Curbing discipline… or kicking discipline to the curb?

Student Code of Conduct set to change as district aims to curb discipline.

That’s the headline from Catalyst Chicago about policy changes happening in the Windy City’s public schools. And what I find really interesting about this is that the goal of the policy shift (which we’ll discuss in a moment) really is to curb the discipline activities of the schools, to “rein in one of the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the country”.

There’s been a great deal of discussion over the last year or so about the seemingly out-of-control nature of school discipline in the nation — almost all of it driven by the executive branch’s concerns about racial (and to a much lesser extent, sex) disparity in suspension and expulsion rates. But there has also been (at last!) some growing recognition that certain types of institutional discipline policies aren’t really all that productive in the first place, and may actually be at odds with the mission of schools. (Which, I take it, is at least ostensibly to prepare students academically and culturally for integration into the larger, adult society.)

So now, in the face of all this theory, we’re starting to see some solid implementation. So what’s going on?

Among the proposed changes:

–Elimination of the vaguely-defined “persistent defiance” as misbehavior for which students can be suspended or expelled. CPS officials say “persistent defiance” is used unevenly to justify harsh discipline, in some cases against students who shrugged their shoulders or threw pencils across desks.

–Children from pre-kindergarten to second grade could no longer be expelled without a network chief’s approval. In the past, only preschoolers and kindergarteners were excluded from expulsion, though records show they were still suspended.

–Another offense, “unintentional physical contract with school staff,” would no longer warrant suspension.

–Police would only need to be notified when students are found with drugs or guns on school grounds, or in emergency situations. The current policy lists 27 offenses for which police need to be notified, including participating in mob action and use of the CPS network to spread computer viruses.

–Unauthorized use of a cell phone would drop to the lowest category of offense.

Most of these seem to me to be quite commonsensical to me, and I’m glad to see that they’re being implemented.

“Persistent defiance” isn’t really a category of unacceptable behavior — it’s a label for a type of student who engages in various unacceptable behaviors, all of which taken in concert might seem obviously offensive, but which taken in isolation probably don’t really seem to warrant too much of a response. It sort of reminds me of “silent insolence,” the old military offense. That’s the sort of thing that it’s fair to level against a mature adult who is immersed in the military culture, but it’s probably a little abstracted and a little too culture-dependent to realistically and fairly apply it to adolescents, who regularly demand to know exactly what their behavioral expectations are supposed to be (given that they tend to think they shouldn’t have any at all).

Younger children shouldn’t be getting suspended for anything that doesn’t threaten severe injury in the first place. Exile is only a good punishment for someone who is a member of the community. It’s a terrible punishment for someone whom you are trying to convince to become a member of the community.

“Unintentional contact with school staff” is a silly offense to begin with. My guess (and it’s just a guess) is that it exists because there are many offensive “contacts” made in the schools for which there is insufficient evidence that it’s a deliberate trespass. The solution is probably not to make it a strict liability offense (which is what creating an “unintentional” version essentially does) but rather to accept that a school doesn’t need to have strict standards of evidence for giving out detentions. Teachers and staff should be willing to just say, “You totally meant to do that.” If I’m wrong and this offense isn’t just a pretense then suspending someone for “unintentional” anything is just crazy.

Keeping the police out of schools is probably a good idea across the board. I did a rough tally in my head of the number of things I did in high school that would today get me arrested. It’s at least 7, and probably closer to a dozen. And I was a more or less “good” kid. If a kid brings a gun to school and threatens someone, then sure, call the cops. If a kid is dealing drugs, call the cops. Stealing a $5,000 media set? Sure, call the cops. But let’s not institutionalize kids unless we absolutely have to.

And frankly, the idea that cell phone use (presumably in class) is an offense with any sort of penalty outside of “give me your phone and pick it up after school” strikes me as bizarre.

Now, it seems to me that these changes could be easily implemented. But of course, they’re not just being implemented straight-up. There are calls for the changes to be part of a larger restructuring:

Activists and the Chicago Teachers Union said the changes are a step forward. But the real test will be whether the changes result in a fairer discipline process with fewer students being expelled or suspended, says Mariame Kaba, executive director of Project Nia, a community justice organization. She notes that there is still a lot discretion given to the principals.

Kaba points out CPS is not putting more money toward restorative justice practices or for interventions to prevent misbehavior. “For a number of years, I think there will be a tug and pull between the policy and the practice,” she says.

* * * *

In a statement, the CTU applauded the changes but emphasized that CPS needs more social workers and counselors, as well as conflict resolution and restorative justice practices and a safe space for students to go within the school.

