School Climate & Safety Commentary

Down With Detention!

By Louanne Johnson — November 30, 2004 7 min read
Threats and punishments may make short-term changes, but for long-term behavior change, we must include an instructional aspect.

Imagine that you overslept one day and arrived at work two minutes late. Or, perhaps you made a serious mistake on the job: You forgot to bring the PowerPoint slide show that your team was scheduled to present at an important meeting; you became involved in a heated argument with an obnoxious co-worker who has been harassing you for weeks; you argued with your supervisor over a menial chore; you drank four cocktails at lunch because you learned that your spouse intends to leave you; you took a much-needed mental-health day and bumped into your boss’s sister on the golf course.

You’re busted. Your supervisor hustles you down the hall to the human-resources office, where an officious person orders you to sit in an empty conference room for an hour—or four hours—or for four hours a day for three days. The length of time you must sit depends upon the severity of your infraction and how much your supervisor likes (or dislikes) you. You are not permitted to argue or defend your behavior, and you are guilty until proven innocent. You have zero options. You do not get to make a phone call. And if you do not cooperate, you may be sent home for three days without pay. If you want to keep your job, you must sit in that empty room, staring at the walls, while your fellow workers receive valuable training that they will use to perform important work functions in the future. You will not be permitted to make up the training, but your supervisor may give you a quick summary when you return to work. However, you will be expected to be able to perform the newly required tasks as effectively as your fellow employees can or you risk being demoted, censured, or fired.

This scenario sounds absurd, doesn’t it? It is illogical, inhumane, and it doesn’t address the reason for your particular problem behavior. And it certainly wouldn’t motivate you to do your best work for your company. It might motivate you to dust off your résumé or quit on the spot. Because you can quit, and because you do have rights, employers must treat you humanely and decently if they expect you to stay with them.

But if you are a student in a public school and you break a rule (or if somebody else breaks a rule and involves you), there is a very good chance that you will be sentenced to the academic equivalent of the empty conference room. Because most schools—even quite good schools—continue to use the outdated, expensive, time-consuming, and generally ineffective one-size-fits-all Detention Program. During the past 10 years, I have taught classroom-management workshops at schools in two dozen different states, and nearly every school uses the same old detention program. I’ve seen kids sent to detention for everything from missing the bus or forgetting a textbook to breaking the furniture or threatening a teacher. And, several times, I saw innocent kids sent to detention after being assaulted by other students because they were (and I quote) “involved in a violent altercation.”

Using detention as a catchall cure for student misbehaviors is like using one medicine for every physical ailment. We don’t expect one pill to cure colds, bronchitis, broken bones, gallstones, ulcers, headaches, heart attacks, and cancer—yet schools assign detention for tardiness, fighting, daydreaming, forgetfulness, laziness, defiance, profanity, truancy, overexuberance, drunkenness, stealing, cheating, lying, or being the object of a physical assault.

If we want our children to be decent people, we must set the example. Instead of looking at our children, shaking our heads, and asking, “What is wrong with these children?,” we must look to ourselves and ask, “What are we not teaching them?” Threats and punishments may make short-term changes, but for long-term behavior change, we must include an instructional aspect. If we expect children to behave in school, we must teach them to take responsibility for their behavior; but we must also teach them how to make better choices, how to develop personal ethics, and how to solve problems.

Aside from being illogical and unfair, detention doesn’t work; if it did, detention programs would phase themselves out of existence. Instead, they are filled beyond capacity, and the overflow has spawned a host of alternative and at-risk programs. These overflow solutions do what schools could—and should—have done in the first place: find out why students misbehave, and help them correct their mistakes.

Treating students decently isn’t difficult. It doesn’t cost money or require special training, but it does require an adult attitude adjustment. We must stop trying to control children and start teaching them how to control themselves. We must model the behavior we want to see, and respect children until they learn to respect themselves. We must teach children that choosing to behave is a better option. That should be our goal—creating an environment where children choose to behave.

Using detention as a catchall cure for student misbehaviors is like using one medicine for every physical ailment.

Right now, we are creating the opposite environment. Harsher punishments create stronger resistance. Furthermore, I believe that detention programs actually contribute to high dropout rates and low student motivation. Capable, motivated students may decide to mind their manners a bit better after a visit to detention, but struggling students don’t emerge from detention with a renewed interest in academic achievement and a burning desire to cooperate with adults. A downward spiral begins when a poor student is first assigned detention. He misses valuable instruction time and falls further behind the class.

Even if permitted to make up missed assignments, poor students do a poor job on their own. The teacher isn’t inspired to reteach the material, and the students perceive the teacher’s frustration as dislike. They may withdraw or rebel—or vow to “get even” with the teacher, which of course results in further punishment. And so the original behavior problem isn’t solved—it is compounded. A few more visits to detention and the student will give up on learning. Logically, the student decides that if the school doesn’t care about him, he doesn’t care about school.

Poor readers begin to fall behind during the 2nd grade. Each year they fall further behind; and the further they fall, the worse their behavior becomes, the more they are punished, and the less confidence and interest they have when the next school year begins. By the time they reach junior high school, poor readers often believe they are stupid, lazy, unteachable, genetically predisposed to bad behavior, and destined for failure. If they don’t get help, most of them will find a way to be removed from classes so that they don’t have to sit for hours on end, feeling embarrassed and hopeless. They much prefer to be sent to detention, where no one will expect them to read out loud or decipher difficult textbooks. And unfortunately, the so-called tough kids earn more respect among their peers than do the scholars and special ed. kids. Sadly, many poor readers believe their only choices are to be labeled “bad” or “dumb.”

Of course, we need severe consequences for violent behavior. But unless students are physically aggressive or dangerous to classmates, I believe remedial-reading classes would be much more effective than detention or in-school suspension. Instead of simply isolating students or sending them home to watch TV, sneak cigarettes, and drink their parents’ liquor, why not assess their reading comprehension and assign them to a remedial-reading lab?

Some people would argue that reading assessments are routine at every school—that extra testing and instruction would cost too much money. I would counter that, if we tabulated the costs of administration (discipline reports, phone calls, faxes, letters, investigations, special ed. evaluations, individualized education plans, computer files, police and social-services reports, parent conferences, probation officers, and parole officers) and the vast amount of time, energy, and paper that teachers and administrators spend on punitive discipline, we would find that detention is inordinately expensive. Add the cost of dropout-prevention programs and programs for at-risk youths, and the price keeps rising.

If we continue to use ineffective, expensive, illogical punitive discipline programs, we will continue to see rising numbers of juveniles entering detention facilities.

Teaching kids to read in school is cheaper and far more humane than teaching them to read in prison, where, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 70 percent of adult inmates are functionally illiterate and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have serious reading problems. Perhaps if those inmates had learned to read properly as children, they might have chosen other options than the behavior that resulted in their imprisonment.

I believe that if we continue to use ineffective, expensive, illogical punitive discipline programs, we will continue to see rising numbers of juveniles entering detention facilities. Perhaps we should try teaching our wayward students to read instead of sending them to detention—because if we continue to treat our children as though they were incarcerated criminals, we should not be surprised if they act as though they are.

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Down With Detention!

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