Saturday, May 26, 2012

Talkin with Barry

This entry is entirely too long.  I thought it important to capture the flavour of the conversation so I have included an extended transcript of the conversation.  The transcript is re-created from my memory and a few cursory notes so most of it strays from rigorous accuracy, but it does capture the main points as well as the tenor of the conversation.   

Though I couldn’t convince anyone from the Tooele School district to meet with me face to face I was treated to two long phone conversations, and they were everything I would have hoped the face-to-face meetings would be, and less. I had a lively euphemism-laced conversation with the principal of AYD’s (now former) junior high school, and while the taste of that conversation still lingered in my mouth I had the opportunity to converse with the assistant District Superintendent.

The school administration was hunkered down in anticipation of the attack that I publicly declared would rain both reasoned requests and calm conversation down on them. I started the shock-and-awe phase of my attack by calling up AYD’s school and demanding that they ask the principal if he could meet with me whenever it was convenient and that Friday would probably be a good day for me if he could fit it in. By “demanding” I mean that I told them straight up, without hesitation, that I could call back later if they were too busy to take my message right then.

I settled into my lunch with the solid feeling that I was making positive change in the world. I put on public enemy’s song: “fight the power”, and thought about the petty tyranny of small governments.

The principal apparently tried to call me right back, but the local television stations had somehow gotten my phone number, and they began calling to set up appointments to interview me and AYD. First it was channel 2 (CBS) and then channel 5 (KSL – owned by the LDS church). There are four commercial news organizations in our area, and in the span of a couple of minutes I had spoken with half of them. We set up appointments for interviews after I got home from work. When I hung up with the second station the phone rang again, and it was the principal.

I should point out that AYD’s principal is not a stranger to me. Both AYD’s mother and I are “involved” parents. We volunteer for many things at the school. We have helped to organize and judge the school and district science fairs, been active on community councils, and AYD’s mother has even organized several art exhibits for district student’s art in the Salt Lake City library that have gotten statewide attention. We have served on committees, and written letters of recognition and recommendation for sitting members of the district administration. Sure we are just concerned and highly involved parents, but we are not strangers. I was perfectly comfortable calling the principal by his first name, for the purpose of this entry let us pretend his name was “Barry”.

“Hello Barry, I was hoping to talk to you about the disciplinary action you took against AYD the other day”.

“Disciplinary action” replied Barry in a quavering voice I was not used to him using. “I don’t know what you are talking about”

“Have you read any of the blogs or seen the pictures?” I asked

“Yes” he replied hesitantly.

“Then you know what disciplinary action I’m talking about” I sighed “could there be any other disciplinary actions I should be talking about?”

“No”

“OK then. I want you to know that I was not happy with the disciplinary action, and” I was gearing up to read off the three points when he interjected.

“I did not measure the hemline of AYD’s dress. I had the secretary measure and determine that the dress-code had been violated. That is our policy: I do not decide, the secretary does the measurement”

“So the secretary is responsible if I have an issue with the interpretation of the dress code?”

“The policy is that she does the measurement”

“So she is responsible if the dress code is not being interpreted correctly?”

“I’m not saying that” replied Barry in what was beginning to sound like a patronizing tone; he had lost the quiver “The policy is that she does the measurement”

“So if she does the measurement she is responsible for the measurement, and therefore interpretation of the dress code if it is wrong”

“I’m not saying that” Now he was pausing in between words for an extra half beat as if I needed the pause to understand his words “The policy is that she does the measurement”

“OK then” I sighed “I’m not really interested in arguing about centimeter of hemline. The issue is that AYD wqas dressed modestly, even conservatively, and a dress code policy that flagged her as inappropriate has problems”

“I don’t make the dress code” he interjected “The dress code is developed by the community council.”

“Are you saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code that AYD was brought to the office for violating.  Because she picked out the clothes with AYD specifically because they were extremely modest.  She even went out of her way to buy the outfit from two Utah companies –Shade and Down East- that specialize in modest attire.” My words may have come out a bit quicker than I would have wanted, but I was not raising my voice. Calm, cool, reasonable.

“No” he replied “I’m not saying AYD’s mother developed the dress code”

“She was on the community council for your school for years. If you are saying that the community council developed the dress code then aren’t you saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code?”

