Who Killed School Discipline?
Court decisions and federal laws have turned principals into psychobabbling bureaucrats. How can kids respect them?
Ask Americans what worries them most about the public schools, and the answer might surprise you: discipline. For several decades now, poll after poll shows it topping the list of parents' concerns. Recent news stories—from the Columbine massacre to Jesse Jackson's protests against the expulsion of six brawling Decatur, Illinois, high school students to the killing of one Flint, Michigan, six-year-old by another—guarantee that the issue won't lose its urgency any time soon.
Though fortunately only a small percentage of schools will ever experience real violence, the public's sense that something has gone drastically wrong with school discipline isn't mistaken. Over the past 30 years or so, the courts and the federal government have hacked away at the power of educators to maintain a safe and civil school environment. Rigid school bureaucracies and psychobabble-spouting "experts" have twisted such authority as remains into alien—and alienating—shapes, so that kids today are more likely than ever to go to disorderly schools, whose only answers to the disorder are ham-fisted rules and therapeutic techniques designed to manipulate students' behavior, rather than to initiate them into a genuine civil and moral order. What's been lost is educators' crucial role of passing on cultural values to the young and instructing them in how to behave through innumerable small daily lessons and examples. If the children become disruptive and disengaged, who can be surprised?
School discipline today would be a tougher problem than ever, even without all these changes, because of the nationwide increase of troubled families and disorderly kids. Some schools, especially those in inner cities, even have students who are literally violent felons. High school principal Nora Rosensweig of Green Acres, Florida, estimates that she has had 20 to 25 such felons in her school over the last three years, several of them sporting the electronic ankle bracelets that keep track of paroled criminals. "The impact that one of those students has on 100 kids is amazing," Rosensweig observes. Some students, she says, find them frightening. Others, intrigued, see them as rebel heroes.
But today principals lack the tools they used to have for dealing even with the unruliest kids. Formerly, they could expel such kids permanently or send them to special schools for the hard-to-discipline. The special schools have largely vanished, and state education laws usually don't allow for permanent expulsion. So at best a school might manage to transfer a student felon elsewhere in the same district. New York City principals sometimes engage in a black-humored game of exchanging these "Fulbright Scholars," as they jokingly call them: "I'll take two of yours, if you take one of mine, and you'll owe me."
Educators today also find their hands tied when dealing with another disruptive—and much larger—group of pupils, those covered by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law, which mandates that schools provide a "free and appropriate education" for children regardless of disability—and provide it, moreover, within regular classrooms whenever humanly possible—effectively strips educators of the authority to transfer or to suspend for long periods any student classified as needing special education.
This wouldn't matter if special education included mainly the wheelchair-bound or deaf students whom we ordinarily think of as disabled. But it doesn't. Over the past several decades, the number of children classified under the vaguely defined disability categories of "learning disability" and "emotional disturbance" has exploded. Many of these kids are those once just called "unmanageable" or "antisocial": part of the legal definition of emotional disturbance is "an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers"—in other words, to be part of an orderly community. Prosecutors will tell you that disproportionate numbers of the juvenile criminals they now see are special-ed students.
With IDEA restrictions hampering them, school officials can't respond forcefully when these kids get into fights, curse teachers, or even put students and staff at serious risk, as too often happens. One example captures the law's absurdity. School officials in Connecticut caught one student passing a gun to another on school premises. One, a regular student, received a yearlong suspension, as federal law requires. The other, disabled (he stuttered), received just a 45-day suspension and special, individualized services, as IDEA requires. Most times, though, schools can't get even a 45-day respite from the chaos these kids can unleash. "They are free to do things in school that will land them in jail when they graduate," says Bruce Hunter, an official of the American Association of School Administrators. Laments Julie Lewis, staff attorney for the National School Boards Association: "We have examples of kids who have sexually assaulted their teacher and are then returned to the classroom."
Discipline in the schools isn't primarily about expelling sex offenders and kids who pack guns, of course. Most of the time, what's involved is the "get your feet off the table" or "don't whisper in class" kind of discipline that allows teachers to assume that kids will follow the commonplace directions they give hundreds of times daily. Thanks to two Supreme Court decisions of the late 1960s and the 1970s, though, this everyday authority has come under attack, too.
The first decision, Tinker v. Des Moines School District, came about in 1969, after a principal suspended five high school students for wearing black armbands in protest against the Vietnam War. Tinker found that the school had violated students' free-speech rights. "It can hardly be argued," wrote Justice Abe Fortas for the majority, "that students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Schools cannot be "enclaves of totalitarianism" nor can officials have "absolute authority over their students," the court solemnly concluded.
