School Climate & Safety

School Requires Students to Clean Building as Alternative to Suspensions

By Evie Blad — March 24, 2015 3 min read
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Portland, Ore., parents complained after they learned their children’s school had assigned them janitorial duties while their classmates played at recess or ate lunch, Willamette Week reported recently.

The students at César Chávez K-8 School completed the duties, including cleaning the gym and collecting restroom trash, as a form of discipline that a district official defended by comparing the practice to roadside inmate work crews, the newspaper reported. Their offenses? Throwing food in the cafeteria, “goofing off in class, rolling their eyes at a teacher, and playing four square too aggressively.”

Parents complained that the discipline was humiliating for their young children, who they say were sometimes required to clean in view of their peers. Some Portlanders, including some commenting on the story, didn’t have a problem with the practice. The school’s principal defended the punishment as “community service.”

The district put a stop to the cleaning-as-punishment plans after school board candidates questioned the practice, the paper reported in a follow-up story.

The school may have adopted the unusual disciplinary method in response to a call to reduce out-of-school suspensions, the Willamette Week story suggests. Portland, like many districts, has “put increasing pressure on schools” to lower exclusionary discipline rates and to eliminate disparities in discipline rates between students from minority racial and ethnic groups and their white peers. The district has included the goals in its performance evaluations for principals, but “principals are largely on their own” to determine how to reduce discipline rates, the paper reports. From the story:

The parents' stories suggest César Chávez—where 57 percent of students are Latino—has embarked on a discipline strategy that goes way beyond anything in the district's Student Responsibilities, Rights and Discipline Handbook. The handbook recommends timeouts and after-school detention as consequences for minor misbehavior; nowhere does it outline janitorial work as an acceptable form of punishment."

District officials told the paper the cleaning practice was allowed under the “restitution” portion of the district’s discipline policy.

“But restitution has been defined in the discipline handbook as a response only to misbehavior that results in ‘damage, destruction or loss of property,’” the paper reports. “It required students and parents to pay to repair the damage—not clean schools.”

It’s one thing to ask a students to clean up the mess they made in a lunchroom food fight, but it’s not effective to require them to complete other janitorial tasks for unrelated offenses like defiance, a school discipline expert told the paper.

There may be a bigger issue at play here that applies to other districts.

Perhaps the lesson is that, when districts put pressure on schools to limit suspensions, they must also provide them with meaningful alternatives or risk having the blank spaces in their policies filled in with practices like janitorial duty.

Amid a national push for a reduction in exclusionary discipline, some teachers and principals have complained that they are left with fewer tools to rein in problematic and distracting student behavior. Discipline reform advocates have pushed back, calling for broad adoption of restorative practices and other alternatives.

Viewing circumstances through that lens, it’s easy to understand why a district may want to give building-level leaders a little more control over how they reshape their discipline. But, if they implement mandates, districts should also provide tools like professional development and model strategies so that teachers don’t feel like they’re trying to paddle a boat without an oar, discipline experts have said.

It appears that Portland does provide some of those resources, so it’s unclear exactly what’s at play here. But some school board candidates seemed to suggest the district’s discipline plans lack clarity.

What do you think? Is requiring students to clean a form of cheap child labor or a creative disciplinary alternative? Have your districts found the right balance between disciplinary mandates and supports for schools?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.