Public shaming has a Victorian feel to it. But the notion of using peer-pressure embarrassment to try to compel better behavior made a bit of a comeback in a surprising place: a Seattle public middle school.
Last week, on the wall of the cafeteria at Washington Middle School, administrators projected a large yellow slide on a screen, titled “Detention Today.” Displayed below, for the school of 660 students, were the names of the seven middle-schoolers on the docket to be punished that day.
A parent sent me a photo of this dishonor society list, snapped on a cellphone by a seventh-grader. I can’t share the photo with you, because … well, because The Seattle Times tries not to be in the business of shaming or embarrassing kids.
So why would a public middle school do it?
“It felt like it was up there to humiliate,” one eighth-grader said.
A group of students and parents protested the list at this past week’s Seattle School Board meeting.
“This is not educating the ‘whole child,’” said parent Andrea Radosevich, using the school district’s jargon that indicates the emotional development of kids is just as important as academics. “It is public shaming, and it is wrong.”
“I guess it’s possible the kids don’t care that much” about having their names up in lights, speculated another parent, Sue McLaughlin. “But shaming is not something personally that I think would be very effective.”
Right. It kind of went out with the dunce cap.
Still, it’s fashionable in some schools around the country, particularly charter schools, to have “accountability walls.” These are spots in the school where everything from a student’s grades to test scores to discipline records can be listed for peers to see.
The stated premise is to build a school culture in which everybody is answerable to everyone else. Some of those charter schools also have strong records of academic achievement, including with the traditionally most-difficult to reach students.
“That is part of our culture — not having kids getting away with just not trying,” the CEO of one the most accomplished charter schools, Success Academy, told The New York Times about its “no excuses” discipline policies.
But even some of those get-tough schools have begun to back away from their most shame-inducing tactics — such as having misbehaving kids wear different-colored shirts, or forcing them to stand for a full class period when they didn’t do their homework.
The reason is that shaming can lead to more defensiveness or self-loathing on the part of the shamed. In the best case, kids conclude, “I never want to see my name on that detention list again,” and are motivated to improve. But other times it’s more like, “Everybody here thinks I’m a loser, so what’s the point?”
A former Seattle School Board member said detention lists may even violate district policies here that are designed to protect students from being marginalized.
“No, this is not typical behavior for Seattle Public Schools. I was appalled to hear of it,” said Sue Peters, who was president of the board in 2017.
After this column was published online Friday, the principal of Washington Middle School, Emily Butler Ginolfi, wrote to apologize for the detention list, and any harm caused by it.
It “doesn’t reflect the core values of Washington Middle School and the district,” she wrote in an email. “Schools need to be safe and supportive. I will continue to work with staff, students, and families to make good on this promise, and rebuild the trust of the school community.”
So I guess that’s the end of that, hopefully. Still, it’s surprising to me that educators wouldn’t first ponder the negative atmosphere created by such a list, before displaying it on the cafeteria wall.
Detention isn’t the most embarrassing thing in the world. But my kids went to Washington Middle School, and while it was far from perfect, its greatest quality, always, was an infectious, positive, multi-hued community spirit.
The school’s disciplinarian back then, the great Jeannette Jones, who died in December, was so strict even parents could be scared of her. But she somehow punished with compassion — with patience and a firm understanding of how getting in trouble had the potential to follow kids “for the rest of their lives.” That’s according to an outstanding recounting in this newspaper of the transforming effect “Mrs. Jones,” as we all called her, ended up having on thousands of Seattle kids.
No matter what the arguments for shaming, it’s sure hard to see how it could be any match for that.