Monday 21 March, 2011:
I’ve managed to track down (with the help of La-Verne) Inia’s original youth counsel. However, he tells me that due to the seriousness of the charges, the case has now passed to a more senior lawyer. I phone the new lawyer (her name is Lena Tamaleiagi), and she tells me she’s willing to come to the meeting if her schedule permits.
After school, I go round to see the boys. They haven’t got the date for their Board hearing yet. Tahiwai tells me, “The cops are surprised to see Inia doing his school work every time they show up!”
I dunno, this stuff… I got to do it. I prioritize Tau and Inia above all other concerns of the moment. Being misinterpreted by Marjorie or anyone else is the least of my worries… but I do feel tired.
I worry about Tau too. Getting angry, smashing things up, driving into a fence, or whatever happened – he says a van nearly hit him, and he had to veer off the road. He was probably speeding. And yet the other day I got a buzz from going fast too – I don’t deny it.
But then, Tau knows me like pretty much no-one else does. And it works both ways. More often than not he’s peaceful and pliant with me, not stressed or shamed or angry. I feel so honoured by that. And I won’t ditch Tau.
Tuesday 22 March:
I have to really fight for Inia and Noa, today. Inia texts me this morning to say they still haven’t heard from the Board, and can I find out what’s happening. I mail Karys’s PA. She replies, telling me that the meeting is today at 4:30pm, the letter was posted Friday, and: “I believe the school has fulfilled its legal requirements,” (to give the family 48 hours notice) she says.
But the letter hasn’t arrived. And even if it was posted Friday (and who really knows?), it was unlikely to have been delivered before Monday, which would still be less than 48 hours prior to the meeting.
So I have to act fast. I go phone Tahiwai – he’s pretty pissed with the school giving such short notice. He has an appointment himself this afternoon; he doesn’t think he can put it off. But he tells me the boys will be there. He sighs, accepting all of this because he has no choice.
Then I ring Lena Tamaleiagi. She also has an appointment this afternoon. She says she’ll try to get to the Board meeting, but can’t be certain. She’s suspicious of school’s motives as well: “Can they do that?” she questions. I warm to her right away.
But I don’t have non-contacts today, and there’s Staff PD – the whole time I’m feeling sick inside. I know I’m not really prepared. I don’t want to let Inia and Noa down, but I wasn’t expecting this meeting so soon. I don’t even have a statement ready for Noa – and Inia’s is still a draft. And with the lawyer unlike to make it… oh, I know I’ll do it on my own if I have to. But all the same, I kind of tremble.
After PD I talk to La-Verne. When I mention that the Board letter hasn’t reached the family yet, she’s immediately interested, saying, “What’s the legal requirement?”
“48 hours,” I tell her. “But I don’t know if that means the school has to post it 48 hours before the meeting, or that the family has to get it 48 hours before the meeting.”
“Then you should find out,” says La-Verne. “And if they haven’t followed the process, you can get the meeting adjourned.”
“But I don’t know where to -” I begin.
La-Verne tells me firmly, “Check the disciplinary policy – it must be on the network somewhere. Because you don’t want to go in today, right? You weren’t expecting the meeting, and no-one’s really prepared.”
“Right,” I say, “But…”
“Listen,” says La-Verne. “If you mention the words ‘due process’ to the Board of Trustees, they’ll have to take notice. They know damn well that there’s procedures which have to be followed.”
So I check. There’s no policy on the school network – I have to go to the Ministry website and search for the relevant legislation. And there it is – after some delving – 48 hours’ notice to be given to the family, prior to the meeting. I print off the page; highlight the points – and a few minutes later, there’s Inia tapping at the office door.
I go out to Inia, who is in full school uniform (I’ve suggested they come in uniform). We walk over to where Noa (also in uniform) is waiting by the administration block. Again, I feel a huge weight of responsibility, considering the trust their family have placed in me today.