Quite possibly the principal in Tinker made an error in judgment. But by making matters of school discipline a constitutional issue, the court has left educators fumbling their way through everyday disciplinary encounters with kids ever since. "At each elementary and middle school door, you have some guy making a constitutional decision every day," observes Jeff Krausman, legal counsel to several Iowa school districts. Suppose, says Krausman by way of example, that a student shows up at school wearing a T-shirt emblazoned WHITE POWER. The principal wants to send the kid home to change, but he's not sure it's within his authority to do so, so he calls the superintendent. The superintendent is also unsure, so he calls the district's lawyer. The lawyer's concern, though, isn't that the child has breached the boundaries of respect and tolerance, and needs an adult to tell him so, but whether disciplining the student would violate the First Amendment. Is this, in other words, literally a federal case?
And that's not easy to answer. "Where do you draw the line?" Krausman asks. "Some lawyers say you should have to prove that something is "significantly disruptive." But in Iowa you might have a hard time proving that a T-shirt saying WHITE POWER or ASIANS ARE GEEKS is significantly disruptive." Meanwhile, educators' power to instill civility and order in school dissolves into tendentious debates over the exact meaning of legal terms like "significantly disruptive."
In 1975, the Supreme Court hampered school officials' authority yet further in Goss v. Lopez, a decision that expanded the due-process rights of students. Goss concerned several students suspended for brawling in the school lunchroom. Though the principal who suspended them actually witnessed the fight himself, the court concluded that he had failed to give the students an adequate hearing before lowering the boom. Students, pronounced the court, are citizens with a property right to their education. To deny that right requires, at the least, an informal hearing with notice, witnesses, and the like; suspensions for longer than ten days might require even more formal procedures.
Following Tinker's lead, Goss brought lawyers and judges deeper inside the schoolhouse. You want to suspend a violent troublemaker? Because of Goss, you now had to ask: Would a judge find your procedures satisfactory? Would he agree that you have enough witnesses? The appropriate documentation? To suspend a student became a time-consuming and frustrating business.
Students soon learned that, if a school official does something they don't like, they can sue him, or at least threaten to do so. New York City special-ed teacher Jeffrey Gerstel's story is sadly typical. Last year, Gerstel pulled a student out of his classroom as he was threatening to kill the assistant teacher. The boy collided with a bookcase and cut his back, though not badly enough to need medical attention. Even so, Gerstel found himself at a hearing, facing the student's indignant mother, who wanted to sue, and three "emotionally disturbed adolescents"—classmates of the boy—who witnessed the scuffle. The mother soon settled the dispute out of court and sent her son back to Gerstel's classroom. But by then, Gerstel had lost the confidence that he needed to handle a roomful of volatile teenagers, and the kids knew it. For the rest of the year, they taunted him: "I'm going to get my mother up here and bring you up on charges."
In another typical recent case, a Saint Charles, Missouri, high schooler running for student council handed out condoms as a way of drumming up votes. The school suspended him. He promptly sued on free-speech grounds; in previous student council elections, he whined, candidates had handed out candy. Though he lost his case, his ability to stymie adults in such a matter, even if only temporarily, could not but give him an enlarged sense of his power against the school authorities: his adolescent fantasy of rebellion had come true.
These days, school lawyers will tell you, this problem is clearing up: in recent years, they point out, the courts have usually sided with schools in discipline cases, as they did in Missouri. But the damage done by Tinker, Goss, and their ilk isn't so easily undone. Lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming, even if you win. More important, the mere potential for a lawsuit shrinks the adult in the child's eyes. It transforms the person who should be the teacher and the representative of society's moral and cultural values into a civil servant who may or may not please the young, rights-armed citizen. The natural relationship between adult and child begins to crumble.
The architects of IDEA, Tinker, and Goss, of course, thought of themselves as progressive reformers, designing fairer, more responsive schools. Introducing the rights of free speech and due process, they imagined, would ensure that school officials would make fewer "arbitrary and capricious" decisions. But lawmakers failed to see how they were radically destabilizing traditional relations between adults and children and thus eroding school discipline.
School bureaucracies have struggled to restore the discipline that the courts and federal laws have taken away, but their efforts have only alienated students and undermined adult authority even more. Their first stratagem has been to bring in the lawyers to help them craft regulations, policies, and procedures. "If you have a law, you'd better have a policy," warns Julie Lewis, staff attorney for the American School Boards Association. These legalistic rules, designed more to avoid future lawsuits than to establish classroom order, are inevitably abstract and inflexible. Understandably, they inspire a certain contempt from students.
