President’s Approach To School Discipline Draws Criticism

By Cindy Currence — January 25, 1984 9 min read
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Responding to President Reagan’s call for “good, old-fashioned discipline,” educators said last week that they welcomed the attention to the problems of student behavior but that the President’s proposed initiatives represent a “very, very narrow” approach to a complex phenomenon.

And some, like Mary H. Futrell, president of the National Education Association, accused the President of using the initiatives as “nothing more than a political gimmick at the start of a Presidential campaign.”

She and others criticized Mr. Reagan for painting too grim a picture of the school-discipline situation, for failing to distinguish between routine disciplinary problems and crime in the schools, and for relying on statistics from a 1978 study that they say are outdated.

But many, like Phyllis Blaunstein, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, also agreed that the President’s initiatives “could not fail to help.”

The initiatives, formally announced this month by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, include plans to:

  • Conduct extensive research, sponsored by the U.S. Education Department, into the school-discipline problem and disseminate examples of solutions that some schools have found effective;
  • Establish a national school-safety center in the Justice Department to work with the Education Department on school-safety problems; and
  • Instruct the Justice Department to file “friend-of-the-court” briefs to support cases that seek to increase the authority of teachers, principals, and school administrators to deal with school-discipline problems.
  • Calling those proposals “well-intentioned,” educators nonetheless argued last week that the problems of school violence and discipline are too complex for the President’s initiatives to have a major impact.

    “He can call for better discipline all he wants,” said Philip C. Cox, principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., “But the principal and staff working together with the community is what will improve discipline. He’s got to provide the kinds of funds that will enable us to improve the situation.”

    Returning funds that have been cut from social programs over the last three years is the solution to school-discipline problems that the President should be concerned with, Mr. Cox said.

    “I think there has to be a multi-level approach,” Ms. Blaunstein said, “and the philosophy of getting tough is only one aspect of that. It is overly simplistic to think that with better order, all of the other problems would be solved as well. I would hate for the public to believe that there is one pill that we can take that will make all our problems disappear.”

    The “get tough” approach also fails to recognize the value of preventive programs, said Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers.

    “I contend that many of the discipline problems in high school don’t just happen--they evolve.” Mr. Fege said. “The seeds of many discipline problems begin in the preschools and elementary schools.”

    To alleviate such problems in high schools, students need alternatives to traditional schooling--such as individualized instruction--at an early age, Mr. Fege said. But those programs are “labor-intensive,” he added, and require a strong financial commitment from both local and federal agencies.

    Educators interviewed agreed to a lesser degree on the President’s plan to instruct the Justice Department to file friend-of-the-court briefs in cases involving school officials’ authority to control student behavior.

    “Most school people feel a definite lack of support in the courts,” said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Anything the President can do to reduce the long arm of the court would be very helpful and beneficial. Far too much of principals’ and teachers’ time is taken by the bureaucracy of due process.”

    Paul Salmon, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, disagreed, saying, “I believe that it takes an approach where you take care of the social problems of idleness, adequate enforcement of law, and the juvenile-justice system. Remedies, such as challenging due process, are not the most fruitful way to go about it.”

    The National School Boards Association suggested its position on the matter this month when it filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case State v. TLO. That New Jersey case centers on the propriety of a school official’s search of a student’s purse.

    The NSBA brief, filed on behalf of the defendants, says, “School searches are a vital tool in the struggle to protect other students from dangerous ... weapons and drugs.”

    School leaders also expressed a broader concern--that the public will develop an overly grim view of the state of the schools.

    “He’s painting with such a broad brush,” said Mr. Salmon, “that there may be some people who will be misled about the true condition of schools.”

    “The last thing we needed was someone at the national level painting as bleak a picture as he did,” said Richard Levey, assistant to the general superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools. “People are being misled to the point of saying, ‘These unruly schools don’t deserve our hard-earned money, our tax dollars.”’ He added that the President’s statements greatly exaggerated the problem and did not address some of the more serious issues in urban areas that contribute to negative student behavior.

    “What he might do is establish a guaranteed-job program for urban high-school graduates,” Mr. Levey said. “The fact is that youngsters themselves see no purpose in school when their peers who do graduate face 40-percent, 60-percent, and in some areas 80-percent unemployment.’'

    Mr. Levey also suggested that President Reagan follow the advice of ''his own commission.”

