We’ve all seen the videos of fights in schools, student vs. student, student vs. teacher. The incidents have increased in number since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading many parents to ask, “is my child safe at school?” and many teachers worry about their own safety at school.
School discipline is based in policy and philosophy and law. Teachers, administrators and parents from all over the country are reporting unprecedented disruption and violence since the pandemic and debates are raging over what to do with students who consistently disrupt class and put the safety of others at risk.
At its core, discipline serves the purpose of changing behavior. In a perfect world, we would explain to a child why their behavior is unacceptable and they would adjust accordingly.
But that’s not usually how it goes.
This leaves schools in the increasingly difficult position of having to balance the needs and rights of the disruptive student with the needs and rights of all the other students as well as the staff. This balance got much harder to strike in 2014 when the federal government threatened to pull funding from districts with disparities in their suspension data (even if the behaviors were very different and the disparities are justified.) This kind of thinking suggests that students who are removed from class for disruptive behavior should be quickly sent right back to the classroom—the school is worried that the federal government will penalize them for “over-suspension” of students in certain demographic groups. Teachers are increasingly frustrated, classmates are frustrated and parents are understandably concerned.
Much of the discipline jargon currently used is designed to sound benign, virtuous even, to the average ear. We hear words like “restorative justice” and it sounds like a good thing. And sometimes it is. But often it’s not. Proponents of more restorative style practices want less punitive discipline (punishment-based) and when it comes to minor infractions that don’t put their safety or the safety of others at risk. They have a strong argument. A kid littering in the hallway or disassembling the teacher’s stapler or even calling someone a cruel name can be handled in a way that calls upon the offending student to acknowledge their wrongdoing and “repair the harm.”
The problem that many teachers, parents and students have observed is the common practice of treating major infractions as minor ones—the most common examples are behaviors that disrupt the learning of others and put the safety of students and staff at risk. Often the only way to create and maintain a safe learning environment is to remove the disruptors who make it impossible to teach and learn—but administrators increasingly refuse to do that and instead insist upon sending highly disruptive students back to class. It rarely goes well and instead, it derails the class, halts learning and causes teachers and classmates to feel frustrated and disrespected.
One teacher put it this way: “Speaking as a classroom teacher, it is completely ineffective at stopping the unwanted behavior, and very effective at letting others know there will be no punishment for them if they misbehave in the future.”
Defiance is another behavior that is rampant in schools and challenging to address.
Profanity is another.
Bullying is another.
Threats of violence are another.
Physical violence is another.
All of these infractions are different in terms of their severity and the right response to each is often different. The question then becomes, how do we support the offender in changing their behavior while also protecting students and staff from being collateral damage from that behavior?