane cologne of perfume—that definitely merits a call for security to walk the student to the dean.  If I let a weed-scented student sit while the scent floats around students and me, I undermine my authority and disrespect students who find this behavior offensive.  I damage our sense of classroom peace.  This situation is clear cut for me, the administrator, the student, and, hopefully, the parent.

But then there was one time at one school when a student walked past me in the otherwise empty hallway.  I got the whiff.  He wasn’t my student.  I knew his face but not his name.  I had seconds to decide what to do.

“Hey, Man.  Come ‘ere,” I said to the kid.  He turned and walked towards me, his head down.  I said matter of factly, “You smell like weed.”

Armed with street smarts, the kid responded, “I smoked one of these.”  He pulled out a damaged cigarette from his pocket.

I’ve learned over the years to make situations non-debatable.  I replied, “I didn’t say you smoked weed.  I said you smell like it.  You can’t come to school like that.”

I turned and walked away.  The student, too, turned and kept walking.  I didn’t report it to the dean of students.  I didn’t even write it up.  In my mind, I did my job—I called out the student on his illegal behavior.  If other teachers allowed him to sit in the class smelling like that, that’s on them.

Honestly, I was just too busy to get involved in the convoluted follow up of reporting a student I didn’t know.  From that point on, that student and I would see each other in hallway during passing times.  We’d say, “What’s up?” to each other.  I don’t know if he ever came back high.

Another time, a student who I had seen earlier in the day was absent from an afternoon class.  “Where’s so-and-so?” I asked the class as they worked.  No response.  I suspected the student was cutting class again.  “You have his number, right?” I asked one of the missing student’s friends.  I asked to use her phone. I dialed . . . voicemail.  I left a message to let the student know I wondered where he was—something neutral and sincere.

Before I gave the student her phone back, I grabbed a Post-It Note and wrote: “Your phone smells like weed.”  I handed back the phone with the note and resumed working with students.  The student’s eyes opened wide and the students, her friends, at the table giggled.  I didn’t write her up. But she knew I knew.  At least, I hoped, that acknowledgment might prevent her from coming to class high.

My favorite line to use with students over the years is, “I’m kind—but  I’m not dumb.”

Then there was a student who struggled to find his place in an academic setting.  He got into a bad fight.  He missed school a lot.  He got kicked out of class many times.

Eventually, this student became my student.  I knew he was high many times.  But the scent was subtle, so I wouldn’t say anything.  He usually sat by himself anyway.  Little by little, he began to work in class.  I’d quietly tell him I was proud he was becoming a productive student and walk away so he didn’t feel like he had to respond.  One day I whispered, “I’d be very proud of you if you came to class without smoking weed.  If you smell a lot, I’ll have to kick you out.”

A couple of weeks passed.  He probably still smoked before class.  Then he walked in twenty minutes late to class one day, his head down.  He kept a long distance from me.  “Hi ______.  Where were you?” I asked as students worked.  He mumbled some sorry excuse.  I called him over to make our conversation more private.  He kept moving far away.  Then I saw his eyes: marbled with red lines.  I got the not-so-subtle whiff of weed.  I called him over to the door and opened it.  I motioned the security guard over and said, “He has to go.  He reeks of weed.”

“Man—Salazar!  You gonna be like dat?” the student said, disappointment in his voice.

“Yes—because this is what I told you I’d do,” I replied, walked away, and avoided turning this into a debate.  I wrote him up.  He got suspended for a few days.  When he returned, I extended my hand, smiled and said, “I’m glad you’re back.”  He didn’t look up.  But he shook my hand.

That was restorative justice—even though it included a suspension.

This student and I developed a good relationship.  One day, we even calculated how much he spent on weed each month.  I asked him, “Is that how want to spend the money you earn at work?”  He shook his head.

Principals remain under so much pressure to keep their discipline numbers low that sometimes, even if teachers write up students for “failing to abide of by school rules and regulations,” if there’s no consequence, we, as teachers, defeat ourselves.  “Nothing happens,” students start to say.

Sometimes, students need a detention or even an in-school suspension for saying “fuck you” to another student.  Sometimes, students need a detention when they rack up their 20th tardy that month—especially if the reason is “I woke up late.”  And if a student curses me out—you’d better believe I expect more than a “do you understand why that was wrong” conversation with a dean or administrator.

Unfortunately, most of the CPS leaders making decisions about how to use restorative justice don’t practice it themselves.  We’ve seen the Board and Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel make unjust decisions many times.

One of my questionable administrators over the years once challenged my push to implement detentions to address the rampant swearing by students.  “What do they learn by sitting in a room for fifteen minutes after school?” she asked.

I said, “They learn that their disrespectful behavior causes an inconvenience.”

She hesitantly let us implement after-school detentions, which under that year’s Student Code of Conduct was allowed.  My colleagues and I took turns, without pay, sitting with silent students after school.

The “fuck” and “shit” and “bitch” calling almost disappeared.  We restored a sense of peace and respect.  Students realized they had a choice, some control over their lives: swear and get a detention OR don’t swear and leave school at 2:30.

Suspensions, when used thoughtfully and not as surprising consequences, aren’t always about the student who violated the Student Code of Conduct.  Sometimes, suspensions are about the students who didn’t.

Suspensions can protect the spaces we work to create so students feel safe.  When a student does something so severe to damage that space—like threaten someone with a gang sign, like hit another student in the face with a fist, like bring alcohol to school, like tell the teacher he’s a sorry-ass bitch—the restorative justice has to be focused on restoring an environment of peace so all students can learn.  Removing a student from school for length of time consistent with the violation can help a learning environment heal.

Today's context forces principals to keep their student misconduct numbers low--their suspension numbers even lower.  Unfortunately, the restorative justice approaches the Code outlines sometimes makes us, in the eyes of students, look kind--and dumb.

No matter what Student Code of Conduct changes the Board surely approves tomorrow, good teachers and good administrators will continue to do what we’ve always done: focus on building strong professional relationships with students.

If the mayor, Byrd-Bennett, and Board members built stronger relationships with principals, teachers, students, and parents, we would not have so many debates about effective school discipline.

What do you think 21st century school discipline should look like?

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