Tag Archives: discipline

Taking it to the Courts – Discipline, Part II

Second in a series. You can find the first here.

I’d like to share the opening of a recent Washington Post article with you:

SPRING, TEX. — In a small courtroom north of Houston, a fourth-grader walked up to the bench with his mother. Too short to see the judge, he stood on a stool. He was dressed in a polo shirt and dark slacks on a sweltering summer morning.

“Guilty,” the boy’s mother heard him say.

He had been part of a scuffle on a school bus.

I had to think about this for a second. Do you know how old fourth graders are? They are 9 or 10 years old. Reading this, my thoughts immediately went to a young teenager, but a teenager none the less. But a 9 year old? Wow.

Does anyone think this is ok?

Ok this is an emotional reaction to a emotion-provoking piece of writing. So I’ll try to step back a bit. I’ve recently read a few articles on the so-called “criminalization” of student discipline. I’ve written once before on “zero-tolerance” from my own perspective.

Zero tolerance doesn’t seem to be working. School districts are considering dropping zero tolerance policies. There is evidence of racial tolerance (which seems to imply that zero isn’t really always zero, anyway).  It raises drop-out rates. In fact, one of the leading punishments for truancy is … wait for it … suspension. So, what do we do about it?

Jan Day pointed me to an article about Judge Steve Teske and his efforts to keep kids with minor discipline issues out of court. I highly recommend you take some time to read the article and click on some of the links. One of the interesting quotes, to me, is Teske’s recall of his own naughtiness during school:

Teske recalls pulling a prank at age 13 that set off his school’s fire alarm. He recalls the mass havoc that ensued. The threat of arrest. The terror he felt.

His principal prevailed in insisting the school system would mete out the punishment. “Would I even be a judge today had I gone to jail that day?” he asks.

He says he was inspired by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. In his district, he brought together parents, teachers, police, social-services and students to discuss better ways of doing things. In the end, his approach is not easier. It takes time and is not a cookie-cutter implementation – there is a lot of gray.

Now student incidents are managed in school more – referrals to juvenile court fell more than 70% over 7 years. Weapons incidents have dropped. Tips on serious offenses improved, as did relations between students and police.

And graduation rates are up 20% in that same timeframe. Other school districts are starting to take notice.

Teske shares an interesting metaphor in his blog.

Officer Robert Gardner, a veteran school police officer with Clayton County describes his student population using a lamb, sheep, and wolf allegory. Most of the student population is made up of sheep. They make noise, get into some trouble, but nothing major. They just make you mad from time to time.

The lambs are the nerds — always quiet and under the radar. They make up about 25 percent, at most, of the population.

The wolves — they are the dangerous students who come to school to wreak havoc and prey on others. They also make up no more than 2 percent of the population.

Gardner says his job is to focus on the wolves — the predators — the 2 percent. He says he can’t do it if he is arresting sheep.

But, let’s set aside stories of students referred to court for soda-pop possession, what about those kids who are clearly trouble – the “wolves?” Don’t we need to get them out of the classroom so we can focus on the kids who are there to learn? And what responsibility do we have to try and turn around those kids who do make trouble. Do we just give up?

A friend of mine shared a People Magazine article* about a judge in St. Louis making a difference in some of those wolves’ lives.

Here’s a little something about one of the students offered a chance at Edwards’ school:

In the fall of 2010, [16 year old] Jakayla Ivory stabbed a classmate in the neck with an ice pick during a fight.

Wow. That raises a different kind of emotion, right? This student had been kicked out of four schools since the seventh grade for various disciplinary problems. Now this violent encounter not only landed her in jail, but all but guaranteed her to be kicked out of school altogether, with all statistics about dropouts in front of her. But she was offered a life line.

Judge Jimmie Edwards started the Innovative Concept Academy in 2007 – an experimental school designed as a last resort for troubled and violent kids. The school takes the most desperate cases out of the justice system and gives them one last chance to change. Edwards, who sentenced hundreds of people to prison before moving to juvenile court, says “I knew I could do better than just taking away someone’s liberty.”

Beyond academics, close supervision and a strong, clear disciplinary approach, the school keeps students busy with after school problems and exposes them to new activities like golf, fashion, chess, and dancing.