It’s almost 4:30 by now. I explain to the boys what I’ve just found out – they nod, too nervous to fully understand what I mean. As we walk to the front entrance, we see Karys arrive. She walks past and says, “Hi guys,” but her eyes are cold. Of course I’m aware that the management hadn’t ever really expected me to be there. ‘Empathy’ with the boys is one thing. But Karys obviously perceives this as another thing entirely. It’s a challenge to her authority. And Karys can be very intimidating. Her physical presence is enough on its own, but added to that is the look in her eyes. She’s sure of her dominance.
Then, amazingly, Inia’s lawyer is waiting for us at reception. Karys and the Board members are already going upstairs – I ask Karys if we can have five minutes before we come up. We introduce ourselves all round, and I quickly apprise Lena of the situation. We agree that we’ll request an adjournment.
We walk up to the boardroom and file in, shaking hands with the Board members as Karys introduces us, then directs us to the far end of the table. She and the Board Chair sit at the head of the table, and two other Board members sit next to her.
“Thank you all for coming,” begins Karys. “This Board meeting has been set to discuss the future of Inia and Noa at Municipal College, as outlined in the suspension letter which the school has sent out to the family.”
Lena politely interjects: “Excuse me Karys – but there is an issue to raise here. The suspension letter has not been received by the family.”
Karys replies, “I can assure you the letter was posted, in accordance with our normal school procedures.”
“I’m not questioning the school’s procedures,” says Lena. “But the legal requirement is that the family receive the letter 48 hours prior to the meeting. They have not received the letter. The only reason they’re here – the only reason we’re here today – is because of Inia’s teacher.” She looks at me, and continues. “The family have been in contact with her, to let her know they’ve not received the letter. She then followed up by finding out the details and notifying the family.”
Karys casts me a hostile look and snaps, “That raises the question of why she did not inform the school earlier, if she was aware there was a problem.”
I begin, “I didn’t realise there was a problem until -”
“Let me finish please,” Karys goes on, and I have no choice but to wait.
Eventually I’m able to tell the Board: “I was unfamiliar with the procedure. I knew the school had a requirement to notify the family of the suspension meeting, but other than that, I had no knowledge of the actual policy, or the process. I wasn’t aware that there was a problem until this morning, when I found out the details of today’s meeting time. I consulted the Education Act this afternoon, which was when I became aware of the legal requirements: the disciplinary meeting itself needs to be held within seven days and the family must receive 48 hours notice.”
This, of course, is the truth. But I don’t know if Karys believes it. Still, it doesn’t matter. The Board have no choice but to arrange an adjournment – and Karys tells us the next letter will be hand-delivered. She also (reluctantly) agrees to mail Lena with the details.
As we leave, up the stairs come Tahiwai, his mother, his sister-in-law, and three nieces and nephews, who have all raced here as soon as they could to be with the boys. They look very worried to see the meeting is over – but at the expressions on our faces they realise things are alright.
And the expression on Karys’s face: she actually looks stunned – there are now eight people in Inia and Noa’s support party. The Board members leave quietly, while introductions and embraces take place.
Afterwards, we gather outside to discuss our next move. Noa and Inia ask me if I can come over and help them with their assessments, too, and I tell them I’ll come on Friday. Then Lena and I walk across to the block, to photocopy the suspension letter (the one no-one had received).
On the way, Lena say, “The school wanted them gone.”
“Karys wasn’t happy,” I say. “I was so glad you were there. She can be very intimidating – I was shaking in my boots.”
She tells me, “If it wasn’t for you, no-one would have been there, and the boys would have been expelled.” And then she adds, “It’s never easy for the people who are prepared to stick their necks out. But Inia will never forget this – that someone stood up for him, when it really mattered.”
So, we live to fight another day. But things have only just gotten started. And in between all this, I have to teach. My mind is so weary; somehow I have to think of a way of being smart, and I’m not sure how to be smart. I’m not sure how to play it – I’m not sure how we can win.