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SI’s deans use discipline to heal and help

From left, Michelle Nevin Levine, Bill Gotch and Katie Drucker Kohmann continue the traditions of past deans, and they meet challenges brought on by 21st century dangers, including the potential abuses of social media. 

When most SI grads from the 1960s or 1970s reminisce about the times they got into trouble, they probably picture themselves receiving detention for drinking beer or smoking cigarettes at the Circle.

Michelle Levine and Bill Gotch, who have served as deans of discipline since 2008, face a different disciplinary landscape than in past years given the greater prevalence of social media and new technologies.

Just like the deans of past years, they are meeting those challenges head-on both with a flexible set of rules and a partnership with the greater school community. They also practice the same cura personalis – care for the whole person – that has guided the deans’ office for decades.

The two bring to the office the lessons they had learned from previous jobs. Gotch had spent a dozen years coaching and teaching English at St. Elizabeth’s High School in Oakland and at Sacred Heart Cathedral, and Levine had served in the counseling office for 13 years and was one of the key architects of the school’s new Wellness Program.

When they moved into their new roles, they began by taking an education law class at USF to familiarize themselves with the complexities they were about to face. “We wanted to make decisions proactively to empower ourselves within the law as opposed to living in fear of it,” said Gotch.

They also discovered that the Student/Parent Handbook offered specific punishments for specific transgressions. “We caught some kids chewing tobacco at a football game and had to suspend them as well as send them to mandatory drug and alcohol treatment,” said Levine. “We felt the punishments didn’t always fit the crimes.”

Over the next few years, they worked with the school’s attorney, Paul Gaspari ’70, and fellow administrators to revise the handbook to redefine what “suspension” meant and to add a host of other disciplinary tools that have proved useful in delivering case-by-case consequences.

“All schools use suspension for lack of having a better tool, and we generally don’t like suspending a child,” said Gotch. “Keeping kids from playing basketball or acting in a play for three weeks seemed counterintuitive to us and meant that kids had nothing to do at home in the early afternoon and evening, a time of day when parents are often at work and unable to supervise them.”

Just as previous deans have done, Levine and Gotch craft consequences that match the needs of individual students. “An underlying struggle that we have as deans is a desire to be consistent and a need to take individual circumstances into account,” added Levine. As a result, most suspended students typically practice or rehearse with their classmates, although they still aren’t allowed to perform publicly during a game or in front of a theatre audience.

“We also try to have them report to us to do work in our office,” said Gotch. “Several years ago, we assigned three boys to stuff envelopes, and we used that time to speak with them about social media, drinking and drugs. We developed a relationship with them that helped them understand the value of discipline and how our office works. That relationship carried them through their senior year and helped them succeed in college, and they frequently return to visit us and to reminisce.”

Because those students had been punished for drinking, they also took part in the school’s drug and alcohol program run by the counseling office.

That cooperation goes to the heart of how Gotch and Levine see their role – as collaborators with school officials and parents to help students deal with tough times and poor decisions. For example, Levine heads SI’s Core Team, which brings together key administrators to discuss students in emotional crisis or who suffer from problems with behavior, attendance or academics.

She also serves as coordinator of the Crisis Team, which assembles in the event of a student death or any other school-wide trauma.

Most recently, it gathered in February of 2012 when a norovirus outbreak shut the school down for three days. Her expertise led her to be invited to St. Cecilia’s School to assist in its crisis management following the San Bruno fire (which resulted in the death of one of their students, the sister of Gaby Greig ’12, as well as their mother). She also spoke at an Archdiocesan gathering of counselors and crisis responders on the topic of school-wide crisis management.

Gotch works on a committee that recently helped expand and improve food offerings at SI so that students have access to healthy meals from 7:45 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., and both work hand-in-hand with counselors and the new Wellness Team to get to the root of any problem.

Gotch also worked with San Francisco Supervisor Carmen Chu and her assistant Cammy Blackstone to fight successfully the opening of a pot club on Taraval Street, just blocks from SI, and to fast-track a stop light on the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Quintara Street to allow students to cross more safely.

Guiding their philosophy is the same spirit that has guided the deans office over the years, one that seeks the overall well-being of our students over punishment for punishment sake. “When students demonstrate that they are not able to get to school on time, when they use and abuse alcohol or drugs or when they choose to treat members of their class poorly, then they are demonstrating that their lives are out of balance. We try to craft consequences, which are critical for this kind of behavior, so that students are given opportunities to learn from their mistakes.”

Key to the success of that office is Deans’ Office Coordinator Katie Kohmann, whose “presence is critical to the everyday running of SI,” added Levine. “She knows everything that goes on, she keeps track of students, and she communicates with families. All day long she solves problems that range from a student forgetting a locker combination to a family going through an emergency at home. She is both nurturing and tough and treats students with love and respect while not entering their world of teenage logic. We could not do our work without her.”

The team of Gotch, Levine and Kohmann also deal with a digital world where students behaving badly are recorded by cell phones. With a push of a button, that behavior is instantly broadcast on YouTube, Facebook or Tumblr. Sometimes students text inappropriate language or images on their phones, and this both challenges and aids the deans.

“Fifty years ago, if a child accused another child of bullying, a dean might only have anecdotal evidence,” said Gotch. “Now, for instance, students can bring us transcripts of remarks posted on Facebook, so we know precisely what was said.”

The dark side of the new technology is that words and images never go away. “Students today have the same impulsive behavior typical of most adolescents,” said Levine. “The trouble now is that the digital landscape allows for a longer half-life. Mistakes can haunt someone for the rest of his or her life.”

The deans deal with digital offenders the same way they deal with all those who break school rules. “We have to look at the whole picture, slow down and pull apart situations,” said Levine.

This integrated approach to discipline, one that has always been a part of the deans’ office, is working. “We’re dealing with a new normal that includes parents who know far more about mental health and who are partnering with us. The destigmatization of mental health disorders has helped us tremendously. What we do know is that as successful as we are, we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to be ready for the new challenges we are certain to face in the coming years.”


Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Friday March, 15, 2013 at 12:31PM

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