Does it matter how we “fix” kids, as long as they get “fixed” ?

Readers, here is an article written by a 19-year-old who describes his feelings about 2 different ways of bringing control and a sense of respect into one that was previously “out of control”- Read this carefully and then I will follow with my feelings, having done both with the same success rate, but with a very different looking-glass I see! Please read.

toughlove There is an age-old debate when it comes to schooling and parenting. Should we discipline children by enforcing punishment and obedience, or raise them through respect and understanding? I am about to share how one principal walks the first path, while another embraced the second. Our first principal is Dave Derpak. He took over Killarney Secondary School in Vancouver, Canada, in the summer of 2010. Vandalism, false fire alarms, locker break-ins and drug deals were common before his arrival. However, as of 2013, suspensions and absenteeism are down 30 percent, late arrivals dropped by 39 percent, the graffiti is gone and the prank fire alarms have all but stopped. Many are crediting Derpak for the betterment of the school, but how did he accomplish such a feat? In an article on The Globe and, Derpak explained:

The students have to feel like you’re always watching. You have to play on the kids’ emotions. If you bring order to a place of chaos, my theory is, the rest will follow.”

 Each day, Derpak and his two vice-principals scoured the hallways, keeping in touch via walkie-talkies and developing code names for different parts of the school. Surveillance cameras were installed throughout the school. Derpak gained the support of students by buying sweatshirts for the girls’ hockey team and offering $500 to anybody who pointed out rule-breakers. One local school-board member commented, “He knows those kids. He knows their stories. He knows what they’re doing this weekend.”

Whether or not you agree with Derpak’s methods, let us look at our second principal, Jim Sporleder. His school, Lincoln High, was much like Killarney Secondary. In fact, one can argue it was worse. While Killarney is the largest secondary school in Vancouver, Lincoln High School is an alternative school where many of the students have come from places where they had been expelled. Gangs controlled the building, and many of the students have suffered from emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Despite these odds, Sporleder and his staff achieved an 85% drop in suspension rates, while cutting expulsions and written referrals by half. What may come as a surprise to most, is that Sporleder did not need cameras, bribery, sedatives, policemen, or SWAT team tactics. No, his methods are quite the opposite. Sporleder’s approach can be gauged through the following scenario. A student dropped the F-bomb towards a teacher and was sent to Sporleder for discipline. The kid had his defences ready for the usual, “How could you do that? What’s wrong with you?” and the boot out of school. Instead, what the teen received was kindness. “Wow. Are you OK? What’s going on? This doesn’t sound like you,” Jim Sporleder said. The teen’s calloused demeanour dropped, where he admitted his aggression stemmed from his alcoholic father’s broken promises. After he got a minor consequen(or punishment, depending on how you define the two words) befitting his menial ‘crime,’ the student apologized to his teacher on his own, without prompting from Sporleder. How often does a troubled student apologize without being forced to, and actually mean it? I believe it’s when they are helped to understand where their ce hostility stems from. “It sounds simple,” says Sporleder about his approach. “Just by asking kids what’s going on with them, they just started talking.” In the end, both principals achieved their goals. Derpak got his quiet school through fear and punishment, while Jim Sporleder got there with patience and communication. Many say that it doesn’t matter how an authority figure attains his or her goals, so long as the ends justify the means. In my opinion, the disparity between Dave Derpak and Jim Sporleder makes all the difference. One school has a totalitarian atmosphere where students feel like they’re potential criminals, while the other gives youth the trusting relationships that many of them never had. If all adults treated kids the way Sporleder does, perhaps many children wouldn’t rebel, because they would have nothing to rebel against. Unfortunately, that is not the way of our world. The words below come from one of Dave Derpak’s supporters, and they echo the sentiments held by most citizens:

“Whatever pyschobabbler invented the terms ‘self-esteem’, ‘student lead parent interviews’, ‘fuzzy math’, touchy-feely, rubrics not grades et al wouldn’t last a day in this school. Tough love does tame a blackboard jungle. It is so inspiring to see a principal willing to throw out all of the worst education fads. They must come to the realization that our young people should be disciplined in just this manner. Tough but fair. Its the only way to get a handle on the problems that were plaguing the school. Kudos to all principals who are enlightened enough to set aside all the (teacher union and school board) claptrap so these kids will stand a solid chance of landing a good education. Then they can move on to greater and better things in their lives.”

