Both as an editorialist and the editor of Dropout Nation, I have long argued (and shown) that far too many schools overuse harsh discipline methods such as suspension and expulsion, putting kids on the path to dropping out. Russ Skiba of Indiana University proved the consequences in his own research several years ago. Yet the overuse of harsh discipline remains as much a part of American public education’s dysfunction as dropouts and reverse seniority layoffs.
In this column — a reprint of an earlier piece he wrote for a defunct publication– Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha offers an alternative approach to the harsh discipline still being meted out in many schools across the country. The point he makes — that the goal of discipline should be to get children back on the path to graduation and being good citizens — is one principals, school officials and teachers should embrace.
There’s no better way to prepare kids for prison than to punish them in school. More powerful even than punishment at home, the retribution children endure in school offers prescient lessons about the capricious quality of justice meted out by the state.
Just as being a dropout correlates with incarceration, so does expulsion from school. We also know that expulsions fall disproportionately on students of color. My hunch is that the same thing happens to low-income white kids too, though perhaps not to the same extent.
Are these kids singled out in some way? Maybe. But maybe their behavior is actually worse, on average, than that of their middle-class counterparts. Why wouldn’t it be? Their lives tend to be worse. Either way, there are simple things we can change about school discipline to make life better for all students. The easiest thing to do, of course, is to teach discipline. I mean, that’s what school is for, right?
PARTNERS IN CRIME
The biggest repeat offenders in American school discipline are “zero tolerance” policies and “systems of escalating consequences.” Both are popular. Both are deeply rooted in the traditional punishment-oriented strain of American morality. And both are bolstered by a disastrously incorrect but seductively intuitive pseudo-logic that discourages our society from questioning their legitimacy.
Still, we can overturn these traditions. And overturn them we must, if we want to choke off another tributary of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Zero Tolerance discipline policies seem like a new thing, but they’ve been with us for generations. Kids have long faced summary justice for many offenses in many contexts. We just didn’t think of these occurrences as reflective of a system defined by official policy. But if you talk to people who went to school a generation or two ago, most will likely have stories to tell of troubled teens who, upon being caught for one more thing, one more time, were never seen at school thereafter.
The appeal of “no tolerance” discipline policies is irresistible: justice is swift, punishment is predetermined, and no one need mediate on behalf of the “criminal.” School officials benefit from “no tolerance” policies because they offer a kind of plausible deniability. “Well, the kid brought a knife to school so I had to kick him out. That’s the policy.” Never mind sorting through the mess of mitigating circumstances that may have contributed to the fact that an Eagle Scout accidentally left a Swiss Army knife in his backpack from a weekend camping trip. Or that a first grader was caught at lunch with a two-inch plastic “gun” he fished out of a box of Crackerjacks. If, God forbid, a student shoots or stabs someone, we don’t need “no tolerance” policies. We have laws for these things.
Zero Tolerance policies have two disastrous consequences over time. For one, they are simplistic solutions are applied to complex problems because the policies absolve adults of responsibility. They also drain motivation from principals and administrators to look beyond the “what” of a given incident to the “why”, the “how”, and the “who.” The policies turn complex interactions into over-simplified reactions — and allow the adults in a school give any thought to root causes or environmental factors that might be within their control?
Zero-tolerance also allows schools to create a culture of victimization. Because “no tolerance” policies attach a punishment to a crime and not to a “criminal,” children learn quickly that consequences are arbitrary. This makes it hard for kids to see how their choices contribute to the results they experience in their lives. In this sense, Zero Tolerance policies encourage kids to think of themselves as hapless victims of a simplistic and arbitrary system rather than as rational actors in a complex and compassionate community.
More prevalent than Zero Tolerance policies, and far more destructive because they effect more kids, are “systems of escalating consequences.” In this approach to school discipline, each subsequent infraction carries with it a harsher penalty. This approach is problematic because it makes consequences arbitrary. As with “no tolerance” policies, the consequences at each stage often have no logical connection to the kid or to the infraction. A kid at “step three” who gets in trouble for the same thing he did at “step one” may be eligible to receive the much harsher “step four” penalty.
These policies also offer children no incentive to change. Once they begin their solemn march up the stairway, even those who would choose to walk down can’t do so. Just as with “three strikes” laws, once a person has committed strike two, no degree of contrition or behavioral change can ever take strikes away. As such, there is no incentive to change one’s behavior. In the meantime, the kid with a strike or two finds himself in an uncomfortable social limbo: branded as deviant, frustrated at being stuck in the situation, and angry at the system for not providing an opportunity to show that he has learned something and decided to make a change for the better. Increasingly severe punishment, which is the defining characteristic of systems of escalating consequences, is not the deterrent we think it is. And most-importantly, kids are taught how to drop out. By codifying the system and publishing its infractions and steps, we provide a perfect set of instructions any kid can follow to find his or her way out of school. Just walk up the steps to the hangman’s noose and drop yourself out through the trap door to expulsion.
