St. Aug redefining discipline for students
Two years ago, if a student at St. Augustine High School was late for class or disruptive, the paddle was one of the potential punishments.
That was before the highly regarded all-male Catholic school was thrust into the national spotlight when the Josephite trustees and Archbishop Gregory Aymond decided it was time to end the school’s use of corporal punishment.
A year later, a student might have faced repercussions including detention or even suspension for a minor infraction.
But this year, said principal Don Boucree, the school is developing new disciplinary techniques and positive reinforcement philosophies and incorporating lessons learned in the 2011-12 school year, during which some parents complained that new punishments were too harsh or inconsistent.
With a newly appointed president and a thoughtful, thorough rewriting of the disciplinary section of the school’s handbook, Boucree said St. Aug’s transition into a new era is moving forward smoothly. There have been trials and tribulations, Boucree acknowledged. But with another batch of new students, additional teacher training combined with the welcoming of some new teachers and improved communication with the parents, Boucree said the focus at the St. Aug has returned to excellence in academics and spiritual development.
Initially after the ban, Boucree said the number of suspensions increased significantly. There also were problems with ensuring that the new punishments for infractions were uniform and fair. While the paddle had been an effective “quick fix” for minor offenses like tardiness, uniform violations and classroom disruptions, the school and community have been working to find new, consistent substitutes. They’ve also fundamentally reformed the way they talk about discipline with the students.
“The biggest piece,” Boucree said, “has been making it clear what our expectations are” and making sure students have a “clear explanation of what is acceptable and not acceptable.”
“We are raising the level of expectations,” said Dr. Karen Collins, St. Aug’s new president, the first female in the school’s 61-year history.
Following the corporal punishment dispute, the school’s last president, the Rev. John Raphael, issued a resignation letter to the St. Aug board of directors and was reassigned to his order’s headquarters in Baltimore.
Board President Troy Henry said that the search for a new president was rigorous, involving a nationwide search and three tiers of screening for the applicants who met the acceptable requirements. Henry said Collins stood out, and the board was impressed by her innovative approaches to various aspects of the school’s operations.
There were some “traditionalists,” Henry said, who expressed doubts about a female leading an all-male school.
“The underlying premise for the selection process was that we wanted the best person for the job,” he said. “The best person happened to be female.”
Henry said that there is plenty of male leadership in the school, and he hopes skeptics will judge based on results. The mission and quality of instruction at the school remains unchanged, he said.
“We all want nothing but the best,” Henry said.
Collins firmly stands behind her record of bringing success to other schools. Collins was raised in New Orleans and was principal of Francis Gaudet Elementary before Hurricane Katrina and Sarah T. Reed High School afterward.
It’s about being qualified for the job, not about being a woman, Collins said. She also noted all-female Catholic schools in New Orleans with male leaders.
With 667 students, enrollment is up about 10 percent this year, Collins said, a promising sign particularly when many Catholic schools across the nation are struggling.
In what Collins sees as a “very positive atmosphere,” the students are excited and engaged.
Collins said she and her staff are working hard to effectively communicate to the students things like why it is important not to be late, using a different “paradigm” to help the boys better understand that it is in their best interest to follow the rules.
They are taking an approach aimed at creating added motivation other than just “not getting paddled,” said Boucree, as well as increasing acknowledgement of excellent behavior.
“It really wasn’t about the paddle,” Henry said of the often heated and controversy that dominated the past several years. “It was about our ability to govern the school and not have competing interests say what is best for the school.”
Even parents who did not want the paddle supported the school, Boucree said. For many, the heart of the dispute was opposition to forces outside the school demanding change, despite a proven history of producing generations of successful young black men.
Henry said the resolution of a lawsuit against the board and ensuing court battle between the Josephites and the board “achieved the objective we were ultimately looking for — to enable the board to be a self-governing authority.”
Senior Terry Robinson Jr. said that the paddle was just one of many tools.
“Discipline was established at St. Aug without corporal punishment,” he said. “Without it, we still conduct ourselves in a proper manner.”
This year, Boucree said, there have been no suspensions. Last year at this time, he said, there had already been quite a few — noticeably more than before the ban had gone into effect. Boucree said a small number of students saw an opportunity to get away with more than they had in the past, but they now understand their behavior needs to be the same regardless of the method of discipline.
One of the biggest challenges, Boucree said, was in changing the school’s handbook in a way that went deeper than simply removing words.
“We live by the handbook,” Boucree said. “It’s our guiding force.” With the ban on corporal punishment, he said, “there wasn’t a consistent explanation of a discipline plan.”
As a result, last spring and over the summer, Boucree and other members of the faculty got together to more fundamentally change the handbook to respond to the discipline problems that emerged following the ban.
The students who are now seniors, and especially juniors, “paid a heavy price,” Boucree said, as the entire school and supporting community figured out how best to change the disciplinary philosophy. But Boucree noted that those same students also gained a strong sense of just what was expected of them — more internally and less externally.
“Discipline is not punishment,” Boucree said. That notion of self-discipline, he said, is a big part of the school’s legacy. He wants his students to know that through the decisions they make, they control their own destinies.
The experience made the bond between the students stronger, Robinson said.
“The past couple years we have become closer because of the adversity we faced,” Robinson said.
Class of 1999 alum Percy Marchand said he became involved in the movement protesting changes because he wanted to “make sure the core beliefs and values and what we stand for were not tainted in any form or fashion.”
From his own experience and that of his brothers, Marchand knows the impact the school makes on the lives of what he calls the city’s most “endangered” segment — young black males.
A march on the archdiocese offices took place in April 2011 after a weekly video address to the Catholic community in February 2011 during which Aymond unveiled a church initiative to counter street violence and murder and then shifted to the subject of St. Augustine, saying that the school’s use of corporal punishment “fits into the realm of the battle of New Orleans,” which he described as “murders, violence and racism.”
While praising the school’s accomplishments, Aymond explained his theological and psychological objections to corporal punishment, which he said institutionalizes violence and runs counter to Catholic teaching and good educational practice.
At the time, The Center for Effective Discipline had identified St. Augustine as the lone Catholic school in the country still using corporal punishment.
Aymond later apologized for any unintended suggestion that St. Augustine’s disciplinary policy is tied to crime in the city.
Henry said that the school’s focus over the past years has been “primarily internal.” While they haven’t had very much communication with the archbishop, Henry said that the board looks forward to forging a positive long-term relationship.
The archdiocese is well aware that St. Aug and its supporters are “not opposed to standing up for what they believe in,” he said.
This week, Aymond said: “St. Augustine High School has for its entire existence been an important part of our family of Catholic schools. Next week, I will be celebrating Mass with St. Augustine school students along with students from St. Mary’s Academy and Xavier Prep so we together can celebrate the traditions of each school and pray together for our future. It is time to look forward and not backwards in a spirit of collaboration and forgiveness. I believe in the young adult church and look forward to our time of prayer together.”
“No institution in the world does a better job than St. Augustine,” Marchand said. “We have a stellar reputation and cannot allow that to be ruined.”
The results speak for themselves, he said.
Father to a seventh-grader and class of 1988 alum Eric Beal Sr. said he is pleased to see the school focusing on the fundamentals of what it means to be a St. Aug student — a proud, well-disciplined and high-achieving young man. The alumni and parents are — and always were — behind the school, Beal said.