These are students with difficult home lives and, often, quick tempers. But the students feel the change – Jakayla, above, raised her grades from F’s to B’s and C’s. She returned to public school, where is she now doing well. Other students have had similar turn-arounds. The article indicates that it’s too early to tell if the approach is working. But of 700 students enrolled since the start, only four have returned to the criminal justice system. That sounds like working to me.

We all are concerned about crime, the cost of keeping people in jail, how to prevent crime in our cities and communities. But we also think “We can’t save everyone! Some kids are just bad!” But perhaps Judge Edwards’ effort is well worth the time and energy. Maybe it would truly benefit all of us to think about how to help the toughest cases.

What do you think?


*I wish I could refer you to the article, but I can’t seem to find an online copy. However, if you also want to hear about Jackie O’s private life, check out this podcast of the magazine – the article starts just before the halfway point on the podcast. The article is in the October 10, 2011 issue of People Magazine and was written by Jeff Truesdell and Alex Tresniowksi.

One Teacher’s Viewpoint on Discipline

So I was so excited to see a comment on my “Discipline” blog post from Melisa Mitchell, a college friend of mine who is a 11th and 12th grade English teacher in Baltimore, MD at inner-city school.

Amidst all the talk about standardized testing, how to evaluate teachers and students, and city-wide benchmarks it is nice to hear from one teacher about what is and isn’t working in her classroom. So I wanted to share her comments more widely. So, here it is, from Melisa!

I think about this topic a lot because I was over-disciplined as a kid and am now a teacher who is accused by her administrators of under-disciplining her students. (I teach 11th and 12th grade English in an inner-city school in Baltimore.) However, I do not have even HALF the classroom management issues that other teachers in my building have: Kids don’t talk back to me, don’t cuss me out, don’t throw desks or get into fights. They participate, think about things, disagree with each other (and learn how to do so respectfully), and disagree with me (sometimes without the level of respect I’d prefer, but they are works in progress). And this “works in progress” thing is something I think adults tend to forget: Kids’ brains are wired to make them act like kids, and teenagers are no exception–just because they look more like adults doesn’t mean that they’re capable of acting like adults. Kids act like kids but want to be treated like adults; adults want them to act like adults but treat them like kids. They need to be able to make their own mistakes so that they can learn from them and become, as your dad and his siblings did, healthy and successful adults. People who are sheltered from making mistakes by adults who attempt to control them never learn the critical things we must to be functional members of society and tend to become so fearful of making a mistake that they aren’t capable of functioning. There need to be mistakes, and there need to be realistic consequences, but getting put out of class for not having a pen or for falling asleep is not appropriate. WHY does that kid not have a pen? WHY is that kid sleeping in class? The causes of their behavior need to be addressed as much as the behavior itself.

There are so many factors that go into making us who we are, and I want so much as an educator to be one of the adults my students come in contact with who helps shape them into functional citizens NOT by raising my voice every time they do something wrong but simply by holding them accountable for their choices; by not judging them and accepting that they are flawed people just like I am; and by continuing to guide them in making good choices without making their choices for them. It’s hard to care so much about kids and not want to fix all their wrongdoings before they occur, but it is our obligation to let the mistakes happen. No one ever learned everything she needs to live her life from cautionary tales told by someone to whom she can’t even relate. Certainly we must have some behavioral constraints and clear expectations, but letting kids fall is critical to their growth.

I feel like this is a little rambly, but as I sit in my classroom at lunchtime reading your post and watching the nuts run the halls outside my door, you really got me thinking. Thank you for that!

Melisa, forget rambly! This is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. It sounds like you are just the kind of teacher we need out there. Here’s hoping you get the support you need and deserve.

This is an important conversation. There is much to be considered and even more at stake. Are you a teacher or an administrator struggling with this issue? Please share your thoughts!

Discipline: It’s not personal (until it is).

Talking about discipline stirs up some serious emotion for me. And I’m clearly not alone, especially when the subject is disciplining kids and teens in school.

I’ve been procrastinating on this blog post because it’s such a sprawling topic. I’ve seen a bunch of articles about it recently (which I link to at the end of this post). From classroom techniques to racial bias to zero-tolerance…there are so many angles to consider. And discipline goes to the very heart of raising children – it fundamentally helps them define their morality and hopefully becomes their guide when making choices throughout their lives. Johnny shouldn’t hit Jane. Jane shouldn’t cheat Judy.