    “The National Commission on Excellence in Education was quite vocal on improvements in educational programs and the availability of opportunity,” Mr. Levey said.

    “Discipline is a serious problem, but the President does a disservice to imply that all of our public schools have discipline problems,” said Michael Casserly, a legislative and research associate for the Council of the Great City Schools.

    The President is “making it look like the schools are out control,” Ms. Futrell charged. In fact, she argued, educators have been successful in their efforts to alleviate the problem ever since the federal safe-schools report was released in 1978.

    “I am open to help,” she added, “but I have a problem with inviting someone into my house if he’s just going to destroy the furniture.”

    The President’s failure to distinguish between violence and discipline as issues may only compound the public schools’ image problems, some educators suggested.

    “He’s overgeneralizing,” said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “I think he has to get a lot more specific.”

    “The fact is that 90 percent of schools don’t experience violence and crime,” said Mr. Thomson of the NASSP The “real” discipline problem for most schools is the “day-to-day harassment” of teachers by disrespectful students.

    Henry S. Lufler Jr., co-author of School Discipline: Order and Autonomy, agreed that most schools are not faced with the threat of in-school violence.

    The three-year study of urban and rural high schools on which the book is based, Mr. Lufler said, suggests that the greatest “discipline” problems in schools are talking during class, wandering the halls, swearing, and talking back to teachers. Mr. Lufler and his colleagues conclude that in most schools, discipline problems could be diminished if there were more open discussions among faculty, administrators, and students about the difficulties, leading to the development of clear, widely understood policies. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1984.)

    At New Trier Township High School in suburban Chicago, Principal Ralph McGee reports that there are few discipline problems and that “overt physical violence is virtually nonexistent. The kinds of problems that we deal with are punctuality and attendance.”

    Mr. McGee attributes the school’s lack of discipline problems to a strong “preventive” program. Teachers at New Trier take one hour of every day to act as advisers to 30 students. The program “heads off” a lot of potential discipline problems, he said. “You can prevent many, many problems that students may encounter,” Mr. McGee said, if support systems are in place. The school also has full-time professional social workers on staff.

    Gary Bauer, deputy undersecretary of education, said that in future speeches, the President would make more of an effort to separate the issues of violence and unruly behavior.

    He also noted that media accounts of the President’s radio address and the report from the working group on school violence and discipline focused on the “more sensational” aspect of school violence.

    Several educators labeled “curious” the President’s call for a federal clearinghouse on school-safety initiatives in view of earlier Administration action to dismantle the Justice Department’s National School Resource Network. Created in 1979 under the Carter Administration to help schools reduce violence and vandalism, the program offered training and on-site technical assistance to schools and school districts.

    Its funding was cancelled in 1981.

    Some educators also criticized the President for basing his program on data that are nine years old.

    In putting together the initiative, the President used recommendations from his working group on school violence and discipline. In its report, the task force drew heavily on “Violent Schools--Safe Schools: The Safe School Study Report to the Congress,” a study completed in 1978 by the National Institute of Education.

    According to that study, which Mr. Reagan quoted in a radio speech on school violence this month (see Education Week, Jan. 18, 1984) “three million secondary schoolchildren were victims of in-school crime.”

    Each month, Mr. Reagan said, some 2.5 million students were the victims of robberies and thefts, and more than 250,000 students “suffered physical attacks.”

    But Ms. Futrell cited a recent NEA study indicating that discipline problems have decreased substantially since the safe-schools report was published. “Our research shows that in 1979 over 74 percent of teachers said that discipline problems impaired their effectiveness to teach,” she said.

    “In 1983, the figure had dropped to 45 percent.”

    President Reagan briefly addressed the issue of outdated research in his radio speech. “Now, maybe you’re thinking: That was back in 1978. Well, a study released in 1983 indicates this 1978 report probably understates the problem today.”

    But what the President’s task force actually said in its report to President Reagan is that a major 1983 study on violence in school, conducted by Jackson Toby, director of Rutgers University’s Institute for Criminological Research, concluded that the NIE data “had probably understated the actual incidence of school violence at the time the survey was conducted.”

    Research for the safe-schools report was conducted between 1975 and 1977.

    Mr. Bauer said the Administration is aware that the figures in the report are old, but added, “I can’t believe that anyone in the education community would say that this is not a major problem.”

    A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as President’s Approach To School Discipline Draws Criticism


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