At the risk of sounding like a “pyschobabbler,” I disagree completely. Zero-tolerance is the opposite of fairness and no study has shown that a “might makes right” approach improves education. “Tough love” is for those who choose punishment over discipline because they’re too lazy or ignorant to explain anything. If all schools were run on empathy, kids might actually want to attend classes. Until then, I wish for schools worldwide to practice Sporleder’s approach, if only for a month. Luke Dang, 19, was expelled from school when he was 14. He now spends his time writing about youth rights, teenage depression, and compulsory schooling. He works at

So there it is, straight from the mouth of a 19-year-old.

The two sides of how two men run their shows when it comes to alternative schooling. First off  does it even matter what a teenager thinks? I think it not only matters, but is really the answer we all have been searching for, if I am correct. We want to unveil the secrets of how these kids think, yet they are typically the last ones we consult! Ok now on to the article at hand.

I like to keep my responses or writings in general on point and stay on track , and I will attempt to do so here. First off I think that results in these 2 scenarios are useless. If we are looking to find the man who can get the human to perform the way we want for the duration of high school, then in my opinion it is a pointless goal. I always went into every situation as if I was going to change a life. I always did. I am not proud of this fact though because in my early years I was the potter and kids were my clay. I got them molded into my way of looking , acting, talking, or whatever the goal was and many times under my conditions, under my guidelines and with privileges tied to my strings I was successful.

I tried very hard and meant well, but failed to keep in mind the “rest of the world” that the kids would be facing when I was not pulling the strings, and the mean world, that does not have a pill and a counselor that pop out on every corner. The result was that the kids would leave my foster home or alternative school or program with a solid foundation of social skills and maybe even a sense of right and wrong to some extent. However in some situations they faced down the road of life, they got slapped very hard by the brutal reality of a cruel and apathetic world, which they were protected from to some extent.

Some ended up looking around for a counselor or person to guide them on their every move. The clinical aspect of some projects I was involved in was almost enshrined and given a position that made it almost impossible for the kids to function without in the real world without. No question that either way, all of the kids any of us served ended up with something they probably did not have when they came. They often came from the streets, gangs, broken homes, all of the above or whatever. Any skill set or tools they could attain would put them one step ahead of the kids they were around before.

However now I have had years to look back, and even still talk to some of the kids who lived in my group home 20 years ago.  I strongly feel a good service was done to them by pulling them out of abusive or abandoned situations. I never question that teaching them extensively how to use and understand social skills like Following Instructions . There are patterns that I see in my next 20 years of working with at risk children and their families, that evolved into more clearly directed and reality based thinking. Patterns that I learned and applied on the run as I found my way around the social worker and counselor’s pathway in the field of mental health. Many and dare I even say most of my most productive lessons that have produced fruit over the years came from a teenager I worked with. I am not discouraging higher education by any means, but as a parent and having lived more than half of my life in the mental health circles I must say my heart bleeds now a little thicker  that I have watched my own family suffer, and lived in the same places that some of the teens I worked with lived. I have known the pains of suicide in a family, and have shared in the terrible dark place of addiction with many people I love. Things change.

How this relates to the article about the two administrators is that since I have been also in the identical place they are, with the same challenges they have, I see from a unique perspective. I learn things everyday, and I do not think anyone has all of the answers. I do however firmly believe that just as I may be but a student in one field, I also may have become an “expert” in another. By expert, if you are checking my article for typos I think you may be on a different page than some of us are. I aim to please nobody, but to serve everyone in some small way and my idea of an expert is simply someone I know that has the truth about a certain situation.

This brings me a step closer to the main point and my take on the two schools. I have learned something very powerful in this world. You become much like those you spend time with. You lower the morality bar when needed, and raise it high and proud when called for, but to those we desire to be around, we will become almost anybody! The hard lesson I have learned by this truth  surfaced when I came to realize I was a pleaser. After spending a few years in shock about that, I came around to gain a valuable tool. I learned that I needed to find people who I liked and admired, and try to get as much time with them as I could! Then I might become one of them.

A person who had abandoned the temporary security of a job, or money, or pleasing all of the people all of the time, and embraced the idea of being who you are, learning all that you could learn from the people who had conquered the challenges I faced. Using the gifts you were given not the ones you wished you had. You see, jobs come and go, people come and go, money comes and goes, but the truth will always be truth. Going to bed with a clear mind and a content heart also beats laying down worrying how to be someone you are not, and how to please all the people. In some way, this all leads back to another topic, maybe not discussed as much, perhaps much more important though. That subject, is motives. Motives tell everything and leave nothing uncovered. They are the success of some and the doom for others.

