5.16 Discipline and Justice
Chaos and learning don’t generally mix well. Discipline is a critical element of a functioning school, and international research suggests that orderly classes are an important component of an effective place for learning.
Some teachers are masters at bringing their classes to order, and their techniques are worthy of study. Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion offers practical tips based on successful teachers. The New Teacher Center (a Full Circle Fund grant recipient) helps train coaches for new teachers, who are apt to fail at the basic task of establishing a functioning classroom.
When kids get into trouble at school, teachers must decide how to respond. Should they ignore it? Should they call a parent? Should they call in the principal or another school leader? Should the student sit in the corner, or in another room? Each case is different, and the range of responses is enormous.
In most states of the south, the range of responses for school discipline may still may include spanking, slapping and other forms of corporal punishment. Proponents of these practices argue that they serve an effective deterrent purpose, and that administering them is less damaging than than suspension or expulsion, which remove students from the learning environment. Opponents argue that inflicting physical pain is barbaric and sets a bad example for conflict resolution. In order to have some way of creating consequences for bad behavior, some schools (and many more teachers) create positive reward systems for good behavior, such as ice cream parties, in-class movies and the like. Withholding such incentives can help create consequences that students may care about.
Unless a student’s misbehavior requires police involvement, a school’s main official disciplinary options are detention and expulsion, either of which are usually noted on a student’s record. Many schools are reluctant to use suspensions and detentions for a simple, practical reason: they require the involvement of a principal or other school leader. California has adults in the school than any other large state, including principals, counselors and office staff. Time-intensive measures that require adult attention are difficult to put into practice.
In 2011, the Justice Center and PPRI sponsored “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” an extensive analysis of empirical data about disciplinary practices in the state of Texas. The report quantified what many suspected: boys end up in trouble in school more often than girls, and black and latino students end up in trouble more often than white and asian students. The report also showed that trouble early often portends trouble later.
There is a lot of room for bias in the application of suspensions and expulsions. In order to make the use of disciplinary measures more even-handed, and reduce the potential for bias, schools and districts often write policies to define when each penalty will be used. Some apply these penalties on a zero-tolerance basis. In 2012, legislators in California introduced a flurry of bills to address this inconsistency.
Vigorous and fair enforcement of rules seems like a good idea, but there is disappointingly little evidence that it improves outcomes for students. There is a real possibility that detentions, suspensions and expulsions do no good, and may actually do harm.
Community Day Schools are designed for students with behavioral issues, including students on parole or probation. Each year more than 200,000 school-age children in California are arrested. About half that number end up in a juvenile court, and in turn about two-thirds of those children are declared wards of the state.
Obviously, some adolescents find their way into further trouble. More than 10,000 students in California are in a state or county juvenile incarceration facility, at enormous cost to the public. For those interested in learning more, the California Legislative Analyst Office’s primer on California’s Criminal Justice System is a helpful source.
Organizations such as the Ella Baker Center (a Full Circle grant recipient) provide a valuable public service by intervening to help at-risk kids stay in school and out of trouble.