Maybe We are Trying to Draw the Wrong Line: Thinking about “How Strict is Too Strict?”

leadBy Nick McDaniels — In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, Sarah Carr again asks very important questions about school discipline.

Her article is called “How Strict is Too Strict?”. In the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed by Sarah Carr for an article she wrote a few years ago, which made (via The Hechinger Report it to TIME Online, and tarnished the reputations of a few teachers who were brave enough to be interviewed, as we were painted as quaint, blunt counterpoints in her article, ultimately being used to legitimize the harmful discipline policies of Baltimore’s former superintendent. That article had tremendous impact on my career, forever changing my want to trust the media, particularly when trying to communicate the nuances of a controversial issue. Time, unlike TIME, heals many wounds, and I have had plenty of time to reestablish my beliefs about school discipline, but, I had to lay low for a while.

Again, Sarah Carr, in her current article in the The Atlantic raises some great questions about school discipline. She clearly writes with her heart on the side of children, a backdrop that has allowed me to always admire her writing, on the side of children who are negatively impacted by harsh school discipline policies. She also nips around the edges of issues surrounding privatization of schools, particularly in New Orleans, where “non-profit” organizations like Teach for America and KIPP are creating schools for poor children of color in the image of the American Indian Boarding Schools, where paternalistic, 1%-centric ideas of schooling reign supreme. Perhaps she will turn the lens a little more critically on these organizations in her next article, but that may be a little too much for the enlightened, upper-middle-class, KIPP- and TFA- donating, white, The Atlantic-reading, people to handle.

In “How Strict is Too Strict?,” Carr examines the charter school discipline policies that have attempted to manage student behavior through complex systems of desired and undesired behaviors and punishments. She tracks the impacts of these policies on a few select students, and on some principles who are accepting the harsh reality that these discipline policies don’t work, are leading to more suspensions, and are doing exactly what charter schools are criticized for doing, chewing up and spitting out the children who need good schools the most, while warmly embracing those children who will fold like lawn chairs into the rigid recipe for “success.”

While shining a light on these issues is important, and it raises some good questions about educational practices, I’m not convinced that we are asking the right questions. We debate about where to draw the lines with school discipline, yet everywhere we draw it, we seem to have problems. Sometimes we are too strict (demerits for closed eyes) and sometimes we are too soft (a student must rob a person twice before facing suspension). Spending time worrying about whether certain crimes deserve certain punishments, misses the point that students act out because of a need, and that every action exhibited by a student, as Jay Gillen posits in his book, is a moral act.

Why are we not exploring the central, and ultimately unpublished, nuance I tried to communicate to Sarah Carr when she interviewed me a few years ago? The choice is not whether to draw the line here or there, nor is it whether to suspend or not to suspend, punish or not to punish. The choice is: does a behavior or certain behavior harm the school experience of one or more students, and if it does, how can we mitigate such a harm in the present and in the future. That’s not much of a choice at all, is it? It is a framework for thinking about student behavior that needs to be coupled with a critical awareness of the needs of students. If brow-beating, suspension, turning a blind-eye, etc… are obviously unsuccessful, then why are we continuously trying to draw the line at a “better” place.

Perhaps the line should be drawn somewhere else. Perhaps the line should be drawn, instead of on the front end (the infraction), but on the back end (meeting the needs of all students). In other words, instead of drawing the line for the behavior of students, we should draw a line for our response thereto. If infractions are sure to occur (remember: we are dealing with kids), and these infractions harm the school-experience of students, then we must draw the line at what meets the needs of the student who causes the infraction, and the students who are impacted by it. That means, if suspending the infracting student meets the needs of those others impacted by the infraction, but does not meet the needs of the infracting student, then we have not hit our mark. The question then becomes not one of to punish or not to punish, to suspend or not to suspend, but one of, if we don’t punish or suspend, what do we do? Counseling, coaching, individual attention, wrap-around support? All of these things schools can’t afford?

If we start asking these questions though, instead of belaboring the point that school discipline is not working, is unfair, is too strict, is not strict enough, we will then start exposing the real inequities that have put us in this line-drawing position in the first place, that are why our schools are underfunded, why the resources that work, that solve problems, that promote real, non-formulaic, but organic success for students, are not available to schools, and why, as long as we allow private entities to keep their hands in the cookie jar, the real line we should draw, that is whether the needs of all students are met, will never be drawn.

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