School Climate & Safety Opinion

Discipline Can Have Irreversible Consequences

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 05, 2015 5 min read
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The nature of student discipline in each school is based upon law, regulation and the culture of the school and community. Striking the perfect balance between teaching students the rules and reinforcing following the rules with doling out fair discipline to those who don’t or won’t is a tricky business. Most important is the relationship between the teacher and the student, each one of them. And, for the most part, discipline is in the hands of those who know the students best and with whom a respectful relationship has been created. Incidents which move from teacher to the administrator’s office rise to another level and so does the related discipline in most cases.

This past week we literally saw (thanks to social media) how a classroom situation can accelerate. A student refuses to follow the directions given by a teacher, ignores the administrator’s direction, and ultimately, the SRO (School Resource Officer) is called to a classroom at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. When the student doesn’t respond to his direction, he removes her from her chair and the room, setting off a flurry of reaction by those who witnessed it on site and on video. He is fired and, students are arrested and the debate ignites. The act of the police officer was labeled assault and evaluated as to police protocol. His termination came quickly. What a difference a day makes. But far less attention was given by social media and main stream media to the actions of the teacher and administrator. Something else went wrong that day, in that classroom. We wonder about the back story and the relationships that didn’t work to serve a reportedly newly orphaned student nor anyone else in that room. There are, however, few absolutes, rather just reflections and questions.

We all know that there are situations in which no matter the school culture, a student or adult new to the environment may bring behaviors developed elsewhere. Reconciling those behaviors challenges all involved. These choice points provide a contrast between behavior expectations within the school and those brought from other places. It is not unusual when doing an analysis of discipline referrals in a school to find included on the list transfer students, those new to the system. They are in adjustments of all sorts, a new code of behavior is but one. In this society, we can only expect that student mobility will likely rise.

A long held belief about student behavior is if the students are engaged in learning, the likelihood of misbehavior is lessened.

Sometimes the reason for misbehavior is very different than the obvious and requires a totally different intervention than the usual consequences. It is never easy to determine why children do the things they do (Edutopia).

Whether a student is new to the school or a long time member of the school community, there are days when students act in ways that are counter to learning behaviors and to rules of conduct. It can be because they haven’t done their work, they didn’t sleep well, are upset about a last text or something from home or school, don’t feel well, or simply need attention. The list is endless. How the behavior is met makes a difference.

Certainly if it is a matter of safety, the stakes are high and the actions must be swift. But, the rest of the behaviors fall into the grey area where adults make policy to address a myriad of disciplinary responses for offenses and students act out regardless. Somedays leaders call upon the wisdom of Solomon to make decisions but most days it is simply the agile balancing of policy and procedures with respect, consistency, re-direction, fair punishment, and teaching new or alternative behaviors. Isn’t that simple? Then blend in the school and community values about rules, behaviors and discipline and a leader gets it right.

Returning to the recent incident where the high school student refused re-direction by her teacher, administrator, and SRO, one wonders why all three adults failed. There are, of course, times when students simply out and out refuse, but hopefully, they are the exception. The relationship of students to adults in the building is key and how they exists depends on the building culture and communication. Again, using the incident without knowing the particulars, who was responsible for stopping the teaching and learning in that room? Was it the student, the other students or the teacher of a combination of everyone? If, as we have been told, the student refused to put away her cell phone, who chose to stop the teaching and learning? Might there have been alternatives to the path chosen? Once again there is an opportunity to take a newsworthy item about schools and take a step back and examine the possibilities that exist in our own schools.

  • What is our school culture in regard to respect and responsibility?
  • Do we have practices in place that clearly community our culture, both explicitly and by actions to members of our community, (student, parent, faculty and staff)?
  • How do we demonstrate our values?
  • What are our school rules about personal technology use? Can individual classrooms have different rules?
  • Are they realistic and necessary in a 24/7 connected student population?
  • How do adults interact with students in general in our school?

With all the attention being paid to academic success and high standards, we can not leave the work of school culture, how students and adults are treated, relationships, rules and responsibilities, and the manner in which the business of teaching and learning takes place behind. At the end of the day, all children deserve our best effort to meet them as educators who can not only teach them subjects, but to do so as escorts through their developing years. Regardless, the public is watching us more than ever and they don’t understand what happens inside schools but they can now see it, hear it and respond to it. Whether in the back seat of a Uber cab or in a classroom, we are now in a culture where everything is public. These are think twice moments, pause ...unless life is threatened... and make the best decisions. We know how easy it is to set up a scenario where someone needs to back down so someone else can win. They rarely end well whether in classrooms or in global politics. Bad things happen when egos get triggered and reactions follow, when emotions take over and thinking takes a break, when power and resistance collide. None in that classroom will ever forget that day. Some will live and relive the day for a long time. Their lives changed. The consequences are often irreversible. Let’s never forget that.

Stock photo by Joh Helgason courtesy of 123RF

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