A new school discipline law goes into effect this week, setting strict limits on the reasons principals can use to suspend or expel students. The measure was the culmination of a years-long effort by young adults in Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE. They called it the “Campaign for Common Sense Discipline,” and the goal was to put an end to punitive policies that made kids miss class due to infractions like chewing gum or violating dress code.
Quentin Anderson, just 28 years old himself, directed the lobbying effort. And every time I heard him speak to lawmakers, he told the same personal story.
For example, here's part of his public testimony to state representatives on the education policy committee:
“My junior high school had a very set protocol for disciplinary referrals," Anderson said. "At three you got an out-of-school suspension; at five you got expulsion. In 8th grade, I set my junior high school single-year record at 54, and I was not expelled. And the reason for that was: I had an assistant principal who pulled me aside and told me that I was too smart for the dumb things I was doing. He said that he wasn’t going to let my behavior at age 13 affect what I was going to do at 23, 33 and 43.
"Every time that I would get those disciplinary referrals, he would pull me into his office and he’d make sure that my teachers forwarded my homework to his office, and I would do my school work in his office. And because of that, he didn’t allow my immaturity to affect who I became as an adult. And now I have a college degree, a law degree, and I’m sitting here before you to advocate on behalf of legislation that is that champion, that is that assistant principal who was there for me. All these young people -- they don’t always have that. What this legislation does is it seeks to give those young people that additional champion.”
Testifying in his suit, with his speech down pat, Anderson was like the poster boy for what a problem child could grow up to be. In fact, his story was so compelling that I couldn’t help but wonder if it might not be just a little too good to be true. Especially when I asked him to tell me the name of that assistant principal who saved him -- and he couldn’t remember the man's name.
But with the help of social media, I tracked down Kevin Hampton -- the former assistant principal at Kalles Junior High in Puyallup, Washington, where Quentin Anderson attended 8th grade. Hampton is now principal at another school, so I started out by just asking him to describe his personal philosophy on suspensions and expulsions.
“My personal philosophy is -- that’s the last thing you do unless you don’t have choices," Hampton said. "And when choices are taken away from both of you, due to the extreme nature of what happened -- other than extreme nature and safety, we do have choices. And if we can change behavior within those choices and students can walk away learning from their mistakes, I feel like we’ve made it a win/win.”
When I then told him I was calling about a kid he had saved from expulsion more than a decade ago by letting him do classwork in his office -- that didn’t narrow it down much for Principal Hampton.
“I’ve dealt with thousands of kids and I do have an approach that I believe is effective," he said, "but it’s not really ringing a bell to me.”
So I told him the kid's name: Quentin Anderson.
“Quentin Anderson! Really, really liked him. He drove me crazy!" Hampton said, "I'm not going to lie, he drove me crazy. It was just... at the time, he wasn’t a bad person, he just was going through some tough times, which led to really poor choices.”
Later on, I asked Anderson if he had a theory on why Hampton tolerated his shenanigans.
“I never talked to him about why he showed me so much grace and understanding," Anderson said. "Most, if not all, of my teachers felt pretty strongly about getting me out of there. Because I was a disruption. I made it difficult for them to do their job, and I was pretty unpredictable about when I would strike, and so it just made you feel on-edge. Despite all of my misbehavior, nobody thought I was dumb. People there knew I was smart. Or maybe the better word is: People knew I was bright. I was capable of being smart. All of them recognized that it wasn't just saving a kid who was being stupid; it was saving a kid who, at some point, if he ever got it right, he could be something. He could do something with his life."
But Hampton never mentioned that Quentin Anderson’s brain. Hampton said he just knew Anderson had a good heart.
“Quentin went through some really difficult phases, but you know what? If you can look past their choices and look into their heart, I really believe that there’s a big difference between who a person is versus the choice they make," Hampton said. "Yeah, you have to pay for this choice, but are you really a bad person? No. Let’s rethink this. That’s how you change behavior.”
But Hampton didn't just change Quentin Anderson's behavior. The change Hampton made in that one student eventually changed the law in Illinois.
“That’s amazing," Hampton said. "And I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say, except for the fact that, uh, that motivates me even more.”