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How to Handle Disruptive Students

The time and energy required to address the problem of disruptive students are one of the major complaints of classroom teachers. I don't think anyone who has not taught in a public school can possibly appreciate the effect even one miscreant can have on the ability of other students to learn.

In most school districts, suspension is used when students violate significant rules of behavior. If the strategy were working as intended, I would support it. The trouble is that it is not effective. In Texas, for example, suspensions not only did not result in better behavior but also led to poor achievement and brushes with law enforcement. As if these were not enough, black students were disproportionately affected.

Recognizing that the status quo was not working, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted 5-2 to ban suspension for "willful defiance" ("L.A. Unified bans suspension for 'willful defiance,' " Los Angeles Times, May 15). By coincidence, my letter to the editor about the issue was published in the Los Angeles Times on the same day that the school board voted ("Dealing with defiant students," Los Angeles Times, May 14).

What I tried to point out in the brief space allotted is that the key to success is proper training of teachers and administrators to repair the harm caused by misbehavior. This is precisely what both groups rightly demanded when the vote was announced. It makes no sense to implement a program unless participants are well versed. Too often in the past, boards of education have instituted new policies without considering what is required to make them effective.

But the missing element in the debate is parental involvement. Unlike many charter schools, traditional public schools do not require parents to sign a contract that stipulates their exact responsibilities. As a result, teachers and administrators are severely handicapped. All they can do is request a parental conference, but they cannot force parents to comply. Private and religious schools also operate by a completely different set of rules. In the final analysis, this means that traditional public schools become the schools of last resort.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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