School Climate & Safety Opinion

Discipline vs. Punishment

By Kyle E. Blanchfield — February 26, 2014 2 min read
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Kyle Blanchfield

There seems to be some confusion over the difference between discipline and punishment now taking place in today’s public schools. Discipline is what school leaders, teachers, families, and students seek in order for a school to have a basic structure for learning and safety. It becomes the blueprint that guides a school toward both of these beliefs. Punishment is what happens when discipline breaks down. However, most successful schools have a far larger investment in maintaining discipline than in giving out punishment. Furthermore, those schools that constantly punish may add to the demise of an effective school disciplinary policy.

Keeping the above thoughts in mind, the Obama administration issued new guidelines for school discipline on Jan. 8, which has led to a national discussion on the issue of discipline versus punishment, with special attention given to suspensions and other disciplinary measures being equitably distributed to all students.

The U.S. Department of Justice has suggested that educators engage in training in conflict resolution and classroom management, rather than focusing on referrals to family courts and inviting law enforcement into our schools to administer punishment to students, especially students of color. It is my belief that new guidelines are necessary and will refocus educators on emphasizing discipline, not punishment.

The new guidelines are a way to preserve discipline in our schools, while keeping control of disciplinary issues within the domain of school personnel. Criminal-justice agencies have their specific guidelines regarding punishment for offenses happening in schools, yet have little investment in maintaining school discipline. The increase in giving law enforcement and other agencies a larger role in punishment for school offenses eventually weakens school discipline. It sends the message that schools are more focused on punishment than discipline, and that breaking the beliefs, guidelines, and rules of a school will be determined by outsiders, not educators. Making referrals to outside agencies makes sense when societal laws are broken and school safety issues pose a threat to others.

However, other school-related conflicts surrounding race, interpersonal relationships, school climate, and diversity through culture are areas requiring an understanding of discipline, not punishment. It may be that the guidelines have created an opportunity for educators to discuss the following question: “Have we clearly defined a school’s role in balancing effective discipline with the use of punishment, and who is responsible for maintaining that balance?”

Kyle Blanchfield is an adjunct assistant professor of education at St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y. She is also the chief executive officer of the Northern New York Centers for Conflict Resolution, in Clayton, N.Y.

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