“No” he replied “I’m not saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“The district policy states that the dress code is reviewed every year, you say the community council is responsible for the dress code, and she was on it for years. How could what you are saying not be interpreted as meaning that AYD’s mom developed the dress code that landed AYD in the office?”

“No” replied Barry, but more testily this time; like I was a particularly slow and disobedient child. “I’m not saying that AYD’s mother developed the dress code. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“OK then” I replied “there are three points I would like to make”

I then pretty much read off my three points. I did embellish them with witty and intelligent insights. I finished off with a question to re-engage Barry as an active listener.

“I think these are reasonable points, don’t you?” I asked.

“They sound reasonable, but we will have to review them” he replied.

“you know the dress code policy, which includes the actions for enforcement, is described in the district policy as reflecting community values” I explained “My little story has been excerpted, mirrored, and raised in forums which together have probably gotten over a quarter million views. Together they have gotten over five thousand comments. I have gotten dozens of phone calls from my neighbors and parents of kids in your school. These people overwhelmingly believe that what AYD was wearing was appropriate for a junior high school. That is more evidence than you could ever hope for in making a policy decision. Barry, you need to change the dress code policy and the process you use to maintain it.”

“What she was wearing in the picture was appropriate for school” Replied Barry.

“What?” I was stunned. “Why was she taken to the office then?”

“When I took her and the other girls to the office the height of her skirt was more than 2 inches above the top of the knee. I gave the girls a chance to make adjustments. All the girls except AYD made the adjustments and went back to class” he said.

“What do you mean by adjustments?” I asked “Is that a euphemism for pull their dress down a half an inch?”

“One of the girls went to her gym locker and got gym shorts to change into, and another went to her locker where she had a pair of leggings.”

“Well that is interesting, and it changes the way I imagine the incident occurring” I replied in a conciliatory tone. “I’m sure the girls will corroborate your description of AYD’s insubordination. How far had AYD hiked her skirt up when you took her to the office.”

"I’m not saying she hiked her skirt up, and I cannot provide the names of students or the disciplinary actions taken against them to anyone but their parents”

“I understand. I was just saying that since you brought them in with AYD she will know who the other girls were, and I can ask their parents. I wasn’t asking you to betray any confidence. They will corroborate what you say about AYD, right?”

silence.

“I mean she told me that the way I found her in the office was the way she was brought to the office. If she was lying to me about having hiked up her skirt in such a way that she was out of dress code that is a significant thing.”

“I did not say she was lying” interjected Barry.

“If she told me that she had not made any adjustments, and you are telling me she did then you are suggesting she lied to me”

“I did not say she was lying” replied Barry.

“I don’t see how what you are saying jives with what she said without that being the conclusion” I replied “So you are saying she made an adjustment to her dress before I arrived?”

“No” said Barry “I was not there I don’t know what happened”

“Well, you are saying that you brought her into the office and she was out of compliance with the dress code because her hem was more than two inches above the knee. I arrived in the office and took a photo of her, and that photo shows her –in your professional opinion- in compliance with the dress code. You are suggesting that in between she made an adjustment to be in compliance.”

“No” said Barry “I was not there I don’t know what happened”

“What” And I may have developed a little tone here, but I tried not to “else could have happened?”

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“So lets assume that we are talking about an adjustment” I replied “You are telling me that you told her she could make and adjustment and go back to class, and she refused, right”

Barry replied with a short “Yes”.

“And then she made the adjustment, but you did not let her go back to class, and instead I brought her clothes in?” I continued.

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“Well the secretary was there, and you gave her the responsibility to oversee the adjustment. AYD made the adjustment in front of her because there is nowhere else to go in the office, and she did not send her back to class because she was in the office when I got there.”

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“Right” I responded “But the secretary with the dress code responsibility was there. She will be able to describe what happened. “

“It is against policy for office staff to answer questions about disciplinary actions” replied Barry.

“To me. But you can ask them. Can’t you? Didn’t you? Does this make sense? Can you get back to me on what happened?”

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

“Someone who reports to you was there. You can find out what happened by asking them can’t you?” I asked.

“I was not there I don’t know what happened” repeated Barry.

‘Well let’s get straight what you do know. I think these are fairly serious insinuations on your part. I am concerned as a parent about the picture you are sort of sketching about AYD's behavior. You brought her into the office because you had noticed she had hiked up her skirt to the point where she was obviously out of compliance with the dress code”

“I did not say she hiked up her skirt” he interjected.

