The Difficulty of School Behavioral Policy

This week at my job at a Twin Cities charter school, I was asked to review their new discipline policy. In accordance with the state of Minnesota, and also the school's own standards, the document stretched 17 pages, addressing everything from what constitutes (and how to respond to) food fights, firearms, bullying, sexual harassment, improper dress, etc.

It's good to cover your bases. But I also saw the difficulty of making statewide educational policy when schools from neighborhood to neighborhood are so different -- not to mention schools from city to small town. While we all want safe and effective schools, it occurred to me that the nature of student body behavior determines a large part of how to respond to instances of misbehavior. The rigidity of broad policy, however, disallows such flexibility. This is the inherent catch-22 of law.

According to state policy, students who are disruptive in class ought to be punished according to the severity of the disruption. But in schools at which I've taught in north Minneapolis, what is classified as disruption might include 3/4 of the class. So what do teachers in these schools do? They adjust and react according to the circumstances. They let some things slide that in my current school would get students a stern talking-to.

Likewise, state policy dictates repercussions if students bring a knife to school dependent on the length of the blade (over/under 2.5 inches). But a knife means something completely different to a boy in north Minneapolis compared to a boy in my small hometown in northern Minnesota.

I think that most school leaders do take into account these contextual factors, but then what place does policy have when the bar set by the standards can be bent and selectively enforced? And when not flexible, it's not unheard of for a student in one part of a state getting punished harshly because of policy change as a result of troubles in another part. For instance, a Boy Scout may get suspended for carrying his pocketknife. Meanwhile, kids in the inner city have been suspended for making a pointer finger gun, largely because of heightened concerns from firearm tragedies out in suburbia.

There is a clear benefit to acting as one unit, such as a state. Members of a team look out for one another, and policymakers are tasked to have every school and student within their jurisdiction succeed. This overarching policy frames a statewide academic and conduct standard to be implemented at all schools. But unity is tricky with diversity. Minnesota isn't unlike any other state in the America. In contrast to other places I've lived (China, Tanzania), we are a diverse state with diverse needs and conditions. This makes policy difficult. While no one argues that a fight breaking out in the hallway is acceptable, there is substantial variation for how to punish students who cuss or throw a paper airplane across the room.

Seeing the shortcomings of a straight-line policy across the waves that is the variety within a state, the answer, I think, is to perfect that dance, the give-n-take, of overarching vs. localized by requiring certain fundamental guidelines for school conduct, but then also allowing the flexibility regarding lighter offenses and punishment.

Another point that crossed my mind was the act of creating policy in general.

When conducting a psychological experiment measuring someone's gratitude or attractiveness or greed or sympathy, there is no definitive scale. Thus, researchers quantify such traits the best they can with a scale that they or other researchers have created. Critics point out the downsides of trying to quantify that which isn't measurable. How can you measure sympathy?

We do the same thing with policy.

What is bullying?

The state breaks it down the best as it can but still uses unmeasurable terms like name-calling. What constitutes name-calling?

Behavioral policy also has the ongoing potential to usurp that which might be a much better strategy for dealing with a problem: a leader's personal judgment. A teacher probably doesn't need to look up what bullying is. When they see it, they know it. They don't need to refer to a behavior policy manual to know how to handle a student they've gotten to know all year. The teacher will know better than a policymaker how to respond and help her student move forward.

At the same time, this attempt to quantify allows for a consistent and understood standard as a means of helping an authority know what to look for, an overarching standard under which no school is allowed to drop, and most important, an objective standard to reduce the potential harm when favoritism or not wanting to be inconvenienced or any other shortcoming infects a leader's ability to do what it right.

There's an element of stylistic preference. My hometown small town school didn't have an extensive bullying policy (they may not have had such a policy at all.) The village school I worked at in Tanzania didn't have any policy to speak of, yet things ran smoothly under the guidance of a good headmaster. It makes one wonder whether policy, this awkward quantification, is necessarily an improvement or simply an alternative way of doing things whose benefit is dependent on the circumstances.

Yet it seems as entities grow -- companies, schools -- law and policy do become natural outcroppings for the continuing development of the institution. The rush to create policy in the U.S. after a new public outrage may seem as much an appeasement -- as well as an over-reliance on words on a piece of paper to solve a problem. But policy does stand as a third party, a non-human guideline that helps steer us in the right direction. It is a whole other way to address an issue as a leader.

Going "by the books", or "going with your gut"? Perhaps herein lies another dance or give-n-take (along with the necessary balance between setting standards vs. allowing local wiggle room) that we need to perfect.