Putting them into practice often gives rise to the arbitrary and capricious decisions that lawmakers originally wanted to thwart. Take "zero tolerance" policies mandating automatic suspension of students for the worst offenses. These proliferated in the wake of Congress's 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required school districts to boot out for a full year students caught with firearms. Many state and local boards, fearful that the federal law and the growing public clamor for safe schools could spawn a new generation of future lawsuits, fell into a kind of bureaucratic mania. Why not require suspension for any weapon—a nail file, a plastic Nerf gun? Common sense went out the window, and suspensions multiplied.
Other districts wrote up new anti-weapon codes as precise and defensive as any corporate merger agreement. These efforts, however, ended up making educators look more obtuse. When a New York City high school student came to school with a metal-spiked ball whose sole purpose could only be to maim classmates, he wasn't suspended: metal-spiked balls weren't on the superintendent's detailed list of proscribed weapons. Suspend him, and he might sue you for being arbitrary and capricious.
Worse, the influence of lawyers over school discipline means that educators speak to children in an unrecognizable language, far removed from the straight talk about right and wrong that most children crave. A sample policy listed in "Keep Schools Safe," a pamphlet co-published by the National Attorneys General and the National School Boards Association (a partnership that itself says much about the character of American school discipline today), offers characteristically legalistic language: "I acknowledge and understand that 1. Student lockers are the property of the school system. 2. Student lockers remain at all times under the control of the school system. 3. I am expected to assume full responsibility for my school locker." Students correctly sense that what lies behind such desiccated language is not a moral worldview and a concern for their well-being and character but fear of lawsuits.
When educators aren't talking like lawyers, they're sounding like therapists, for they've called in the psychobabblers and psychologists from the nation's ed schools and academic departments of psychology to reinforce the attorneys in helping them reestablish school discipline. School bureaucrats have been falling over one another in their rush to implement trendy-sounding "research-based programs"—emotional literacy training, anti-bullying workshops, violence prevention curriculums, and the like—as "preventive measures" and "early interventions" for various school discipline problems. Of dubious efficacy, these grimly utilitarian nostrums seek to control behavior in the crudest, most mechanical way. Nowhere is there any indication that adults are instilling in the young qualities they believe in and consider integral to a good life and a decent community. Kids find little that their innate sociality and longing for meaning can respond to.
Typical is "Second Step," a widely used safety program from a Seattle-based nonprofit. According to its architects, the goals of "Second Step" are "to reduce impulsive and aggressive behavior in children, teach social and emotional skills, and build self-esteem." Like many such therapeutic programs, it recommends role-playing games, breathing exercises, and learning to "identify feelings," "manage anger," and "solve problems." The universal moral values of self-control, self-respect, and respect for others shrink to mere "skills," as scripted and mechanical as a computer program.
In this leaden spirit, the National Association of School Psychologists newsletter, Communiqué, proposes a "Caring Habit of the Month Adventure," a program now in use in Aliquippa Middle School near Pittsburgh. Each month, school officials adorn school hallways with posters and stickers that promote a different caring habit or "skill." The skittish avoidance of moral language is a giveaway: this is a program more in love with behavioral technique than inducting children into moral consciousness. It's not surprising to find that Communiqué recommends dedicating a month to each "skill," because "[r]esearchers say a month is about the length of time it takes to make a habit out of consistently repeated action."
The legal, bureaucratic, and therapeutic efforts make up what Senator McCain would call an "iron triangle," each side reinforcing the others. Consider the fallout from last year's Supreme Court decision Davis v. Monroe County School District, which held that school districts could be liable for damages resulting from student-on-student sexual harassment. Now every school district in the country is preparing an arsenal to protect itself against future lawsuits: talking to lawyers, developing bureaucratic policies, and calling in therapeutic consultants or even full-time "gender specialists" to show a "proactive" effort to stamp out harassment. Experts at universities across the U.S. are contentedly churning out the predictable curriculums, with such names as "Flirting and Hurting" and "Safe Date," as cloying and suspect to any normal adolescent as to a grownup.
The full consequence of these dramatic changes has been to prevent principals and teachers from creating the kind of moral community that is the most powerful and dependable guarantor of good discipline ever devised. When things work as they should—in the traditional manner familiar all over the world and across the ages—principals forge a cohesive society with very clear shared values, whose observance confers a sense of worth on all those who subscribe to them. People behave morally primarily because they assent to the standards of the group, not because they fear punishment. A community of shared values cannot be legalistic or bureaucratic or based on moronic behavior exercises; it must be personal, enforced by the sense that the authority figure is protective, benevolent, and worthy of respect.
