The challenge of school discipline

After I broke up their cursing exchange, I separated John from Chris; spoke with each out in the hallway and then stood next to John’s desk while trying to teach 25 other students. The next time I turned away, their words gave way to blows.

I will be honest. When the assistant principal took John out of my classroom, I did not care at all that he was missing part of his education. I cared only that I could get back to teaching math to my remaining students.

I do not know whether John was sent to In school suspension. I suspect he was sent straight home. That is what we usually did, 30 years ago.

I do know that he was not the only student removed from my class. Like most teachers, I was cursed to my face. I stepped between fights and I broke up bullying. My job was to teach. When one student prevented others from learning, I needed that student removed from my classroom.

There is a consensus, I believe, that students can not be allowed to disrupt teaching. But at what point a teacher asks for intervention is much less clear. We expect teachers today to do everything possible to keep a child in the classroom, and we expect the school to continue to provide instruction even after a child is removed.

Moreover, despite our best efforts, we know that we do not treat every student equally. Countless researchers have confirmed racial, class and gender bias in school discipline.

Bias is much clearer in the aggregate than in the specific. This one student, right now, is disrupting the classroom. Whatever the student’s race, or gender, or economic status, the behavior has to stop. Now.

Yet we also know that the exact same behavior does not always bring the same consequence — indeed, the same behavior is not always defined as a discipline issue. One student is given a verbal admonishment and another is removed from the classroom; one student is sent back to class while another is sent home.

We can set discipline guidelines, and goals for schools, that influence behavior. Deep, enduring change, however, requires educators to acknowledge the presence of bias, to change how we think, to slow down our immediate impulses.

At the same time, a safe school is not the work of educators alone. We must earn the trust of parents so that they know their child will be treated fairly, and parents in turn must demand appropriate behavior from their children.

Even more, we must recognize that we are asking schools to address our children’s daily experience of the traumas of poverty and racism — issues that extend so much farther than the classroom door — without anything approaching the resources we know are needed. We lack the counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists provided in other states, and those states also fall short.

We are working as best we can to replace punitive measures, such as in-school or out-of-school suspensions, with restorative practices that address the underlying causes of misbehavior, with in-school suspension settings or alternative placements that provide on-going instruction. We have conducted racial equity training for our educators and administrators. We have reduced the number of children suspended from school.

All of these practices, however, take time, and time is precious in a school. Our teachers and principals work long, hard hours every day. A teacher must plan for tomorrow, an administrator must answer a dozen other calls. We have to find ways to carry out restoration that fit within educators’ constraints of time and attention.

We need not choose between fairness and safety. We must choose both.

Steven Unruhe is vice-chair of the Durham School Board. A retired teacher, he was recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Secondary Mathematics Teaching and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Journalism Education Association.