This article was written by a 19-year-old. I have never met him but can safely assume from his age bracket alone that he will probably be likely to stand up for what he thinks is right and wrong. I remember when my boys were young, around 5 or 6 years old. They were so very impressionable. So trusting. If I said that the sun would leap over the giant giraffe at the zoo that night, the look in their eyes was never one of doubt, never debating in their mind as to whether I was lying or not. They trusted me. They would ask me questions like “will it hurt the giraffe?” and things that showed me they had no doubt in my word. It was good.

The other day I was talking to my youngest son Jesse about a bull riding competition he was getting ready for. For you with dropping jaws right now, the answer is yes I do let him  ride 1500 and 1800lb bulls to see how long until he gets bucked off or until he rides it out the full 8 seconds. When people ask me the”how could you let him question” on a Friday night, I usually respond with a “where is Johnny tonite” and we change topics. They do not always know where their children are, but they think I am nuts for having mine on dirt bikes at 4&6 and now bulls.

I rarely let it get to me, but if for even a milli- second I doubted myself for supporting him since age 10 doing this, one glance over at his eyes and I am fine. He is so memorized by those animals, so focused on getting the biggest baddest and meanest bull and riding it out. I know that he truly loves what he is doing. Because he loves it, he studies those that are older than him, that ride for the big buckles and in the big arenas. He has studied the safety and risk, the benefits and potential problems, and then over years, he has now decided to pursue it as a career (with a plan B of course) and a dream to chase. Jesse and I have ongoing joke about something that happened when he was about 10. For a long time, maybe two years or so, his brother Micah and I would be out at the store (usually somewhere Jesse wanted to go) and when we got to the check out counter and Jesse and Micah would put their items on the counter and then like clockwork there it was, that “look.” It was a certain type of innocent look that for almost 2 years Micah and I had fallen for since we were usually in a hurry. After the frozen look followed a light surprised “I lost it” and many frantic hand pats to check his pockets….”I lost my money!”

That was followed by a quick check of time and a “I got it Jess, just get in the truck” by me, and a head nod by his older brother. After 2 years or so, when Jesse was around 10, we had heard every possible excuse about where his money suddenly went, every story about how he would pay us back when we got in the car, because he was sure he left it there LOL! We let Jesse con us out of buying little 3-4 dollar items for a long time now, but this time was different. Looking back I do recall that 10 is right about when he met his first few cowboys and started going to rodeos, so it could have been that. Whatever it was this time was different and we all knew it. Jesse had his cowboy boots on and instead of delaying our trip by doing a 5 minute drama clip, he said nothing. He quietly walked to the register in front of us, put  down his items, pulled out his chain wallet (cowboy style) and paid the lady quickly and waited for us.

As we walked out into the parking lot, I ribbed him a little about finding his wallet, and he smiled but didn’t say much. We all just knew it, Jesse was growin up and there was not much more to it. From that time on he has never pulled the wallet trick. And I have seen many of those transitional moments where something important took place but you are not sure what! I allowed Jesse to do that for a long time with the wallet thing. I knew that I had already taught him what was right and wrong, and some would say I should have stopped it long before. I did not want to force his honesty. I was not on a power trip or an authority ride either. I was just a dad waiting to see if any of what I had sown in to the boy was going to bear fruit on its own or would I have to force the truth out of him. I was never the perfect dad, but an honest one. When I made mistakes, big or small I would come clean and do what I could to correct my wrong. I think my boys respected that. There was always a line, don’t get me wrong. Jesse and Micah did their fair share of testing my lines! However I have usually found that at the end of the day I am happy-that I let them make their own choices. Sure it was freedom within limits, and there were always things that were deal breakers no matter what the excuse. It was just nice to know that Jesse knew what was right, and at the right time, his true motives had to come out and that attempt at testing me had to go. Had I not let him have it his way for a while he would have never experienced the feeling everyone gets when they know they are not doing the right thing, but continue anyhow. Sometimes it is better to tell the truth and even if you end up on the wrong side of the story, people will usually respect you more for it. It also makes you human, shows that you are vulnerable , life can be tough, and even your messes can turn into messages for young kids and your failed efforts may be what a struggling teenager needs to hear at the moment in order to keep on trucking in their own situation.