I don’t know why it is that people in educational bureaucracies have to do things on such a grand scale. Any one of these policies could be implemented as a stand-alone change, improving the educational environment quite a bit. They could all be implemented at once, improving it even more. They could be implemented with other, similar policies, improving the environment yet even more! You don’t need to change the structure of the school in order to change the discipline policies — all you need to do to change the discipline policies is… wait for it… change the discipline policies.

Overall, I am quite happy to see these sorts of changes being made. School discipline these days is, generally speaking, draconian. And a lot of that, I think, is a necessary institutional reaction to shifts in student attitudes and culture. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, it is my impression that students no longer fear their teachers, because by and large their teachers don’t have any real power over them. (This is not to say that students aren’t a little better-behaved than they were in my day, because I think they are; but I think that’s because of the background threat of the institutional hammer, as it were.) Fear in the teacher-student relationship is a good thing, in reasonable doses. Teachers should be a little scary. But to be scary, teachers must have authority, including the authority to handle smaller discipline problems without calling in the police or expelling the student.

If we dial back institutional heavy-weight discipline without providing the sort of decentralized authority that teachers used to enjoy, I think we might not just be “curbing discipline”, but kicking the very idea of maintaining discipline “to the curb” entirely.


  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Michael – I say this with affection – shorter posts please. Write like a journalist with a specific word count, not a lawyer.

    • D's Squirrel Food says:

      I disagree. It’s good to see more than one sentence of analysis coupled to the summary of a story found elsewhere.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Five quick responses:

      * Thank you for the feedback, Stacey; criticism is always welcome if it’s well-intentioned.

      * Some of my posts are, indeed, shorter. I hope reading them makes your life better in some small way.

      *Some of my posts are longer. You, of course, can skip or skim those at your discretion.

      * For what it’s worth, I’m not writing like a lawyer. I’m writing like, well, like me writing a blog post. (Which is probably closer to, but not as thorough or precise as, my writing like a philosopher.)

      * And in defense of my profession, lawyers probably know a lot more about coming in under word limits than journalists (who often end up having to *pad* their pieces to get the right number of inches). I also don’t remember the last time I heard of a journalist having to certify the length of their document under penalty of perjury.

  2. “Teachers and staff should be willing to just say, “You totally meant to do that.”

    We do. Then the parents call the school and the administrators side with the parents against the teacher.

  3. “And frankly, the idea that cell phone use (presumably in class) is an offense with any sort of penalty outside of “give me your phone and pick it up after school” strikes me as bizarre. ”

    How about the third time that week, or the 20th time that semester that you have taken the phone from the same student?

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      I made it a point this past school year to write up students every time they used their phone in class for non-academic purposes (and there are precious few academic purposes for such in my classroom). The APs that receive the disciplinary referrals and mete out the punishment generally gave a warning for a first offense and in-school suspensions for additional offenses (referrals from other teachers and for other matters factored on as well). In all, a pretty good system…and it worked (i.e., kept order) for all but an intransigent few.

    • Mike in Texas says:

      Like everything else with kids, they must be taught limits, especially when it comes to cell phones. I took a cell phone from an 11 year old who had totally inappropriate things on his phone, including pictures of himself groping another 11 year female, and a post on facebook encouraging friends to post inappropriate pictures of their girfriends to a revenge porn website.

      Reality is, kids have cell phones. Reality: they will abuse them if appropriate actions are not taken.

  4. Anyone who approves of limiting school options is someone with no reality of the facts on the ground. These folks imagine that policies are just formed by wellmeaning control freaks who got a little out of hand.

    You can always tell these folks by their tendency to use personal anecdotes as if they have some relevance.

    The only real question to ask when you hear of these changes is how out of contol will the school get before the district decides to ignore the agreement so they don’t lose all their best kids to charters who aren’t bound by threat of lawsuits.

  5. One of the Board members here put it this way:
    5 min a day X 180 days of school = 900 min or 15 hours of instruction that was lost to disruptors (He also put a $$ amount on it), and noted that many students need every minute they can get of instruction. It is cost effective to remove the disruptor, so that they others can get their instruction. Instead of the entire class heading for summer school at great expense to the district or repeating the course the following year, it will just be the disruptor, if he continues to disrupt in his alternative placement. (Alternative here is night school).

  6. It should be made clear to students that repeated misbehavior will result in permanent expulsion. After the highly disruptive students are gone the education of the others will be greatly improved.