Published Online: January 21, 1998

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Compassion in Discipline Means Tough Consequences

To the Editor:

A recent article indicated that, as a result of tougher discipline policies in Milwaukee, expulsions have tripled ("Student Expulsions Soar Under Milwaukee's New Discipline Policy," Dec. 10, 1997). The move was met with approval by most patrons of the district, you report, but one school board member criticized the new policy because it doesn't provide an alternative for the students expelled from school. This is certainly a reasonable concern, but I would like to respond with some practical observations from 15 years in education.

When severe consequences such as expulsion or long-term suspension are meted out for bad behavior, the most frequent criticism is that schools must show compassion for the student and give him or her another chance. Often the disciplined student has complicating circumstances such as family problems, drug and alcohol abuse, or other mental or emotional problems. In response to this plea for second chances, I can say from experience that seldom is a student expelled who is committing a serious violation for the first time. Most of these students have been frequent discipline problems, and only after a very serious violation or many less-serious violations are they actually expelled. Most of them see lesser consequences as minor inconveniences and no reason to change their behavior. That's why they are constantly involved in the discipline system.

The issue of compassion applies to all students, including the vast majority who follow the rules and cause no serious disruption in the peaceful climate that should be present in schools. We should be just as concerned about these rule-abiding students' right to have a safe, respectful learning climate. That would require that we not use misplaced compassion as an excuse for allowing one or two students to disrupt the environment. Quite often, students are not expelled because administrators fear the criticism that will follow. It is my experience that more criticism comes from parents of rule-abiding students for not dealing forcefully with serious violations than from the parents of the disciplined student.

Sometimes the most compassionate action we can take is to apply the most painful consequence. This may be the only way to make the student aware that certain behavior is simply not tolerated. Every year, I see one or more former students who have been expelled and come back to visit. Many of them say that their expulsion was warranted and that it was the factor that eventually convinced them to change their behavior. Many of these students have gone on to graduate or get their General Educational Development diplomas, and they often are dealing with the underlying drug, alcohol, or emotional problems that got them into trouble in the first place.

One such student, a girl who had been expelled for truancy and alcohol violations, eventually ended up in a reformatory, where she received alcohol treatment and got her GED. She returned recently to tell us that she is now attending college and hopes to go to law school. A boy who had been expelled returned many months after his expulsion to tell us he had realized he was fighting every school rule he could and was simply not ready to learn. He is now going to a vocational school and will apprentice as a welder. This student offered to talk to other students with attitudes similar to his.

Critics of tough discipline policies say that schools should provide an alternative for expelled students. This argument has merit, but it raises the question of whose responsibility this is. Shouldn't the parents be responsible for correcting their child's behavior? In many cases, parents aren't willing or able to deal with their child's problems, but does this automatically transfer that responsibility to the school?

Could our inclination to hold schools responsible be just another example of "enabling" the bad behavior? Maybe if all the involved parties do their jobs--schools, parents, police, courts, and society--more of these problem students will eventually correct their own behavior. But if we continue to lay all the responsibility at the feet of school personnel, we will find the resources insufficient.

Few would say that students who get into trouble should not get help with their problems. But at some point, schools have to draw the line and put responsibility where it belongs: with the student and his or her parents. We must take care to ensure that our compassion for students applies to all of them, and that we are not in fact allowing bad behavior to blossom into serious disruptions.

Chuck Schmidt
Associate Principal
Hayden High School
Topeka, Kan.

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