In this situation as I see it, we have a thirst for power needing to be quenched no matter the cost to the child on the one side. I have said it once and maybe 1000 times if ever once, loved people love people and hurt people hurt people. You do not need to be Columbo to figure out why some people are doing the things they are. We all know about the high school football coach still working through some high school issues, acting all tough and making threats every time he can. We have all seen examples of what verbal or physical abuse does to people.Throughout my career and my life in general, I have become pretty good at identifying why people do what they do. I have met police officers who would give their lives to save another life, and I have met officers who could not wait for the moment to exercise their right to pull a gun on someone or thow them in jail. I have met the same nasty motives in every kind of person of any profession. I have seen the purest of motives very clearly, through the humility in a persons daily routine.

So if you ask me do I believe in discipline, I would prefer consequences that are natural and logical. If you ask if medicine is ok I would say if the child needs it. How about the psychobabble mentioned earlier? Well I think it is hard for a 25-year-old with no kids to advise on anything to do with  children , but sometimes a good long walk with a person who has faced similar challenges as you and beat them might be even better. What about the violent gang kids and all, they just need a good old-fashioned  whoopin, right? Probably not, but it might make the adult feel better to see it!

One time, on a project I was working on in Central Florida, I had just hired and trained a staff of about 30 teachers, 10 therapists, 10 assistants, and maybe 10 others to work with the most “violent and aggressive” teens in the state I was told. After a stack of files a few feet thick  full of labels and diagnoses as well offenses each child had committed was placed on the conference table, I was asked by one of the highest ranking officials in the state if I could have them all read before week’s end. I glanced up at the man, and said ” I prefer not to read these unless I have to sir. He leaned over the table and whispered to me, ” these are not children here for telling lies, I would strongly recommend you become familiar with their behavioral patterns.” I said “thank you sir but I prefer they get to know mine”.

I will spare you the details, but I had just taken on the biggest challenge of my career, written a specific behavioral program based on reinforcing the positive,  where students could earn the right to see the principal by being good, not by being bad. I had just convinced all 45 staff that we would be using mostly positive comments to the students  about 10 positive to each 1 negative and also we would treat each child with the utmost respect. I had just finished a comprehensive motivation system that went against every one I had seen, it commanded respect for students while asking staff to keep all comments positive. I wrote in the program different levels of positive behavior that could EARN the kids a lunch with the principal! People thought I was nuts. As a matter of fact I had myself evaluated before implementing this! LOL!

I had a hunch. Just a hunch, that if we showed true respect and trust in these kids, and modeled for them the skill expectations, and rewarded them if they did so by getting some one on one time with me or other staff, we would see change and quick. I believed based on my experience that kids wanted the attention of any adult so badly that they would do very bad things to get a little time with anyone for a variety of reasons. On the day of orientation, my staff all stood in the corner while the six-foot something 10th graders walked by! I had to remind them that they were in charge here. It was great fun though it was a test for many, myself included. Just a hunch, I had just a hunch but I believed in it so much that it became something tangible to me and then to others. Could we take the kids, expelled from public schools, expelled then from day programs, some that we saw on the news every now and again, and make them respect us? Only if we showed them how respect tasted.

A 16-year-old boy came in (most came to orientation without parents) and he was scarred up, ink all over, and I decided to show him around. Half way through the tour, he saw pictures and plants and a well waxed floor, but no time out or restraining rooms. He asked me where all those places were. I told him that we do not have them here because we do not use them here. He stopped in his tracks as the idea sunk in then began to walk with me again, and said one sentence “Oh, so we just can’t act out here” If I yelled any louder I would have scared the boy to death! I was yelling, and telling and calling for my staff to hear what this boy just said! He got it ! He understood! The expectation was there, and it was met with a casual but amazingly powerful response!Next I wanted to really make the kids wonder. Next we showed them a nice large computer lab. Plenty for all to use, but that was not what they were thinking on that first night at orientation. The very last thing they expected for kids with their history was for anyone to trust them with anything again. We took them by surprise and assigned a computer to each one. It was a silent moment with a room full of teenagers who could not figure this out. It was easy for me, and a great investment in their lives. Maybe a chance for them to witness unconditional love, trust and respect at a time when they deserved it the very least. Have you ever felt that from anyone that you have let down? It’s an awesome feeling, a second chance on the 81st try, a new light in the dark tunnel of life. That night, on the first interaction between staff and student, I watched and breathed a sigh of relief. It was going to work. I was going to get to witness a little magic and the only price we would have to pay was giving some respect to those who did not feel they deserved it, and some trust to those who thought they had lost all rights to being trusted years ago.