No wonder it’s so emotional. I think it might be important to remember that. Now that I think about it, maybe this topic needs a series of blog posts. And if it’s going to be a series and it’s going to be emotional – I might as well start with a story about my family.

<cue 60s background music>

I grew up listening to my dad’s stories of growing up in DC and the near suburbs with his 7 siblings – six brothers and a sister. My grandfather died when my dad was 12 and my grandmother (Mema) was pregnant with her eight child. The math:  4 kids under age six; the oldest brother was only 14.

If I were my Mema, I might have thrown myself off a bridge. Luckily for us, she didn’t.

Those four older brothers? They were pretty much on their own. “Single mother” Mema had to focus her energies on the babies. So growing up, my dad came home when he wanted, played pool, drank too much and got 3 tattoos before he turned 14. His brothers were the subject of regular visits from the police. My Mema protected her boys – always assuming their innocence –and was a place of refuge for other neighborhood kids who needed a place. But in the stories I hear, discipline wasn’t nearly a priority when compared getting food on the table. She stepped in when she felt she had to, but for the most part she let them figure it out on their own.

My dad dropped out of school after 10th grade. I haven’t asked him about discipline at school – I need to – because I assume that school wasn’t nearly as meaningful to him as working to help put food on the table for all his siblings (and maybe goofing off at the pool hall too). My dad’s brothers had similar experiences. Most got into a fair amount of trouble, even with the police. Most wouldn’t have been considered “college material” today.

Imagine this for a second! If you had asked my grandmother where my dad was on any particular afternoon, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Think for a minute about your kids, if you have them – do you EVER not know where they are?

So where are my dad and his brothers now? Well, they all are upstanding members of society. They are successful businessmen (some blue collar like my dad; some white collar like my Uncle Tom; some military like my Uncle John). All save one had children of their own who have grown up to be fine adults.

Nice story, right?  But what does this have to do with #EDU and school policies and the national conversation about how to manage discipline?

Well, I’m going to speculate for a second.

<cue current urban soundtrack and fuzzy dream sequence montage>

Today we have zero-tolerance discipline. Kids like my father would probably be seen as a huge problem. I imagine he would most likely been expelled from school early on. He might even be serving jail time, instead of occasional visits from a local police officer. My grandmother might have had to pay fines as a result of his misbehavior – taking more food off of an already spare table. She may have been arrested for her boys’ truancy. I don’t think it’s a very far reach to imagine that she may have had serious intervention from social services. How might this have affected my dad and his brothers?

Speculation! It tends to be scarier than real life. I’ll stop now.

My point is that my dad’s infractions might bring very different, more serious and longer-term consequences today. If this happened today, would harsher discipline “turn him around” earlier? Would it be better for him and his family today? Or worse? Would his wayward youth affect him as an adult? Would he be able to be the successful person he is today? Or would his past haunt him? Make him un-hireable?

I don’t know. But lots of the issues inherent in this story inspire blog posts from strong advocates (on one side or another). These are just a few of the articles that started me thinking:

Is this just a media thing? Is there really an issue here? Articles tend to be of two varieties: “OMG we aren’t allowed to discipline students” or “OMG we are disciplining students too harshly, look at this insane example.”

But wait. In Texas (which has taken a huge step toward helping us make sense of this by making so much data available),  31 percent of students were suspended or expelled at least once in their middle and high school years. 31 percent! Would you have guessed that many? I didn’t. That’s a lot of bad kids.

Or are they? Bad I mean. I think we assume they are bad – or troublesome, a nicer word. But they probably deserve it, right?

I don’t know. There are too many questions to have one answer. But it’s on my mind and I feel like it needs to be talked about in multiple forums and from multiple perspectives. So check out those articles I linked to above. Share any resources you have. And share your thoughts!

What comes to your mind first when you think of discipline in school? Do you worry about teachers who have to deal with the possibility of violence? Do you worry about your kids’ safety? Are you concerned that a good kid’s academic life will be ruined by a single mistake? Do you think parents hinder or help discipline at school? Do you worry that parents and teachers are at odds over discipline? Do you think zero tolerance is the right way to go? Is there a “right way” to do zero tolerance?

How will our choices for children today shape their futures?