Unpacking the deadly discipline problem in public schools?
On any given day in American public schools, students are blatantly violating the standards for student conduct and dress code policies. During the first week of school, the traditional assemblies are scheduled so administrators can discuss and clarify these policies. In addition, teachers take class time to review important aspects of these policies and communicate classroom expectations. Being an educator for many years, I will admit that the standards for student conduct and dress code policies are usually clearly stated and available for both students and parents.
So how is it possible that students are deliberately violating these policies with no fear of disciplinary action? In my experience, there are three main reasons why public schools are not enforcing discipline.
The actual behavior a student exhibits is no longer the only determining factor in the disciplinary action. If it were, schools would not receive discipline reports detailing the number of disciplinary referrals based on subgroups. For those who are not familiar with the term subgroups, it is basically a breakdown of the student population into groups such as race and ethnicity, gender, students with physical or learning disabilities, and socioeconomic status.
Schools receive these reports and are tasked with implementing strategies and programs to deal with the disproportionate number of discipline referrals for certain subgroups. The process is similar to what we see when dealing with achievement gaps.
What does it say when we are focused on a particular subgroup and not the behavior itself? Do you think it is possible that administrators may deal with students belonging to this particular subgroup differently, whether consciously or subconsciously, to "balance" the numbers?
Lack of Support
As an educator, you are limited when it comes to discipline. Generally, teachers will first have a discussion with an unruly student, call home if necessary, and if all else fails write a discipline referral. Once a teacher writes a discipline referral, he cedes power to an administrator.
Two things can happen. The administrator can assign some disciplinary action based on the offense, or he can just give a verbal warning. The punishment is completely out of the teacher's hands.
In order to discuss how an administrator's action can impact both the student and teacher, here is a real-life scenario. Let's say a teacher notices a student in the hallway who is clearly violating the dress code. The teacher nicely asks the student to please "cover up" because what she is wearing is not appropriate. The student deliberately ignores the teacher and continues walking. The teacher says, "Excuse me — I was speaking to you and asked you to cover up." The student says, "Shut up, leave me alone." The teacher eventually gets the student's name and submits a discipline referral.
Based on the actions of the administrator, two very important questions will be answered.
- Will the student think twice before being blatantly disrespectful to a teacher or staff member?
- Will the teacher take the time and effort to address students who are violating school policy in the future?
A weak response will tell the student that such behavior is apparently not a serious infraction, and at the same time, it will tell the teacher he has no support from the administration. What do you think will happen the next time a teacher addresses this student for some unruly behavior or dress code violation?
Another issue when discussing lack of support has to do with the parents. While there are some very supportive parents, there are also parents who will fight disciplinary action and defend their child regardless of the offense committed. They will argue — it is their child's disability, it is the teacher's fault, it was because of another student. The list of excuses is endless. Parents may even request their child be switched out of a class to be put in a different teacher's class. Oftentimes, this request is granted. What does that say to the student and the teacher?
To put it bluntly, many school systems are afraid of being sued, and many teachers are afraid of losing their job. As stated before, parents will vehemently fight discipline action against their child and are very quick to threaten lawsuits. Teachers are afraid of being called a racist, being accused of sexual harassment, being charged with assault, or just receiving a letter in their file because some action was deemed inappropriate.
Imagine the safety issues when a fight breaks out in a public school. Since some male students are much bigger and stronger than some teachers, it would clearly take physical force and multiple teachers to break up a fight. What happens if one of the students is injured as teachers are trying to stop the fight? Well, you probably already know the answer to that.
This issue is compounded if two female students are involved in a fight. Some may think a fight between female students is easier to handle, but trust me: this is not the case. Teachers are usually forced to physically restrain or separate students involved in a fight, regardless of sex. I think you see the potential risk for a male teacher if he needs to physically restrain or separate female students.
The lack of enforced discipline is yet another issue we have to deal with in American public schools. Combine this with teacher shortages, woke ideology, decreasing achievement, student anxiety and depression, social promotion, technology addiction, secularism, cancel culture — okay, uncle! Basically, the American educational system is in bad shape.
Unchecked discipline, combined with all the other issues, is a cancer within the educational system. Will there be a cure for our American public schools?