Ask me what I think about school discipline and I will give you an answer born out of my time steeped in education tea.
A decade ago I campaigned for school board saying I thought children should have safe, orderly, and rigorous schools that prepare them for a good life. When asked by parents about student suspensions I said “the number of school suspensions should be exactly equal to the number of suspendable offenses committed. No more, no less.”
I thought it was a clever way of saying the consequences for unacceptable behavior in schools should be reasonable but fixed.
Worried about my dogmatism, district leaders privately offered me data sessions that showed suspensions were being used as a management tool to exclude specific groups of children from classrooms for vague reasons like “defiance,” and the application of discipline rules varied by the race of the teacher and the student. The pattern was detectable enough that we were at-risk of civil rights litigation.
That complicated things, and, so, I did what politicians do, I evolved.
Yes, I started out with the old school belief that strong discipline is the first ingredient of successful schools, but I came to see the contours and nuances of the issue, to the point where I could easily be mistaken for a liberal (I am not).
Now, I have a confession.
The best way to explain my dilemma is to use a crude frame and say I’ve learned there are different types of sh*t in this world. There’s SIS, which is about the sh*t I say.
There is SID, or shit I do.
And, most mysterious of all sh*t types, there is the SIT, or sh*t I think.
When it comes to discipline in public schools the SIS no longer matching the SIT.
I talk a good game about equity in education, the need to reduce out-of-school suspensions, and the civil rights of students who are pushed out of school for bad behavior. I cite the standard studies that people like me (those who don’t speak academia Greek) understand, and I sternly push back on the lesser people who fail to be moved by the power of my citation generator.
Dare you speak incorrectly about these issues I might Tweet at you all manner of stench until you mute me.
“Harsh school discipline is a manifestation of systemic racism in state-run education.”
That’s the SIS.
The SIT is this: all that social justice and restorative justice drum beating may resonate in my power-to-the-people soul, but, let’s have some honesty here, my declared values face a gladiator battle against the reality I see on the ground.
To be specific, one of my sons is a daily witness to minor and major forms of bullying between races and classes of students in his new school. Some of it amounts to the kids-will-be-kids variety of abuse like relentlessly making fun of ears or nose sizes or other immutable characteristics.
Other times its nuisance crimes like having his personal property purposefully broken by other people’s children.
And, too often for my comfort, it is the threat of violence or actual violence.
In most of those cases, I give my kids all the bad advice I was given back in the era of disco.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
“Never start a fight, but always finish one.”
“If you feel you’re going to lose a fight, make sure your opponent gets so many scars they never want to try you again.”
And, most famously, “respect everyone, but if they put their hands on you punch them in the throat.”
Luckily I’m married and my wife offers our kids responsible strategies to use when they encounter trouble at school.
The fact that we need to focus so intently on working with our kids on navigating don’t wild school environments where adults have too little control is a sign that has “exit” written all over it.
But, it gets worse. My elementary school-age daughter reports to us she has been punched has had her hair pulled, and was spit on by a boy in her class.
Playtime is over.
This is where the SIS transforms into the SIT and SID.
We emailed our daughter’s teacher who responded with a rather long reply detailing all the wonderful things she does to keep our children safe.
Wonderful things that still allow for punching, hair pulling, and the involuntary exchange of fluids.
Unsatisfied with that response, we escalated the problem to the principal which resulted in a meeting with the school’s behavior specialist who could only offer a word salad of education speak, none of which acknowledged the impermissibility of peer violence in our daughter’s classroom.
At that point, I’m morally, politically, and spiritually conflicted.
All of the aggravating statements right-wingers say come into focus at a moment like this.
“While you’re focusing on the minority of misbehaving students, what about the rights of behaving students who deserve an education”?
It makes sense. What about the students in my daughters class who have constant disruptions from the same few students, some who require multiple adults to drag them from the classroom?
The stock progressive answers seem to fail here.
No, the teachers won’t offer lessons so engaging that it will infatuate the student who throws scissors, overturns desks, constantly interrupts, and menaces his classmates.
No, the fact that suspension or exclusion will not work out well for the scissor thrower, desk overturner, interrupter, and menace does not override the 25 other students’ sense of safety and order in that classroom.
And, no, many children prone to poor behavior are not miraculously turned around by incessant prompts about their good or bad choices.
Still, I’m torn because I know students with self-regulation challenges aren’t “bad” or disposable. They are not an afterthought. They have unsurpassable worth. We know there is a lot going on in the lives of children that adults don’t see. When they misbehave we only see the outward manifestations, the acting out, the behavioral calls for help from little people attempting to comprehend bad circumstances.
So, when my conservative cousins go so far as to say student discipline is the instigator of out-of-control schools (or worse), I think their case forgets the number of school-based, administrative factors that make some environments safer than others even when they have similar populations.
And, I think they’re suspiciously ignorant of the ways race and class determine the punishments and solutions for too many students.
The liberals need some feedback too. They will have a hard time selling their portfolio of peer-reviewed research about the horrors of high behavioral expectations in schools if it means parents like me must subject our daughters and sons to repeated breaches of their personal space and right to safety and property.
The truth as I see it is somewhere in the middle. Restorative justice programs can change discipline outcomes, but only if they are implemented well and tweaked until they produce the desired result. Yet, time and experience have proven to me that anything that requires competence in implementation is doomed in the majority of school districts. My child can’t wait for you to get your staff trained, evaluated, and monitored enough to know whether or not your talking circles and justice rooms are helping students act human.
This isn’t me speaking. Of course not. This is just me thinking, privately, what people think as they slowly peel away from public schools. In the process, they profess values we all should profess, but that doesn’t stop them from quietly acting upon the discordant things they think.
My kid isn’t safe is one mammoth and motivating thing to think.
And, for the record, shaming us won’t work in this case because – speaking for me and mine – there isn’t enough shame in the world for me to sacrifice the safety and potential of my children.
But that’s just me.