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Saturday, April 25, 2015

When Schools Turn to the Police for Discipline

From The New York Times Parenting Blog
"Motherlode"

By K.J. Dell'Antonia
April 14, 2015

"Court-verdict discipline, too broadly applied, is a short-term solution to the problem of the misbehaving student with long-term consequences."

Many schools, and teachers and administrators within those schools, struggle to find effective methods of disciplining students, from setting the rules to enforcing them to handling students who transgress.

Even the language of discipline is tricky — is a student “breaking the rules”? “Out of control”? “Violating the policy”? Disrespecting the community”? Does she need punishment, discipline, redirection or correction?

Discussion of discipline and other policies at Success Academy, a charter school network in New York City, is polarizing. The radio program “This American Life” dedicated an episode to “stories of schools struggling with what to do with misbehaving students,” noting that in most cases, “teachers are winging it” and referencing Elizabeth Green’s book, Building a Better Teacher, in which she writes that at many education schools, discipline isn’t even on the curriculum.

Some schools find the answer to their discipline difficulties in the police and in the courts. The reporter Susan Ferriss and her colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity analyzed national education data and ranked states by how often schools refer students to law enforcement. They found that certain states (Virginia, Delaware and Florida) referred more students; even states not among those with the highest overall rates of referrals had individual schools that stood out.

Some schools were more likely to turn to the police and the courts, and in those schools, special-needs, black and to some degree Latino students were disproportionately represented among those sent to court or issued criminal complaints.

That pattern — of disciplining black and special-needs students more severely than white students, and with longer-term consequences — is consistent with other Department of Education data showing that black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled, while students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended or restrained, all the way down to the preschool level.

What’s most interesting here is the deep dive into the data that appears to suggest that, at least with respect to referring students to law enforcement, a relatively small number of schools may have a disproportionate impact on the national numbers. In those schools, holding to the letter of the law appears to be valued over disciplinary methods that might involve more mediation, discussion and compromise — discipline more recognizable to most people as appropriate to a school setting.

In schools where discipline is dependent on law enforcement, kissing a fellow student who does not want to be kissed becomes sexual abuse. Stealing a teacher’s mobile phone turns into a felony theft charge. Swearing at a school police officer becomes obstruction of justice. A guilty verdict for an 11-year-old, as happened to a boy with autism charged with felony assault on a police officer in Virginia (he struggled when grabbed around the chest), could prove life-altering.

Court-verdict discipline, too broadly applied, is a short-term solution to the problem of the misbehaving student with long-term consequences.

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