“No, you did not say that” I replied “I was just trying to paraphrase. What had she done to her clothing to be out of compliance with the dress code?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He replied.

“OK that is the part of the dress code that she violated. What did she do to her clothing to violate that part of the code?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“OK, you're not going to tell me what she did” I replied with an unfortunate hint of exasperation sneaking up my throat “How far was she out of compliance?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“Was she a half inch out of compliance? One inch? Two inches? Three? Four? How far out of compliance was she?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“Approximately how far out of compliance would you estimate? Slightly over to one inch? One to three inches? More than three inches? Surely you have an estimate.”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“So you are saying she could have been as much as three inches out of compliance?” I asked incredulously.

“No. I am not saying that. Don’t put word in my mouth” he stated “The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee”

“OK then” I sighed “You took her and the three other girls into the office. Were there three or four girls? Anyway. You took this group of girls into the office and gave them options for adjustment. What were the options you gave them?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“Right. That is the section of the dress code you say she was in violation of. What did you tell her she could do to be in compliance?”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated, but I sensed it was more robotic this time.

“That is the code” I replied “What was the action you suggested to be in compliance with the code”

“The hem of her skirt was not within two inches of the top of her knee” He repeated.

“That is the code” I replied slightly robotically “What was the action you suggested to be in compliance with the code”

I actually allowed this repetition to go on for five more cycles before I called it quits. I know I had a responsibility to my readers to try and communicate with Barry, but I had reached the limits of my skill.

“You know I’ve got television crews coming to my house tonight” I stated.

Silence.

“They will be interviewing AYD. What they will see is a sincere well spoken 14-year-old girl whose story sounds like the truth.” I stated.

Silence.

“I will be calling the district superintendent office to get her input on this next” I stated.

“You will do what you have to do” he replied.

“Barry, I feel like I have a responsibility here. This story resonated with thousands of people: people who had Orwellian experiences in junior high school, people who suffered a communication gap with junior high administrators, people who feel they or their kids suffered selective enforcement of school rules, parents who feel like they have been treated as a problem rather than the best tool in a solution; all of them people who feel like they were not treated like people by administrators sitting in chairs just like yours.”

I thought I should end with a melodramatic slamming-down of the receiver, but instead I said something like “Thank you for calling me back so quickly” before I delicately hung up.

The phone immediately rang.

5 comments:

PoliticallySpeaking said...

At the risk of sounding (being?) crude, the impression I have of "Barry" is "what a dick."

Kudos to you if your phone is still in one piece, and not shattered from either the handset slam or being thrown across the room.

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like he was sitting next to a lawyer.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the dilemma and definitely dont think any dress code really matters in the scheme of things. I appreciate your comments about Orwellian experiences and the reasoning behind why you are pushing this issue...I also realize it is being pushed by many others well outside your control.

I would encourage you to be careful about the the typical American behavior to be victimized and need someone to blame and be accountable for "injustice" perceived or otherwise. I think his dodginess and most people in beauraucratic roles is a result of not wanting to be the one accountable, even if they are.

I am not saying you are a victim I see that you were simply trying to understand the situation rationally, which is understandable. I also see this "transcript" as faiirly one sided. Is dress code really an issue that needs to have stones thrown its pond? Are the ripples intentional or reactive?

Just some food for thought, even if it's not particularly well formulated...take with grain of salt.

v1car said...

Oh, man, you can just HEAR Barry's thoughts here.

"Dammit, the manual said the parents would fall in line like sheep. Why does this have to happen to me?"

"Oh, sh*t, this guy isn't letting me off."

"Dammit, did I admit that already?"

"Why can't you just leave me alone! I'm supposed to be an authority figure!"

"Sh*t. Just sh*t. I should have taken that job with the TSA instead -- then I could give this guy an anal probing for talking back to me."

"Okay, looks like I'm in trouble now. Maybe I can pull off a belated stonewall."

What a jerk. You are to be congratulated for holding on to your temper successfully.

Joe said...

Sounds like my oldest daughter's former Junior High Vice-Principal or Principal went to work for your Junior High.

Sounds like it's time to throw the entire school board out and do some firing.