School Climate & Safety Opinion

Waging a War on Incivility

By C. Stephen Wallis — February 11, 1998 7 min read

The lack of civility in our schools--urban, suburban, and rural alike--continues to be the most pivotal reason for the country’s lackluster educational performance. How can we assert the need to “set rigorous standards” when we ignore the main reason such standards are unachievable? The number of classroom disruptions that interfere with teaching and the number of threats and injuries to teachers and students grow exponentially. Like a common thief, they are stealing the learning potential of our students.

That pervasive disrespectful behavior is such a powerful obstacle to learning is frequently unacknowledged and unaddressed by public school administrators and local boards of education. Yet teachers complain that they often are able to teach only two-thirds of course content because of the inordinate time spent managing behavior in the classroom. Successful students in many schools feel that their hard-earned accomplishments come in spite of the rampant bad behavior of peers, evidenced daily in classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums, and school corridors.

Educators have to focus on returning self-discipline and civility to every schoolhouse if solid teaching and high academic achievement are to become standard fare.

Student disruption is a product of school culture, that philosophical foundation of norms and beliefs, both academic and social, that informs every aspect of a school’s daily operation. An appropriate school culture is at the heart of every successful school, and there are many dotting the educational landscape. But these schools differ from the many because their school climate is based firmly on a high regard for achievement. Successful schools emphasize goals, expectations, and the “4 R’s”, including respect, and they are perceived by those who attend and work in them as places of learning, warmth, caring, and accomplishment. The culture of success in these schools is infectious, and teachers project it. Students know that they can and are expected to achieve mastery of instructional objectives.

When the policies governing behavior are weak or inconsistently enforced, the mission of schooling becomes amorphous, and sensible expectations are eroded. The culture in these schools is ruled by a kind of silent chaos, and a laundry list of behavior problems emerges--the “dissing” of peers and adults, pushing, fighting, alcohol and drug activity, lateness to class, inappropriate sexual displays, truancy, indifference to class participation, disregard for proper dress, vulgar language--often with no corrective behavior or consequences. It is as though such schools are waiting until youngsters are at the edge of the cliff to act. The wake-up call, for too many officials, is a tragedy that might have been averted.

Though many educators still find it hard to acknowledge the degree to which a poor school culture and repeated bad behavior--in and out of the classroom--impede the process of teaching and learning, those who do are finding the following suggestions--along with a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude--helpful in attacking the problem:

