*Maybe I’m a Bad Kid*

Strict charter school discipline is especially tough on boys. Here’s one student’s story… 

By Steven Thomas

steven 2When I was in sixth grade I attended the Academy of the Pacific Rim. I went through a lot during this time. My mother and father got a divorce, and it was kind of hard on me. I didn’t know what was going on. This was the first time I’d gone to a school that was really challenging. The hours were from 7:40AM to 4:10PM everyday. I was just coming from elementary school, and the hours just seemed absurd. I wasn’t used to getting up that early or to being in such a strict school, and by the first couple weeks I was in trouble. On top of that, I had an IEP and I didn’t get a lot of help. At a young age I was diagnosed with autism. I didn’t speak until I was three and a half. I was in speech therapy for eight years.

Demerits, demerits
Do you know how the demerit system works? There are a lot of ways to get a demerit. If your head is down, that’s a demerit. If you’re not paying attention, or talking, that’s a demerit. If you’re slouching, that’s a demerit. They said *it’s not scholarly to slouch; you can’t learn that way.* I slouch all the time, and I’ve still learned a lot… Getting demerits gives you detention, and if you get 15 demerits or more in a week, that’s Saturday detention. For some people the strictness worked really well, but for me, I got detention every day. And when I had detention, I didn’t leave school till 6:00 at night. There was a merit system too, but I never got a merit. The vibe I got was that *if you’re not the student we want you to be, you’re not going to succeed here.* I hated school.

Steven 1*Maybe I’m a bad kid*
In elementary school, my teachers loved me. I got in trouble sometimes, but I’d never been suspended or anything. But it got to a point where I was in the dean’s office every day. It was a rough time, and with all of the detentions I started to think *maybe I’m a bad kid.* One day I was coming home from detention and it was really late and I got robbed by a couple of kids. That made me nervous, and after that—I’m not going to lie—I started carrying a pocket knife on me for protection. And I thought *hey, I’m bad.* The school found out and told me that I couldn’t stay because I was a menace. That was in April.

It was a rough time, and with all of the detentions I started to think *maybe I’m a bad kid.*

The last stop
I was put in an alternative school called Compass, and the experience kind of traumatized me. Compass is the last stop before you go to jail. There were gangs. There were kids getting arrested inside the school. There was really nothing going on for these kids. I was the youngest kid—I was 11—and I was in class with fifteen year olds and sixteen year olds. My personality changed after being at that school—I was on the bad side for a little bit. It took me a while to realize that I’m a normal kid. I ended up at Lewenberg Middle School, which closed down, then turned into Young Achievers.

steven 3My old self
After being back at a normal public school for a while, my old self started to come back again. I started being productive and getting good grades. I started making honor roll and taking honors classes and AP classes. I was in a school where people believed in me and said: *You can do this. You can go to college.* They were uplifting me, and that was all I’d really needed from the beginning. Every single person in my class is going to college. I got accepted to seven different schools, and I’m going to be attending Hussen University in Bangor, Maine in the fall on an academic scholarship and playing college football. I don’t think that would have happened if I’d stayed at Academy of the Pacific Rim.

Fight for what you know is right
I don’t think any child is bad. I think they have to know who they are as individuals and what their goals are, no matter what’s going on—no matter what the teacher says about you, or the principal says about you, no matter how hard it is in class. Keep on persevering and fight for what you know is right. For teachers, if you know that the way you’re teaching is causing stress to children, you should change that.

Steven Thomas is a member of the class of 2015 at New Mission High School and an education intern at Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

Do you have a story to share? Contact Jennifer at tips@haveyouheardblog.com. Like my work? Your financial support will help me do more of it.



  1. Steven-your story made me cry, and without even knowing you, I am impressed by your tenacity and character. No child should be treated as you were treated! I have a daughter who is struggling in school right now, and it is so difficult.
    I wish all the best for you in the future!

  2. I loved this story! Not revealed what I so believe about children and boys in particular. Everyone thrives in an environment where they are encouraged to be their best self not the stereotype of a particular group but unique in every way.

  3. “If your head is down, that’s a demerit.” For godsake. That just teaches a kid to walk on pins & needles her whole life, not moving a muscle because she’s wondering what unspoken rule she’s breaking by merely existing.

    Luckily I no longer had to go to Catholic school after I turned 18.

  4. Dear Steven, l just read your story, and l was very moved by it. My daughter teaches in Brooklyn, N.Y. I am very grateful that things worked out for you, and very impressed by your words. It is easy to give up in the world today, it is not at all the kind of world l had dreamed of for your generation. I admire you. It is your determination and your faith in yourself and that which is still good in this world which has sustained you and l just want to wish you continued success and joy in your journey. You inspire. Respectfully, Derry Taylor

  5. I’d be interested to hear Steven’s explanation for why he didn’t stop slouching. It seems he was setting up a power struggle that he was determined to win. Does he not see that if kids win power struggles, the teacher has a much harder time stopping behaviors that interfere with learning?

    I’d also like to know if he thinks kids learn as much in a “normal” public school class as they do in a strict-discipline school class. My guess is that a lot more learning happens in the latter because there’s less socializing and less teacher energy diverted to discipline issues and away from instruction and helping kids with academics.