That's why good principals have to be a constant, palpable presence, out in the hallways, in the classrooms, in the cafeteria, enforcing and modeling for students and staff the moral ethos of the school. They're there, long before the school day begins and long after it ends; they know students' names, joke with them, and encourage them; and they don't let little things go—a nasty put—down between students, a profanity uttered in irritation, even a belt missing from a school uniform. They know which infraction takes only a gentle reminder and which a more forceful response—because they have a clear scale of values and they know their students. They work with their entire staff, from teachers to bus drivers, to enlist them in their efforts.
For such principals, safety is of course a key concern. Frank Mickens, a wonderful principal of a big high school in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, posts 17 staff members in the blocks near the school during dismissal time, while he sits in his car by the subway station, in order to keep students from fighting and bullies from picking on smaller or less aggressive children. Such measures go beyond reducing injuries. When students believe that the adults around them are not only fair but genuinely concerned with protecting them, the school can become a community that, like a good family, inspires affection, trust—and the longing to please.
But how can you create such a school if you have to make students sit next to felons or a kid transferred to your school because he likes to carry a box cutter in his pocket? June Arnette, Associate Director of the National School Safety Center, reports that, after Columbine, her office received numerous e-mails from students who said they wouldn't bother reporting kids who had made threats or carried weapons because they didn't think teachers or principals would do anything about them. A number of studies show that school officials rarely do anything about bullies.
How can you convince kids that you are interested in their well-being when from day one of the school year you feel bureaucratic pressure to speak to them in legalistic or quasi-therapeutic gobbledygook rather than a simple, moral language that they can understand? How can you inspire students' trust when you're not sure whether you can prevent a kid from wearing a WHITE POWER T-shirt or stop him from cursing at the teacher? It becomes virtually impossible, requiring heroic effort. Even when good principals come along and try to create a vibrant school culture, they are likely to leave for a new job before they have been able to effect any change.
Since heroes are few, most principals tend to become what John Chubb and Terry Moe in Politics, Markets and American Schools call "lower level managers," administering decisions made from above. Teachers often grumble that principals, perhaps enervated by their loss of authority, retreat into their offices, where they hold meetings and shuffle papers. It's not that they don't make a show of setting up "clear rules and expectations," as educators commonly call it, but they are understandably in a defensive mood. "Don't touch anyone. Mind your own business," was the way one New York City elementary school principal summed up her profound thinking on the subject.
In tough middle and high schools presided over by such functionaries, this defensive attitude is pervasive among teachers. "Protect yourself," one New York City high school teacher describes the reigning spirit. "If kids are fighting, stand back. Call a supervisor or a security guard. Don't get involved." That teachers are asked to rely for the safety of their students on security guards—figures unknown to schools 30 years ago—says much about the wreckage of both adult-child relations and of the school as a civil community. It also serves as a grim reminder that when adults withdraw from the thousand daily encouragements, reminders, and scoldings required to socialize children, authoritarian measures are all that's left.
The effect of the collapse of adult authority on kids is practically to guarantee their mistrust and alienation. Schools in this country, particularly high schools, tend to become what sociologist James Coleman called an "adolescent society," dominated by concern with dating, sex, and consumerism. The loss of adult guidance makes it certain that adolescent society—more powerful than ever, if we're to believe TV shows like Freaks and Geeks and Popular—will continue in its sovereignty. Quaking before the threat of lawsuits and without support from their superiors, educators hesitate to assert the most basic civic and moral values that might pose a challenge to the crude and status-crazed peer culture. When they do talk, it is in a language that doesn't make any sense to kids and cannot possibly compel their respect.
Though under the current system it's easy to lose sight of this truth, there's nothing particularly complex about defining moral expectations for children. At one successful inner-city middle school I visited, a sign on the walls said, WORK HARD, BE KIND; BE KIND, WORK HARD: and if the school can instill just those two values, it will have accomplished about all we could ask. Educators who talk like this grasp that a coherent and meaningful moral environment is what socializes children best. Paul Vallas, CEO of the Chicago public schools, has introduced character education, community service requirements, and a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. "It's the Greek in me," explains Vallas. "I take Aristotle's approach to education. We are teaching kids to be citizens." Two and a half millennia later, Aristotle's approach remains a surer recipe for disciplined schools than all the belawyered conduct codes and all the trendy life-skills programs that the courts and the bureaucrats have given us.
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