Urban School’s Parent Association fights for teen safety, but not without response from students

Jonathan Baer, staff writer

Over the past few months, Urban’s Parent Association has developed a parental “contract” – an agreement among Urban parents that addresses student safety, substance use and parental policy about parties.

The “Parent Collaborative Agreement for Safe Teen Socializing” has triggered a wide range of opinion, with some students calling it “reactive, ignorant, and belittling” while others say it is a “conversation starter.”

On Jan. 26, the contract was posted on the Urban website under the parent section. An email was also sent to the parent body with the details of the contract.

A draft of the contract was introduced to Urban’s Health Initiative for Peer Education (HIPE), a peer health education group comprised of Urban students, on Dec. 2, 2010.  A draft was also presented to Urban’s Board of Trustees on Jan. 18.

The contract, which is printed on Urban School letterhead, contains seven principles.  They range from “I will not knowingly allow teens to use drugs or alcohol in my house in the context of a social gathering or party” to “I will act assertively to prevent a teen from driving if I suspect he or she has been drinking or using drugs.”

Accompanying these principles are statements that appear to indicate the reasoning behind the language.  Some of these statements include “research shows that access to substances increases the risk for addiction,” and, “motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in teens.”

There is no place for a student signature. Although the contract addresses teen behavior, students themselves are not asked to sign the document.

According to the Karen Smith-McCune, co-head of the Parent Association, parents have been developing the agreement since the fall. The catalyst came during a lecture given to the parent body by Michael Simon, director of counseling & student support for the Bentley School in Lafayette, Calif.

There should be “no parties without communication with parental hosts,” reads a “Tip Sheet” located on Simon’s website, which is entitled Support for Parents of Teens/Pre-Teens, Educators & Mental Health Professionals. Simon’s viewpoints inspired many of the principles expressed in the parent contract.

“It’s an agreement to foster open communication within the parent community,” said Karen Smith-McCune, a parent of a junior and co-head of Urban’s Parent Association.

“It’s based on a very simple number of values that we (the parent association) think reflects the parent community,” said Smith-McCune. “It’s meant to be … a way of encouraging a community of parents to reach out to one another and talk to each other around certain shared values.”

“It’s really an agreement between parents,” continued Smith-McCune. “It is not targeted at the students at all; it’s targeted at parents.  We’re not expecting it to change what the students do.”

However, many students, such as Alivia Bloch (’11) a member of HIPE, saw the contract when it was confidentially reviewed and strongly disagrees with it.

“I feel like the contract, in it of itself, is a clear breach of trust between parents and their children,” said Bloch. “I feel the contract is unbelievably overbearing and actually will function as quite the opposite of its purpose – which is to open lines of communication. It will undoubtedly force students to lie.”

Active dialogue about drugs and alcohol has always been considered important to the Urban community.  Freshman and sophomores take a health course in which the curriculum focuses on open conversations about drugs, alcohol, and sex education.

Even though the main goal of the contract is to foster communication, many students feel it will have the opposite result.

See: Page One of the Parent Contract

See: Page Two of the Parent Contract

“I agree to treat conversations with other parents on these issues confidentially,” reads the last clause in the Parent Collaborative Agreement. “Pressure from our children can act as a deterrent to parent-to-parent communication.”

“[The contract] undermines standards of decency and trust that Urban holds dear,” said Timmy Gonzalez-Crane (’11). “It signals a shift in the school’s loyalty from the well-being of their students to the mental sheltering of rash parents.”

Some students are particularly upset that the contract was released on the heels of the annual Peer Education Theater show, a traditional Urban production where students discuss their issues to an audience of Urban students, parents, and faculty.

“I am extremely disappointed in the mistrust and misunderstanding demonstrated in the contract,” said Eli Melrod (’13), a member of Peer Resource and a performer in 2010 Peer Ed Theater. “It is in complete opposition to the meaning of the show.  In our Peer Ed show, many cast members dealt with drinking, going to parties, etc. in a mature manner, creating a dialog between parents and teenagers; this contract completely closes all dialogue.”

While a majority of Urban students have expressed their opposition to the contract, not all students feel this way.

“As much as I love the freedom and trust Urban gives its students, one of the major flaws I find with this is the lack of discipline where needed,” said Clara Hendrickson (’11), who was a performer in 2009 Peer Ed Theater. “Parents these days are too worried about being friends with their kids that they don’t ask the uncomfortable questions.”