THE PURPOSE OF DISCIPLINE
Since “no tolerance” policies and systems of escalating consequences are virtually the definition of discipline in our schools, how do we create positive change? By changing the definition of discipline. Fortunately, we don’t actually have to change it, we just have to re-learn its meaning and reconnect with its purpose in guiding human behavior and creating safe, orderly, and compassionate communities The purpose of discipline is to disciple; discipline is teaching, not punishment.
Instead of being “tough on crime” we could decide to be “tough on ignorance.” In this sense, our goal in administering discipline would be educational, not punitive. Through this more nuanced, more humane, and more constructive approach, there are three important ideas kids internalize over time.
First, they learn that choices have logical consequences. What is the logical consequence of skipping class? Obviously, it’s missing learning. So what should the “penalty” be for kids who skip? More opportunities to learn. This would come, no doubt, at the expense of a student’s free time, and therein lies the lesson of the “logical consequence” approach. This is discipline that teaches on many levels.
Then they learn that their actions affect everyone around them. In a system of escalating consequences, kids who misbehave find themselves separated from the community by their outlaw status. In time, they may come to think that their actions only affect themselves because the system has already branded them as different and set them apart from those who have not yet begun to ascend the staircase. Even a student who commits a solo transgression sends a ripple of energy through his or her community that may reverberate for days, weeks, or even months as it affects others who were not even peripherally involved. Effective discipline policies help kids understand how their actions affect others, a lesson every child must master in order to live successfully in society. Structures such as written commitments to improve, and requests for support from a community willing to oblige, go a long way toward helping kids understand that we’re all in this together.
Finally, they learn how to be accountable and take ownership of their results. We all want kids to learn to make good choices. But if we never give them any choices, and then we hit them with arbitrary consequences when they choose inappropriately, we rob them of what little power they may have. In this case, it’s easy for kids to take on the victim mentality, that sense of powerlessness that says “he”, “she”, or “it” did something to “me.” In stark contrast to this is the powerful feeling of personal accountability or “ownership of results.” In order for kids to mature into responsible adults, they must learn to own their results in the world. This has nothing to do with being punished and everything to do with helping kids learn to fulfill their responsibilities. This is where kids discover the first law of social physics: Actions can result in both positive and negative consequences. Learning to take ownership of the negative allows one to fully own the positive and to feel the power of human agency. This is true self-esteem building, not the fake “pat on the back” pablum we so often serve to kids in school.
No matter who we are in life, there is no greater truth or eloquent statement of stewardship than the (admittedly misspoken) quotation of Ezekiel 25:17 made famous by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.” It may not be possible to post it in classrooms or office doors in a school. But we can all carry its meaning in our hearts and continually reflect on its metaphors in the service of creating school communities where adults bring strength and compassion to the task of guiding all children through the dark moments of their lives.
Kids are going to screw up, every single one of them. Most of these transgressions will seem benign; a few may seem more serious. But kids will make mistakes and wander off the path once in a while. And then what do we do? The “no tolerance” approach tells us to mete out summary justice. The “escalating consequences” approach tells us to start kids on a climb to their own destruction.
We must get kids back on the path to good behavior through so-called “one step” systems. In that discipline model, kids are either on the path or they’re not. And every time a kid gets off the path, the “one step” we take is to put them back on. In the process, we help them connect actions with consequences and we work with them to create simple strategies for staying on the path in the future. Rather than having children face the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men, we teach them to extend their ownership and to shoulder their responsibility. And then we get them back on the path as quickly as possible.
Do I want a kid who skips class repeatedly to go to in-school suspension, then on out-of-school-suspension and after that, expelled? Not a chance. If a kid skips class, I want him back in class ASAP. I want him using his next five lunch periods to make up what he missed. I also want him to talk with his classmates for a minute or two about how his absence may have caused a disruption in our learning community and how his action could send a signal to others that skipping class is a reasonable thing to do. I’d also like his classmates to pledge at least some small measure of support in helping him attend class every day thereafter.
But that’s it. And I don’t care how many times he skips, the “one step” will always be the same. Why? Because that assures me and the kid that no matter what happens, he’ll always end up back on the path.
The school-to-prison pipeline is not a path. It looks like a path because the metaphor we’ve chosen for it connotes an ineluctable destiny. The “pipeline” only becomes a connected set of junctions from school to cell when we construct things like “no tolerance” policies and systems of escalating consequences. The solution is to dismantle the pipe and illuminate the path.
As trite as it is to say, most of us know right from wrong. We may come from all walks, and we may each walk differently, but we know where the path is and we endeavor to walk along it as part of our commitment to ourselves and to our society. Walking the path is the natural course of human events; straying form the path is not what most people do most of the time. This is what we must teach our children—through our words, our actions, and especially through our approach to discipline.
We must also teach our children what we know of the path and how we have learned to stay on it. We can start with the simplest lesson: When you wander off, the best thing to do is to get back on. School discipline policies that hijack kids into failure are unacceptable and immoral. Rather than maintaining systems that route children through punishment to the next junction in the “pipeline,” we must replace them with systems that illuminate the path and teach kids how to follow it to lives of fulfillment and contribution.