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Doing Time in High School: The Need for Tiered Disciplinary Systems

Once, in the midst of a conversation with a particularly disheartened student, I agreed that high school was like jail.

"They do have some similarities," I acknowledged. "Before you can go on to better things, you have to do your time...and unfortunately, there's no early release for good behavior." The kid sat in a desk facing mine, his face planted on his desktop in a gesture of forlornness, and groaned in response.

Our comparison was more apt than I realized. Recent articles about the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" point to a chronic problem in public schools across America, wherein small infractions are criminalized and heavily punished, pushing students--particularly students of color--onto a path from the educational system to the penal system. One such student, featured prominently in the ACLU's challenge to such policies, is Kyle Thompson, a Michigan freshman who after play-fighting with a teacher over a note, which he duly turned over once he realized the situation was getting out of hand, was subsequently suspended from public school for an entire year due to Michigan's zero-tolerance policy.

In this blog, I've often written about the need for more strict and structured discipline in schools. A situation like Kyle Thompson's is NOT what I have in mind.

In many public schools, there is no accountability for students' misbehavior, largely because there is no tiered system of discipline--no "punishment" between calling a parent (an idle threat, in my view and that of many of my fellow teachers, since parentally imposed discipline is inconsistent) and suspension from school. Due to budget cuts, lack of free classrooms in over-crowded schools, teachers and administrators spread too thin with responsibilities outside of their job descriptions, an overall lack of enforcing power, and system-wide policies that penalize schools for dolling out any disciplinary measures by giving them poor ratings, the days of "normal" punishments are a thing of the past: These would have included lunch detention, after school detention, responsibility for performing cleaning and maintenance around school (Catholic schools call this "JUG"), small percentage deductions from overall grade-point averages (my own high school's surprisingly effective deterrent against misbehavior), loss of in-school privileges, etc.

Discipline ends up being a sort of "zero to 60" system, and two negative outcomes emerge as a result: (1) Without suspending a student, schools have no way of holding students accountable for poor in-class behaviors, and thus (in an effort not to penalize minor infractions in a draconian manner) send an implicit message to students that such behaviors are permissible; (2) When ultimately problems escalate, and students' negative behaviors can be addressed only through suspensions and other more severe disciplinary policies, the students' chances of getting their credits, graduating, becoming gainfully employed, and even avoiding prison are severely undermined.

The need for discipline in the public schools is a fact, and I disagree with anyone who claims that good instruction or classroom management eliminate the need for discipline, as some commenters on my blog have suggested in the past. Kids need structure, and they respect administrators and teachers more when clear behavioral standards are stated and upheld, with consistent consequences for not following along. Neither a total absence of consequences, nor overly punitive, inflexible policies serve students well. School should not be jail; it should be a safe place for kids to learn not only academic subjects, but also how to conduct themselves as responsible adults and productive members of society.

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