Just respect and trust. It came down to those two critical components to make a huge group of failures begin to feel like winners. The kids who were so very disrespectful all the years before, were now being treated as if it all never happened.

We had 90 kids and about 85% success rate. The school district superintendent called us Stonehenge, he did not understand how it worked, but saw that it did. I was even nominated for school district administrator of the year my first year! Kids were returning to their schools using words like “yes sir” and “thank you”. Amazing job my staff did and those kids did as well. It took everyone but it worked.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Even if you have 50 links, they have to all give what they can.

Shortly after our first year I noticed the company I worked with to do this project was asking lots of questions about what we did, and suddenly wanted my written plan and numbers of students transitioning back to their zoned schools and all these details. I did not mind that part, but there was something missing. They were not happy for the kids, and the way they had turned themselves around. As a matter of fact they seemed disturbed.

It was just a few days later when I became disturbed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew what I was doing was right. The district was all over it, nothing but rave reviews from parents and everyone. Everyone, except the people in south Florida in the accounting department. They were losing money to the tune of 18 thousand dollars per year for each child we sent back to their zoned school. You know I was going to finish that story, but just cannot let what was a very sweet victory for those kids go out on a downer here. The point I really need to emphasize here, is that it is possible to take the kids with the worst background on paper you may have ever seen, and using a few simple tools begin to give them new hope.

It has been done and will be done over and over again, providing that every staff member is on board with the theory. That the staff know it may mean total humiliation on their part to make a point to a hardened heart. It would mean even if they did not understand the vision, they trusted the leader. Staff that could get to watch miracles happen, so long as they were ok with getting their “hands dirty”so to speak. When it comes right down to it, we end up back at motives again.

People in the human services profession in general should never choose that option if there may be an issue with why they are doing the job. Policeman, teachers, therapists, and many other positions of authority are unusually affected if they have impure motives. The teachers that steal a child’s trust away by committing an inappropriate act, the policeman who has power/ego problems. They are everywhere. In every profession there are the true and the counterfeit. Try to find the ones who make it obvious they will do whatever it takes to change a life. Look for the ones with the glimmer in their eye when you even talk about what good may come out of this. Identify the rare trait of humility, the guys who do not have an ” I love me wall” in their office. Humility can easily copied, but never duplicated. The less people talk about themselves the more I want to know. If people are too busy patting themselves on the shoulder, what makes you think they will make time for you to have the one left? I do not really know the two men that are running these 2 schools. I have never met them. I would be interested in seeing some of the fruit of their labors. More importantly, and my final answer, is that there is respect and trust shown, and that lives are being changed. Lives, not temporary behavioral modifications. Thats not hard at all. What trumps all other victories, is when you see that the child you have invested in is now investing that into someone else. if you have a goal to “get them through” high school, I think its unfair to the student. If you have a goal to teach them life skills and how to use them in everyday living, then you can actually begin to teach kids. After all, that is why we came, is it not? To teach things? Teach the unteachable to learn, 

and teach him to give and you will have invested in a life. Help a student learn to take orders to get through a certain period in their life is not building a foundation for them. It is just a way of passing time. I still talk to many of the kids who were teens when I met them and it is always the greatest compliment when someone says that something I did changed their life. I do not hear it often, but I never forget when I do. We all make mistakes along the journey. Never let fear stop you from trying something that may turn out very good for others…after all, you would never really know unless you gave it a shot, would you?

If I had to pick based on the little I know of these two schools, I would say No to the power team, and a maybe to the other. If I were to guess who had the appropriate motives, I would say the school who has the therapist on every corner. That may come back to bite when the child hits the real world, but it seems like the hearts are good. What I would really need to know who is going to succeed on either side, is to see what both schools have incorporated into the lives of the kids AFTER they are out of school. What stays and pays dividends? You ask me, I say respect and trust must be given to be earned with these kids. I think given the right scenario anyone can change a life for 3-4 years. How many can change one forever during the 3-4 years? I want to see those kids paying for their stuff at the store because it is the right thing to do, not because they had to when at a certain school. My Jesse, and thousands of other kids I have been worked around did it! They were taught how, given the trust to know when to make a change, and made the change on their own. I hope other kids get that same chance in their educational career. Loved people love people. Hurt people should not be running children’s lives. Just my two cents.