Don't Blame The Kids
Days before Washington hosted the "Million Man March'' and the National African-American Leadership Summit last fall, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report showing that one-third of African-American men between the ages of 20 and 29 are in the criminal-justice system, either in prison, in jail awaiting trial, on probation, or paroled. Unfortunately, America's schools helped put many of them where they are.
How? The process is well-known. It starts on a child's first day of school and continues subtly throughout his or her academic career. Schoolchildren are tracked, sorted, labeled, and pigeonholed. Some are chronically detained, expelled, suspended, or removed. Either they are "pushed out'' or they are graduated knowing little. Either way, they have failed and been failed.
The honing process creates public schools that look very much like demographic prisons, with the least-preferred children holding the short straw--and with the career path between schools and prisons becoming all too direct. The process is grounded in our often subliminal perceptions of children according to race, class, religion, sex, disability, and demeanor and is acted out by teachers, administrators, and others. Then it is legitimized with arguments for greater discipline and instructional serenity.
While not a new issue, behavior in the schools is a subject that has become hot again because of well-publicized violent events, such as a recent attack on a teacher in St. Louis, which made the networks' prime-time newscasts. In addition, high-profile public-opinion polls, including First Things First, the 1994 report by the nonprofit Public Agenda Foundation, and the annual American Teacher surveys compiled by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., have listed school discipline as the number-one educational concern of both teachers and the general public.
These incidents and the poll results have brought renewed calls for a crackdown in discipline, including the removal of disruptive--and sometimes disabled--students from the regular classroom. This, proponents say, will allow other students to learn and restore the public's confidence in its schools.
It sounds good in theory. But before we encourage the very practices that have separated our children in the name of discipline and helped create the prison population many now find appalling, let's consider what we are doing and what signals we are sending our young people.
First, consider the facts. Data from the National Education Goals Panel show that only 1 percent of public school teachers feel unsafe in their school buildings during the day, as do 2 percent of urban teachers. Some 8 percent of teachers feel unsafe after school hours. A poll conducted two years ago for the Ford Foundation showed that 76 percent of teachers had no problem maintaining order in their classrooms. And a new report by the federal office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention shows that while violent youth crime is rising rapidly, children are safer in schools than they are anywhere else, including their homes--if they have one. Teachers are, too.
Second, poll results such as those on discipline from Public Agenda are merely that: polling results. They do not always mean that the public's perceptions are correct or that they are or should be the basis for public policy. A recent poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, showed that the public thinks there are twice the number of African Americans in the population as there actually are. The findings are a perfect example of popular perception outstripping reality. Besides, these poll results--as good as the polling techniques that produced them may be--may reflect little more than what the public has been fed over the years about how violent urban schools are.
Third, and most important, by "throwing out'' unruly children, we focus on the wrong set of people. We frame the entire discussion about school discipline as if it were a problem with the kids alone. It is not. Children are raised by adults. They learn by example.
Adults, not kids, make the movies and TV shows that glorify violence and disruption, all acted out by adults. Adults, not kids, make the business decisions that encourage sexually frank marketing geared toward younger and younger children. Adults, not kids, manufacture and distribute the guns used on city streets to maim and kill. Adults, not kids, highlight and often encourage the fighting in our sporting events. And adults, not kids, grow and harvest the drugs that numb minds young and old.
Is this soft-headed, liberal baloney? No, just the opposite. It is an attempt to secure more adult responsibility for the condition of children--those who are disruptive and those who are not. It is an attempt to push the debate past the "let's get them out of here so we can teach'' tidiness of some disciplinary proposals. And it is another attempt, however futile, to give the needs of children, not adults, some primacy in the schooling process.
What happens after you pull the problem kids from your school? Where do they go? Who takes responsibility for them? How do they get back? And how do they learn to live like productive members of society?
Some have suggested that school districts, particularly in cities, establish alternative settings for these students. The idea is OK, but such settings should be designed in such a way that they do not evolve into the warehouses and detention centers of old.
To do that we need the following: First, school officials need to devise clear policies about the frequencies and types of misbehaviors that could land a child in an alternative school. Second, schools need to devise due-process mechanisms for students and their parents or guardians. Third, schools should develop individual plans for each student that articulate what he or she needs and how the new setting will provide it. Fourth, the settings need to be adequately staffed with well-qualified regular teachers, counselors, and mentors who can provide each student with more personal guidance--and do it in such a way that the alternative schools do not become magnets. Fifth, school leaders should set up clear accountability mechanisms for teachers, school staff members, parents, and the students. Sixth, services at the alternative schools need to be well-connected with other community services in the area. Seventh, the districts need to build corridors and incentives for how students get back into the regular setting so that they do not become marginalized and tracked again. Finally, school leaders, teachers, and others need to work together on how to keep more of these students in school in the first place.
Without these or similar criteria, alternative schools become nothing but another device for excluding children, particularly minority students. There are good examples in Los Angeles; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; and other cities for how to design programs with these features.
Kids, of course, need to be held more accountable for what they do and how they do it. Learning limits is an essential part of childhood. But the current debate about discipline should be about more than just kids. It should also be about us, the adults. Without strong adult support and carefully planned alternative settings, a "crackdown'' on discipline in schools will only exacerbate conditions that lead kids into the penal system. This important community issue needs to be examined carefully by everyone who cares about children. If the goal of public schools is to create a level playing field for every child to pursue his or her dreams, then we must truly be committed to every child. Even the ones who aren't so easy.
Vol. April 1996