    As a teacher in a “normal” suburban public middle school, I can tell you that most of my colleagues tear their hair out on a regular basis coping with the barely checked rudeness, disrespect, out-of-control talking and occasional defiance. Many teachers end each day feeling psychologically battered from the thousand little struggles to get kids to cooperate. To many of us, it makes sense to create a culture of strict discipline so that our teaching energy can be husbanded and directed to excellent instruction. Sadly most normal public schools lack this culture. Instead it’s a culture of slackness and disorder where teachers’ main tool for nudging kids away from their preferred activities –socializing, above all –is cajolery and fun, undemanding lesson plans. The kids have a lot of power, and too often they use it in ways that slows down the pace of learning and creates needless headaches for the teachers who are trying to educate them.

    1. Strict control results in one (or sometimes more) of three possible outcomes: calculation (kids trying to figure out just how much they can get away with and whether or not the consequences are worth it), blind obedience, or revolt. I don’t think any of those are what teachers are really striving for. What strict control doesn’t do is encourage intrinsic motivation to become a good person, which I think is what teachers are striving for. Working with is always better than doing to. Why make a power struggle over something unimportant anyway? If Steven doesn’t find sitting up to be helpful (or slouching to be detrimental), why should the teacher make an issue out of it? You can only lose a power struggle that you set up in the first place. If you make everything a power struggle, eventually the kids get the idea that controlling them is more important to you than helping them, and they’ll react accordingly.

      Strongly recommend reading anything by Alfie Kohn.

      1. Dienne, I appreciate your always-intelligent comments. But I wonder if you’ve ever taught or subbed in a public middle school. It’s hard to understand what I’m talking about unless you have. Your theory has some truth to it, but it’s only part of the whole truth. The behaviors in Lord of the Flies are not something Golding (a British prep school teacher) made up. I haven’t read much Kohn, but his comments on Diane’s blog lead me to think he’s firmly in the hippie/Romantic school of human nature: we’re all naturally good until mean adults corrupt us. But 18 years of exposure to youngsters teaches me that’s a false view of humanity: heinous behaviors including wanton destruction of the learning process, of peers and of teachers is something that some kids (probably not YOUR kids) naturally opt to do. Is the victim at fault, or the perpetrator? For these individuals, I wish there were stronger medicine at the disposal of the adults at school. I’m sure you’d agree that the adults have to stave off sheer anarchy and carve out a sphere of civility. There are kids who crave anarchy and will drive the school dangerously in that direction.

        Strongly recommend subbing at your local middle school, to you and EdShyster.

  6. Thank you for covering his story…his is one among many, and you don’t need to take my word for it. Any search on the “attrition rate” and “charter” (or replace the word “charter” with that of a certain well-known systems) and you’ll find studies on it. If the charter school is so great, then why are the attrition rates the same as public (based on New York state studies)? Poor kids, they get put there by the parents who trust the system, only to have them bullied by that same system…but some of the parents will have a hard time admitting that they made a mistake or will hang onto the thought that at least it’s better than the community school (even though there are fewer resources or opportunities, and likely it’s just rumors they are hearing about their local school).

  7. jennifer, this is an appalling exploitation of this young man’s story to further your close-minded, 1950s education agenda. no school is right for every child, which is why SCHOOL CHOICE is so important. This young man did better in a “normal” environment (whatever that is). Other young people do very well in strict disciplinary environments. As a parent I wish you would stop trying to limit parent choices.

    1. Except that your choice harms other parents because it pulls resources from their choice of school – the public schools that serve 90% of all kids.

      1. Amen, Dienne–“school choice” is just a fancy term for privatizing education. Parents get sold on their inherent right to “choice” with “their” tax dollars–even if every penny (and often more) of their property-tax dollars leaves their own town and heads elsewhere when their kid goes to an out-of-town school. Meanwhile, the same limited number of education dollars are meant to stretch to cover scores if not hundreds of new school buildings across the state, not to mention new school programs (in the case of charter schools) and creating winner and loser towns (in the case of the Massachusetts “school choice” program). Both of these bad ideas leave even the historically best-resourced community-based public schools impoverished. I am watching it right now in our community–every year new programs and staff get cut as the budget crunch gets sharper. In many instances kids are leaving one perfectly-decent school district just because they prefer the boutique-y arts charter school or because the next town’s school has a better football team. So these families’ “choices” mean there is not enough money left for the home school, of which many, many more families still prefer.

        And if you say, “the kids have left, therefore the school doesn’t need the money anymore,” then YOU try paying the (unchanged) school maintenance and administrative costs with $1 million or so fewer dollars per year when maybe only 10 kids per grade leave the district with their tax dollars. The math simply doesn’t work.

  8. Steven, your story is both very sad and very inspirational. Thank you so much for sharing it. You set an amazing example by never giving up, pushing through the worst, and believing in yourself. Sometimes adults are wrong and it’s a tragedy that so many kids like you get caught up in that. It’s wonderful to hear that you made it – all the best in college and thank you again!

  9. I really did not “have” to read the whole story.

    It;s such a shame.

    I believe when you treat children like they are in the army…you miss all the teachable moments – all the moments that build a relationship and connection to the child is gone and end up with the kids who can only follow orders – what is that?

    The essence of the child themselves is trampled on when all they can do is follow an order- individuality, creativity, personality – all is lost to “following orders”

    I raised two children to honor themselves – first and foremost listen to their own bodies. Now those two children are grown and incredibly strong, successful and yes…highly educated. Obviously the school worked against me – their mother – every chance they could get.

    I regret nothing of what I taught my children and am proud of my adult children.

    When you have a bunch of kids who follow orders….it just makes it easy for the teacher to skate out of working.

    That’s my opinion…and it will never change.

    Great article.

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