  • Insist on clear and consistent disciplinary procedures that revolve around four principles that support instruction and enhance success for every child: “zero tolerance” of disruptive behavior; evenhandedness in discipline, without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background; recognition that discipline is a kindness, contributing to personal growth and freedom; and refocusing the mission of schools on teaching youngsters to read, to compute, to write, to speak, and to think critically.
  • Review local and state statutes and school system policies that provide the means to curb menacing behavior on school grounds, such as alcohol and drug activity, use of portable pagers and other electronic devices, fighting, trespassing, verbal and physical assaults, and truancy. Strictly enforce these policies, as their salutary effect on school climate is contingent on the degree to which school officials employ them consistently.
  • Encourage parental involvement via use of “parent contracts” acknowledging their full responsibility for their children. Foster substantive collaborative efforts among staff members, parents, and students that could provide parent training and enhance their active involvement.
  • Invite students to be part of the solution to troubled schools by eliciting their input. Acquaint students and staff with conflict-resolution and peer-counseling programs that enhance the school’s culture by cultivating a climate of respect for the rights of each individual.
  • Implement a comprehensive K-12 identification program that targets students needing academic and behavioral assistance, including alternative education programs based on reliable educational and psychological research.
  • Establish community-service activities for students on suspension, where they could, by helping others, develop and demonstrate an understanding of such traits as compassion, respect, humility, and responsibility.
  • Implement ongoing, comprehensive staff-development programs that center around academic excellence and include principles that promote quality in teaching and learning, assessment techniques, classroom management, discipline, and interpersonal skills.
  • Provide “timeout” rooms staffed by paraprofessionals and community-agency staff members to work temporarily with disruptive students.
  • Develop cooperative efforts with community agencies such as family and social services, health departments, and the police to better meet the needs of students and families.
  • Establish “transitional schools” for habitually disruptive students, where they would receive instruction, therapy, and counseling, holding these youngsters’ families responsible for a portion of the cost of such placement (or requiring that they volunteer time to the schools, if their finances are strained), to defray the costs to taxpayers.
  • Establish after-school “auxiliary centers,” with supervised open classrooms and gymnasiums for those students wishing additional academic assistance or participation in cultural and extracurricular activities.
  • Make character education a part of the school curriculum. Surely, the inculcation of such personal traits as honesty, courtesy, and responsibility is an educational goal that crosses every racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divide.
  • Cooperating with local police agencies, consider the use of testing methods such as the Breathalyzer to curb rampant alcohol and drug use on school grounds. Civil liberties concerns on this practice stand in opposition to the argument that, in the same way that public policy prohibits use of alcohol or drugs on public school grounds, the schools, acting in loco parentis, must take all means to assure a safe and orderly environment. Schools that have ventured into this area cite support from both parents and students.
  • Employ retired military personnel, a superb resource of talent for the schools. Relax certification requirements for these individuals, many of whom have interests in administrative internships, working with errant youths, assisting in truancy programs, managing after-school detentions and Saturday school programs, coordinating student activities, tutoring, and other programs that help foster stability and achievement.

School systems with recurring patterns of disruption and violence of course should provide first-rate security in school buildings and on school grounds. And all schools and school systems should keep accurate data on the incidence of disruptive behavior, including assaults, drug and weapons possession, theft, arson, and vandalism. Legislative actions, such as a recently passed measure in Delaware aimed at helping schools and police work together to recognize and solve serious disciplinary problems, boost teacher and staff morale, while increasing parent and community satisfaction.

Many of these actions would cost taxpayers nothing. Others might require the close scrutiny of system budgets, with officials redlining extraneous programs that do not directly affect instruction and student achievement. The savings gained from cutting these nonessential programs, when combined with support from community-business partnerships and foundation grants, could be used to pay for timeout rooms, transitional schools, school-within-school programs, reading and literacy initiatives, and afternoon auxiliary centers, all of which would directly--and dramatically--impact student achievement.

America’s schools and their communities must wage a war on incivility. Taking an aggressive stance on menacing behavior will provide a more nurturing environment for the vast majority of students, and will restore a school culture in which the sense of decorum combines with substantive, achievable standards to give hope for long-term payoffs: less interference in instruction, lower dropout rates, reduced reliance on costly social programs, and a better-educated workforce. America’s parents, schoolchildren, and their teachers richly deserve our national and local attention to this matter.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 1998 edition of Education Week as Waging a War on Incivility


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Interactive Which Districts Have Cut School Policing Programs?
Which districts have taken steps to reduce their school policing programs or eliminate SRO positions? And what do those districts' demographics look like? Find out with Education Week's new interactive database.
A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )
School Climate & Safety These Districts Defunded Their School Police. What Happened Next?
Six profiles of districts illustrate the tensions, successes, and concerns that have accompanied the changes they've made to their school police programs over the last year.
Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.
Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.
Ryan David Brown for Education Week
School Climate & Safety Defunded, Removed, and Put in Check: School Police a Year After George Floyd
Education Week has identified 40 school districts that defunded their police after last summer's Black Lives Matter protests.
Police officer outside of a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (image: Bastiaan Slabbers/iStock)
School Climate & Safety Biden Team to Revisit How Schools Should Ensure Racial Equity in Discipline
The Trump administration pulled a directive on fair discipline for students of color. Biden's Education Department will review the issue.
4 min read
a student sits alone in a hallway
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Image: DigitalVision)