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Class Notes
It all starts with accountability
(Published March 7, 2005)


I hear a lot of comments about D.C. kids. They're hoodlums. They're ghetto. They don't know how to act. Those kids are crazy!

I don't hear many kind things said about them. The most positive thing I get is curiosity: "What's it like to teach in an urban school system?" – where "urban" is short for "poor" and "colored."

I tell people all the time that I have funny kids, smart kids, great kids, creative and intelligent kids.

Then something like a mercury spill at Cardozo Senior High School shows that there are some kids in the system who are creative and stupid.

So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at peoples' reactions to hearing that kids had spread mercury around Cardozo.

Blame the school system: "After what happened at Ballou, don't you think they should have taken some precautions with their science labs?" Schools were told to eliminate or securely lock their chemistry supplies after the Ballou spill during the past school year. School officials believe that Cardozo's mercury spill problem was caused by kids bringing in mercury from the outside.

Blame the stereotypes: "I'm not surprised. That kind of stuff always happens in DCPS." Never mind the graduates, the scholarships, the success.

Incredulity: "What kind of fool would want to do something like that? What kind of person would spill mercury in a school?"

My own first reaction was disappointment. Kids, if you didn't want to go to school for a few days, don't go. It's not like you'd be the first kids in D.C. to hook school. Now, I'm not advocating that anybody should cut school – I want all kids to be in class, on time, every day. But I'd rather have a few fools sitting home watching TV than a whole school shut down any day of the week.

As I followed the news story, I saw that DCPS and the police identified the kids, and perhaps it was putting a face on the story that changed my reaction from disappointment to wonder – not what kind of person would spill mercury, but why would a person spill mercury?

Talking with the custodian at my school, Bell Multicultural (as custodians are keepers of school wisdom), we agreed that it was kids just wanting to have a few days off from school, without having to deal with parents hassling them about goofing off. "Mom, the whole school's shut down. I can't go!" A prank.

It has the hallmarks of a prank. Most people think of mercury as harmless; it's in thermometers, it's shiny, it looks cool. My parent's generation played with mercury and held it liquid in their hands. Only later did we learn that it can cause brain damage and that inhaling its vapors can kill you. Still, today most people think of mercury as something scientific, or maybe from a Terminator movie, but not something deadly. The kids who did it certainly weren't meaning to hurt anybody. I bet they probably didn't know that the cleanup at Ballou cost the school system almost $1 million of badly needed money. It would be some simple fun, and they'd get a few days off. They certainly didn't think they'd get caught and expelled. But if they weren't thinking, I was….

What would you do if you thought you wouldn't get caught? Would you kill the neighbor's dog that keeps barking at 2 a.m.? Would you steal a million dollars? Would you spray paint the White House? The recent trials of white-collar executives show that a whole lot of people do illegal stuff when they think the law won't catch up to them. I know I speed in my car on the highway, because most of the time, I won't get caught. Where is my accountability, to my community (as an unsafe driver) and to myself?

The action for us as teachers and parents is clear. We need to communicate through our words and deeds that we won't tolerate pranks, and that they're not harmless. I've seen where this ends up. I've seen kids who think it's fun to act the fool, that it's OK to jump other kids at the Metro station for lunch money, or bring knives into a school building, or to spread mercury in a school to get a holiday, and I've seen all of these things happen multiple times in my brief career as a teacher.

I believe that it starts with kids not being held accountable for other parts of their lives. For example, I know that there are over 20 kids who bring Walkmans to school every day, even though they're not allowed. Every day, the security guards check their bookbags, find some, and confiscate them. At the end of the week, or the month, or when their parents come, the kids get them back. If I ruled the world, we'd sell or destroy them. I also know that all across DCPS high schools, there are hundreds of kids who rock up to school late, every day, getting a tardy pass from the attendance office. As the rule once again, I'd give them three shots at it, then suspend them (although I have to confess that I don't really understand suspension as a punishment. "I've been bad? So I can stay home and watch TV?").

I'd like to live in a world where all kids respect themselves, their school, their community and the rules of polite society, in part because they use the brain in their heads, in part because they are consistently taught to be courteous, considerate and kind. I don't yet live in that world. I try to teach this message in my classroom, but I can see with my own eyes and ears that my job isn't yet done – this message still needs to be taught, and some of my kids don't even understand why it needs to be taught. There are reasons for this, which I've touched on in other articles.

For me, the response to the mercury spill is to revisit accountability in schools. Kids won't do stupid pranks like that if they think that there will be consequences. I would argue that catching the kids has gone a long way to stopping future stunts like that. But let's not stop there: let's take the wider lesson from this and continue to communicate accountability to our kids, by closely monitoring our rules and sticking to them.

Responsibility goes both ways – to honor rules you agree upon is a joint effort by those who enforce them as well as those who submit to them. Have we really been holding kids accountable? Should we be doing more? Our graduation rates and SAT scores give me one answer. It's not just mercury that could be spread around. Being true to our own rules, sticking to high standards, and not accepting poor behavior are ideas that need to be spread around as well.


Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program ( Please send stories, comments or questions to

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