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Fitch grad upholds law at TCTC

September 24, 2011
Special to the Town Crier
President Harry Truman conveyed a distinct message to visitors who entered the Oval Office. The sign on his desk read, "The Buck Stops Here." Austintown native Dave Phillips, the dean of students at the Trumbull Career & Technical Center, does not use a sign for communication purposes. Nevertheless, student visitors to the office understand that he is a voice of authority in the building. For the past nine years, Phillips has been the administrator in charge of discipline. In a figurative sense, the buck also stops with him.

As a three-sport athlete and captain of the Fitch football team in 1985, Phillips understands the mantle of responsibility. He selected education as a career because he was positively impacted by many of his high school teachers and coaches.

"I had many excellent role models who made a difference for students. I wanted to follow in their footsteps," he said.

After graduation in 1986, he accepted a football scholarship from coach Jim Tressel to attend Youngstown State University. Although Tressel is presently involved in controversy, Phillips holds him in very high regard.

"Coach Tressel was a player's coach. He possessed a nurturing manner that caused athletes to respond to his direction. You knew that he cared about and wanted you to do well in life. I try to incorporate some of his philosophy in working with students," Phillips said.

Dave Hartman coached Phillips at Austintown. He stated, "Dave was an outstanding athlete who always kept his composure on the field. He was a team captain who was level headed, never panicked and made good decisions. The coaching staff had complete confidence in his ability to execute the game plan. He was the type of kid that you knew was going to be successful in whatever he attempted to do in his career. Given his personality, it is easy to see him working constructively with students in areas of discipline. He is a natural fit as a Dean of Students."

Phillips began his teaching career at Nordonia High School outside of Akron, but returned to his alma mater as a social studies teacher and coach in 1996. During this time period, he also received his master's degree in secondary administration from Westminster College.

He was hired as the assistant principal at Newton Falls High School in 2000 before accepting the position as the dean of students at the TCTC in 2002. Gary Hoffman, the director of the school at that time, commented on the reasons for his selection.

"Dave had established a sterling reputation at Newton Falls for his consistent, even handed approach to discipline. He maintained good order in the school while at the same time establishing rapport with the students. Those qualities are disparate ones, but when you find someone who possesses them, you hire them," Hoffman said.

Secondary administrators face a myriad of challenges that are comprehensive in nature. They run the gamut from improving student test scores to maintaining a climate of safety in the school building. Most would agree, however, the issues involving discipline are the quickest to bite back. Phillips credits his background in athletics for providing increased perspective.

"Discipline is ingrained into every fabric associated with sports," he said. "You can't have a successful team if everybody does their own thing. The same thing is true in education. When you institute a rule it must be grounded in common sense. Nobody likes to be suspended from school, but most students and parents will accept your decisions if they believe that you were fair and provide a rationale for your actions."

When talking with aspiring administrators, Phillips emphasizes the importance of remaining calm and keeping the lines of communication open with everyone.

"All of us learn more from our mistakes than our successes. There is a right way and a wrong way to act at all times. One of life's lessons is to learn to accept responsibility for our actions," he said.

Academic Supervisor Larry Crawford says he is impressed with the demeanor demonstrated by Phillips.

"In a building with almost 1,200 students, it is inevitable there will be stressful situations that develop. Dave has an uncanny ability to remain unflappable. He does not lose his cool or say the wrong thing to exacerbate a problem. He will punish the misdeed, but he will not demean the individual. Because he is so good at this, the kids don't hold grudges."

In recent years, there have been numerous judicial rulings that have altered the educational landscape. Most of them support the premise that a student does not shed his constitutional rights when he enters the schoolhouse door. Phillips attends professional in-service and legal seminars to keep abreast of the changes. He said, "You need to be proactive. Most years, we make modifications to our student handbook in response to changes in the law."

President Truman said that the mark of effective leadership is the ability to tell subordinates NO. He knew that he could not accede to all of the requests brought to his attention in the Oval Office. Neither can a high school administrator.

Most of the students who visit Dave Phillips are not asking for something. They are asking to get out of something. Can I have my detention switched? Can I have my suspension delayed? Can I have my history class changed? Navigating the fine line between making an exception and upholding consistent regulations is a skill that is not taught in graduate school. He knows what Harry Truman understood more than a half century ago -- the buck stops with him.

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