“I’m sorry but we’re not perfect angels and sometimes as a teenager we should feel powerless,” continued Hendrickson.  “This contract raises the question, should parents and students act as equals? In my opinion, parents should have ultimate authority.”

Furthermore, Urban’s handbook has a very clear stance on the use and possession of drugs and alcohol.

“As a school with significant responsibility for the growth and well-being of young people,” reads the handbook, “Urban is strongly opposed to the use of illegal drugs and alcohol by minors.  Drug and alcohol use is detrimental to the well-being of the individual and the school, is prohibited by law in California, and is incompatible with the purposes and objectives of Urban.”

Though the Urban Administration did not create the contract, the Parent Association has used Urban resources – such as the Urban website and the parent master mailing list – to facilitate the contract.

If a parent chooses to agree with the terms of the contract, he or she must log into the parent-only section of the Urban website to do so.

“I think the question really comes down to safety,“ said Assistant Head of School Charlotte Worsley. “If kids – 14, 15, 16 years old – were capable of keeping themselves safe, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

“Kids are ending up in the hospital,” observed Worsley. “Parties are getting out of hand, and police are being called.  It’s happening.  The question is what do adults do when kids are not capable of keeping themselves safe.  That doesn’t mean every kid; but when there’s evidence over and over and over again about kids not keeping themselves safe, as an adult you can’t just go ‘oh well.’ The stakes are frickin’ way too high.”

According to a 2010 optional and anonymous HIPE survey, 250 students out of the 304 students who took the survey have tried alcohol in their lives. Sixty-six out of the 304 students expressed that they “drink whenever they go to parties.”

Urban is not the first San Francisco school to have its parent community assemble an agreement about their teens’ social well-being. The Jewish Community High School of San Francisco’s parent community also formed a contract around teen drinking and safety.

According to Urban parent Smith-McCune, the Urban Parent Association was aware of JCHS’ contract.

“Our contract is called the Safety Home Network,” said Naomi Jatovsky, the co-president of the Parent Organization at JCHS. “The idea of the contract is just to let parents know what their values and family rules are if they are hosting parties or their kids are going to parties.”

“For us, our feeling is that it is a way to create a culture in this school; a culture that we, as parents, want to have,” said Jatovsky.  “We get that from the kids’ point of view it pissed them off big time, and I assume that is happening at Urban too.”

Jatovsky went on to quote Michael Simon: “If the kids are mad, you’re on the right track.”

The student consensus about the contract has been primarily negative.  According to a survey conducted by Peer Resource 56 out of the 163 students disagree with the contract, 56 stated that they have mixed feelings, 6 stated that they agree with it, and 15 stated that the contract doesn’t affect them.

Many students have been eager to express their thoughts and opinions about the contract.  When the contract was originally posted to the Urban website, many students passionately expressed their opinion on the bottom of the contract, where parents were supposed to type their signature.

“I look forward to reading more of your thoughts about the Parent Collaborative Agreement that was announced today,” wrote Urban’s Director of Communications Kristen Bailey in an email sent to all Urban students.  “However, I would ask that you please share your opinions, frustrations (and even anger) on Speak Up and in conversation with other students and adults at school, rather than filling in the parents’ form on the website with rude comments and foul language.”

The student outcry about the contract could be a response to the lack of communication between the Parent Association and the student body when the contract was released.

Even though an email was sent out to all parents about the contract, the students were not notified.

Nevertheless, Urban students have found ways to express their opinions. On the “Speak Up” forum, which is an Urban online conference devoted to the debate about current topics, there has been debate about the contract, much of it insightful. To date, the forum has 53 student comments about the parent contract.

Additionally, Urban’s Peer Resource organized a forum to discuss the contract. On Feb. 3, during lunch, more than 100 students and six faculty members squeezed into an Urban classroom to share their ideas about the contract.

The forum was the “conversation that never happened,” said Sarah Atkinson (’12), a member of Peer Resource who led the forum.

Throughout the forum, students from all grades expressed their outlook on the contract.

“I don’t agree with a parent-parent agreement,” said Seth Rosner (’14) in the Peer Resource forum. “I think our parent community should have made a parent-student agreement. That’s definitely what should have been done. That would have helped the parents communicate better with us.”