We have received a tremendous amount of email from out-of-state parents faced with the same problems facing Texas parents and children. Many have asked how they can form their own group. So, below is a basic outline of how we started. This reflects our "best practices" for we certainly did more than the below that proved to be utter failures.
Here are the basics:
- Recruit primary membership
- Research every aspect of your state’s laws governing public school discipline codes
- Develop internal organization
- Develop the goals you want to accomplish and draft a “Business Plan”
- Begin collecting discipline cases in your state
- Begin reporting these cases to your legislature
- Find members of your state’s legislature who are sympathetic to the cause
- Begin working with them to draft reform measures
Recruiting Primary Membership
Talk to parents in your district to see if they know of anyone whose family was hurt by the abuse of disciplinary codes. Research newspapers in your state to see if you find any stories out there and contact these parents to see if they are interested in joining.
Starting a Website
Publicity is key however before you start trying to gain publicity, you need to have an information source to drive interested people to.
Our website is run on a server provided by www.Homestead.com. This is a service that costs money but it is reasonable. The service provides subscribers with editor software that you can use to create your site and make it suit your needs. There are many other website providers which I have had no experience and some are free. Your Internet provider may allow for some free web space and you certainly should look into that. And, hopefully, you will be able to recruit a computer geek – if you aren’t one – who can run a website for you. Have only one or two people working on the site – too many chiefs…
The name of your group should be reflected in your domain name. I would strongly suggest gaining a domain name that people can remember when reading a news article.
Researching State Law
Developing Internal Organization
During this same time period, you should begin to organize internally – if you only have one other parent, so be it. If you have more than six or so, you need to actually decide who is going to lead the group. You need to decide who will be the one that speaks to the media, who is going to research state law, who is going to serve as the primary person to contact members of your state legislature, etc.
Developing Your Goals
You need to determine what your goals are. Is it to change state law? Is it to change a particular district’s discipline policy? Whatever your reason for forming, you should have a very concise resolution within your group and develop a “business plan” in order to accomplish your goals.
Developing Media Campaign
Publicity then becomes number one prior. When Katy Zero Tolerance was formed, it came about through publicity on two specific cases of district abuse of the disciplinary codes. We were able to grow rather rapidly because there was a website to drive people to so they could find out more about our group.
You should contact every major news organization in your state through a press release naming your group as the experts on zero tolerance. Write in the press release basics about your group, why state law hurts the children it is trying to protect, what you are trying to accomplish and a contact person. You need to find out who is the education reporter at each news outlet and always submit story ideas to that person unless you have built up a rapport with another.
As said above, you need to research news articles within your state to find zero tolerance cases. Take note of who wrote the story. This reporter would be more likely to write about another zero tolerance case.
Write letters to the editors of your newspapers – remember to keep anything you submit to under 200 words or they won’t print it. Get on forums and speak about what is happening.
And the most important thing to remember is that if you’re submitting a story idea to a reporter, you basically have to write the whole story for them. It’s not that they are lazy but in many instances, they cannot grasp the situation so you need to walk them down the path.
Begin Collecting Discipline Cases
As a group, I would suggest staying away from helping individuals in their cases other than making suggestions that might help them. Remind people that you are not offering legal advice but what your primary focus is, etc. Make sure you receive parental permission to publish the cases on line. Regardless of whether a parent wants their name involved with the on line story or not, make it your policy to not name names of any party involved with the incident (parent, students, administrators, etc.). It’s simply a matter of courtesy and privacy. A parent might be mad enough to want their name out there but in a month when they cool off and all of their co-workers are asking them about the incident, they will wish they had never put their name out there to begin with.
The only time we use names is if the story has been in the media – then it is public information.
Keep the case reports simple and to the point. Parents write very emotionally charged letters to us and it is extremely time consuming for us to try and write these up so readers can quickly read what happened. We finally developed a format that we ask parents to submit cases to and it has helped quite a bit. If parents then want to write something to simply get it off their chest and want it published, you can add that to the bottom of your basic outline of the incident. Do correct misspellings of submitted cases.
Begin Reporting Cases to Your Legislature
If an incident happened in XYZ District, find the state representatives that represent that school district and email them the case so they are aware of what is happening in their backyard.
Prepare an email list of all state legislators and begin emailing them the stories. Have your supporters email and call their state representatives and tell them how they feel.
Finding Legislators Sympathetic to Your Cause/Working With Them to Change State Law
This is where you need to get on the phones or visit your state capital and contact your representatives individually. Have information to give them and tell them where you stand. Ask them if you can talk with them about changing law to see if they would help.
Everything we did was either by design or dumb luck. What we accomplished in the first six months was because we made a plan and stuck to it. We ran a candidate for school board, part of the plan, and got trounced soundly. That's okay because it got the message out. We had only developed a plan for the first six months and once that was through, we were in disarray. Interest waned and the group began to fall apart.
Thankfully, that summer we were contacted by a legislative aid that wanted to solicit our help in getting legislation passed. That was a Godsend because it gave us a new purpose. It also gave us the opportunity to bring in parents throughout the state. We had several initiatives that we wanted passed but had one of our members who had been pushing his state representative that actually gave us the legislation we could rally around. We helped get this legislation passed and it gave us our new direction.
Texas Zero Tolerance is a three-man show with thousands of people in the state that support our efforts. We do not take in donations and if you decide to, you must check with state and federal law to set up a non-profit corporation.
The influence of the media and the birth of the Internet media give reform groups a stage that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. But this doesn’t assure success. Only your work and dedication does but I should also stress that this should not become your life. Make your goals easy and attainable – small bites instead of stuffing the whole slice of pizza in your mouth – otherwise you will burn out and then you will have wasted your time.
Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions. I don’t know if we can answer everything but we will certainly try. Once you get your website up, let us know and we’ll link our site to yours.