School Climate & Safety

Report Notes Impact Of Student Behavior

By Darcia Harris Bowman — May 19, 2004 4 min read
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The threat of lawsuits and the behavior of small numbers of persistent troublemakers are interfering with classroom learning and driving teachers from the profession, a new report says.

Nearly eight in 10 teachers say that students are quick to remind them that they have rights or that their parents can sue, according to the report, based on a national random survey of 725 middle and high school teachers and 600 parents of children in those grades.

Read the report, “Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today’s Public Schools Foster the Common Good?,” from Public Agenda. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Forty-nine percent of the teachers surveyed said they had been accused of unfairly disciplining a child, and 55 percent agreed that when districts back down from assertive parents, that inevitably makes discipline problems worse.

“Teachers feel the whole school culture today is one of second- guessing” their actions and decisions, said Helen Wadsworth, a senior adviser and board member of Public Agenda, the New York City-based opinion-research organization that conducted the survey.

“Adding to that burden is the fact that teachers are also coping with the disproportionate impact of a small group of troublesome students,” she said at a May 11 conference here on legal fairness in public schools.

The report, “Teaching Interrupted,” was underwritten by Common Good, a policy organization in New York City that advocates tort reform. The margin of error for the survey is 4 percentage points.

More than one-third of the teachers responding to the survey had seriously considered quitting the profession or knew a colleague who had left because of student-discipline problems.

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See the accompanying charts, “Teacher and Parent Opinions.”

The findings didn’t surprise teachers’ union officials. “When we train teachers in discipline issues, we have to discuss whether you touch a student in any way,” because of the possibility of lawsuits, said John O. Mitchell, the deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers. “You hate for teachers to have to think about that, because to be effective in discipline, you have to be sure and confident in what you’re doing.”

Zero Tolerance

Just over half the teachers surveyed, or 52 percent, agreed that classroom behavior problems often stem from teachers who are soft on discipline “because they can’t count on parents or schools to support them,” according to the report.

Still, the survey shows broad agreement among parents and teachers on some underlying causes of school discipline problems and potential solutions.

That the learning experience of most students suffers at the expense of a few chronic troublemakers is a statement with which 85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of parents surveyed agreed.

Parents’ failures to teach children discipline was identified as the greatest contributing factor for school discipline problems, chosen by 82 percent of teachers and 74 percent of parents.

Other causes that topped the list for both parents and teachers included large class sizes and crowded schools, parents’ quickness in challenging and appealing student-discipline actions, and districts’ fear of lawsuits.

When given options for solving the perceived discipline crisis in schools, 70 percent of teachers and 68 percent of parents agreed that zero-tolerance policies that suspend students from school for serious infractions would be a “very effective solution.”

But zero-tolerance policies range widely in how they are applied by schools, and scholars disagree on their effectiveness.

Richard Arum, a New York University sociology professor who spoke here last week at the conference organized by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, argued that such policies only add to schools’ litigation woes.

“What we have is schools reacting in inflexible ways to minor problems, and these incidents get a lot of attention from the media and undermine the perception that school discipline is good for everyone,” Mr. Arum said. “We need to empower teachers and administrators to make reasonable decisions about minor, day-to-day discipline.”

Limiting Liability

Also drawing some support among survey participants were options that would sharply limit the threat of lawsuits.

Half the teachers surveyed and 43 percent of the parents agreed that removing the possibility of winning financial awards for suing schools over discipline matters would be a “very effective solution” for solving behavior and discipline problems.

Likewise, the idea of limiting lawsuits against public schools to only serious situations such as expulsions was chosen as a very effective solution by 42 percent of teachers and 46 percent of parents.

Some experts agree that such ideas are worth exploring.

Due process for students “has created an arms race that educators will never win— it becomes a sword for miscreants,” said David C. Bloomfield, the head of the educational leadership program at City University of New York’s Brooklyn College and a speaker at the conference.

Instead of trying to throw students out of school—a lengthy process that typically requires hearings, offers avenues for appeals, and sometimes invites litigation—Mr. Bloomfield suggested a shift toward moving students with discipline problems into alternative settings where they can continue their education and receive specialized attention.

Other suggestions for avoiding litigation that emerged at the conference included adoption of school charters in which parents, teachers, and students agree to a code of behavior and consequences for violating those rules, and formation of parent-teacher committees that can override discipline decisions when parents contend their children were wrongly accused.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Report Notes Impact Of Student Behavior

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