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Is there too much or too little discipline? How can schools get it right?

UPDATE Tuesday: Interesting related story today by my AJC colleague Molly Bloom, who reports:

Want to win your teachers back? Try reducing student discipline problems.

Addressing discipline was the top item teachers who left Atlanta Public Schools in the past year or so cited as a change that would convince them to return to Atlanta schools.

Among other top changes teachers said would lure them back: increasing involvement of teachers in decision making and increasing administrative support.


Original blog:

My AJC colleague Eric Stirgus reports the state Board of Education approved a reversal of a disciplinary action imposed by Gwinnett County Schools on a Dacula High sophomore charged with striking a classmate.

Stirgus reports:

The state’s school board, in a rare rebuke, has reversed Gwinnett County’s year-long suspension of a high school student, citing a “multitude of errors” the district made in handling the case.

The student, according to state records, conceded he struck another student, but his family argued Gwinnett officials didn’t give him a proper opportunity to defend himself against the suspension.

“This board concludes that the multitude of errors, by the Local Board was harmful to the Student’s interest, and that the Local Board did not have justification for the delay,” the state wrote.

The AJC news story prompted reader comments, including:

“The problem isn't what happened after the suspension, the problem is a sophomore was suspended for a whole year for a punching a student. He should get 5 days out of school suspension, 10 days max.”

"That's what happens when you enact a zero tolerance policy."

Discipline is one of the most complex and divisive issues in education. Schools routinely get accused of either doling out too little or too much discipline.

Repeated research studies show discipline is not fairly applied, with minority students experiencing the brunt of suspensions. I know there are skeptics on the blog, but federal analyses of national school district data find minority kids earn more extreme punishments than white classmates for the same offenses.

That has led schools to pressure teachers to refer fewer offenses to the office, telling teachers to resolve discipline problems in the classroom and keep students in class. Teachers say such policies result in troublemakers remaining in class disrupting everyone else's learning.

I once spoke to back-to-back middle school classes as a member of a career day panel. Both classes had around 30 students. The first class was taught by a young teacher who seemed at the mercy of the students, several of whom walked into class late without any explanation or apology. The harried teacher spent the period dealing with stragglers and misbehaving students, which cut into the time for the panel.

In the second classroom, a veteran teacher didn't tolerate even a pencil drop during the panel. Kids who arrived late were banished if they didn’t produce a late slip, and the two or three kids who talked were slapped with an instant “no field day” penalty.

I have no doubt the second teacher sent far more kids to the office over the year, but I also suspect her students learned more because less class time was lost to disruptions.  I was surprised at the severity of the punishments she handed out; missing field day seemed a high price for talking during class. However, I didn't know the history. The students may have been chronic chatterboxes and this was the final straw.

I've noticed a difference in discipline standards in school districts. I visited a suburban district on pep rally Friday. Athletes, cheerleaders and dance squad members were allowed to wear their uniforms so the class took on the feel of a costume party. I was struck by the informality with which students spoke to teachers. They could offer comments without raising their hands and could chat among themselves without fear of reprimand. I would describe the atmosphere as casual.

Contrast that with an inner city school I visited two months later; the school had a lock-down feel with watchful teachers silencing classroom or hallway conversations. There was little informality; school and learning seemed like serious business, and teachers were on guard for the first hint of disengagement.

I am not sure which model works better. I certainly know which I would have preferred as a student.

What do you think?












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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.