Punishment in School – Is It Consistent?

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February 10, 2016 by Good Teachers Work Hard

After speaking to parents across the nation about the public schools their children attend, I have decided to feature some of their beliefs and misconceptions here. If you have a question or comment about what is happening in public schools, please send it to goodteachersworkhard@gmail.com. We may feature your question in an upcoming blog entry.

Myth #1 – Discipline in Schools is Consistent

False. An Internet search for “unfair discipline at school” will reveal everything from how to circumvent the educational system and sue a school to articles about students who were treated terribly for very minor infractions. As a former teacher, I have personally witnessed both scenarios in schools. Let’s look at two issues that are of concern – IDEA and zero tolerance policies.

In 1975, Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Act to ensure that students with disabilities have access to a “free and appropriate education” like other children. On paper, the act made sense. No one wants their child to receive a substandard education because of a disability. However, IDEA has subsequently presented some challenges to schools with regard to discipline.

Schools now have two sets of rules regarding discipline, one for students with an IEP (Individualized Education Program – a plan for students with emotional disorders and/or learning disabilities) and one for everyone else. In many schools, students with IEPs cannot be suspended for more than 10 school days per year. If principals do not follow these laws, they open themselves and their school districts to lawsuits. In an article from City Journal, an urban policy periodical, author Kay Hymowitz cites specific cases of school discipline issues that have been egregiously mishandled:

In 1975, several students were fighting in the lunchroom. The principal witnessed the fight and suspended the students. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the principal erred by not giving the students an adequate hearing before the suspension. By not doing so, he violated their right to an education.

A New York City special education teacher pulled a student out of class for threatening to kill the assistant teacher. In the commotion, the student received a small cut on his back that did not require medical attention. The teacher found himself at a hearing where the student’s mother threatened to sue. The mother settled out of court, and the student was sent back to the same class. For the rest of the school year, the teacher was taunted by students who threatened to have their mothers bring him up on charges.

A New York City high school student brought a metal-spiked ball to school. However, because that specific weapon was not on a list of proscribed weapons that were banned from schools, the student could sue the district if suspended.

As a former teacher, I want to stress that I am not against having students with IEPs integrated into all classes. I have consistently taught classes where 75% of the students in my classroom received support services. Former students would attest to my unwavering dedication to educate ALL students. However, the above examples present a challenge to teachers, administrators, and school districts. How are schools supposed to maintain order when the law encourages parents to sue, even if a child commits a dangerous, threatening act?

Zero tolerance policies were originally created as a deterrent to serious crimes in school, such as gang activity, drug abuse, and violence. Automatic punishment was given to students who performed a prohibited action. However, this approach has been very unsuccessful. Students have been suspended for taking a phone call (when the call was coming from the student’s father who was stationed in Iraq; violated the school’s no cell phone policy), bringing tiny, plastic Army figures to school (the soldiers had miniature guns; violated a no weapons policy), doodling on a desk with erasable marker (violated a policy against graffiti/defacing school property), and taking a Tylenol (an adolescent girl had cramps; violated the school’s drug policy).

In other cases, students deserve to be disciplined, but perhaps not in the severe way zero tolerance policies dictate. I once taught at an alternative secondary school for felons. A legally blind student was new to my class, so I asked him about his path to our school. He told me that after classes at his former school one day, he and some friends threw a small firecracker into a dumpster at the school’s football field. Because of the zero tolerance policy in his particular school district, the student was brought up on Federal terrorism charges.

So…what can we do? First, familiarize yourself with a school’s discipline policy as soon as possible. Hopefully, you’ll never need to call upon that knowledge. But if you do, you’ll be prepared. Different schools utilize different approaches, and you should know how your school handles certain situations. This is important as a teacher, parent, and taxpayer who votes. In some cases, school boards have input on how schools discipline students. If you don’t like what is occurring in your district, vote accordingly.

Then, talk to students about these school rules. As a teacher, I never used the term ‘rules’ in class. For my students, that word held a terribly negative connotation, so I used the terms ‘norms’ or ‘expectations’ instead (see the Free Resources section of this website to see an example of my classroom norms). If you are a parent, there may be times when school rules are different than rules at home, and that distinction needs to be made clear to students. I have spoken with hundreds of parents who were shocked to find out their child was in trouble for hitting another child, because at home and in the neighborhood, the child is told to stand up for himself/herself at school. In children, this causes confusion – should they listen to mom or their teachers?

However, if you child shares information about a particularly disruptive child in class, you cannot ask the teacher for specifics about the other child. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act states that a parent is only entitled to access records about their child. However, it is within your rights as a parent to ask the school about policies regarding certain situations. If the policies are not satisfactory, email your superintendent, attend a school board meeting, or start a petition.

If you would like to discuss the issue of discipline in our schools further, please leave a comment or email us at goodteachersworkhard@gmail.com.

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