I read a great article recently about the failure of the discipline policies in schools (read it here). It struck a chord with me because I have had major issues this year with disciplinary actions. I understand that certain infractions require a serious punishment that often involve a student being removed from the school environment. However, what I cannot understand is punishing a student severely for minor infractions such as tardies, not wearing an I.D., or dress code. The author from a report on school punishment mentioned in the above article affirms that most punishments are subjective and a majority on not minor offenses, not actions that imperil the school. 

Yes, these little things do matter to a school’s culture so I understand that the student needs to learn from his or her mistake and not lapse into a repeating offender. My issue with the punishment is when for such mistakes students are pulled from class, usually to go into In-School Suspension (ISS). To me, ISS is the most useless form of punishment in schools and schools need to find better ways to correct student behaviors that don’t penalize a student’s learning. Again from the article I read, “A Texas study found that 31 percent of suspended students repeat a grade; 10 percent ultimately drop out.” I see this pattern every semester with students in my classes. 

This is nothing new to any teacher. This semester, however, I had a very large number and many of them received ISS more than one time. Now, I teach a foreign language so when my students miss class they are missing valuable practice and repetition to learn the words and grammar. When one of my students gets ISS, not only are they punished but I as the teacher am punished too. I have to go out of my way to tailor assignments to students whom I can’t directly teach yet inevitably I’ll have to explain it all over again when that student returns. In addition, the students who come back from ISS slow down class and are unlikely to ever recover from the lost class time. I have seen it time and again in my four years of teaching. I can only imagine why veteran teachers haven’t done anything to propose a better solution to these punishments.

So my biggest frustration is how can it be possible that a school–the daily refuge and beacon of educational hope for students–could continue condemning students to such a future? 

Now, some opponents–probably many school leaders–would argue that it’s a complicated issue. There has to be a punishment of some kind, right? And this is the best and easiest way to send students the message that they need to follow the rules. Plus, I’m sure it’s easy to argue that it’s what we’ve always done so why change it? Everyone who has been in high school remembers that there are detentions, ISS, and OSS. It’s just the norm and it’s been in place for so long that it would be difficult to change disciplinary systems.

I would argue, however, that knowing that these punishments don’t work or fulfill the objective of corrective students behaviors is enough to make reforms to the system. There should be a distinction between serious misconduct that requires a student be separated from his or her peers and those minor infractions for which a more suitable, less severe and ultimately less damaging punishment would be appropriate.

Another article I read mentions a school that is trying to use “restorative justice” in its disciplining. Basically, “restorative justice” asks students to own their behavior through dialogue and discussion. This means there are peer leaders who participate with teachers and school leaders to form a supportive community for those who disobey the rules. The idea is to teach students to work through problems and gain important coping skills in order to not repeat the offense in the future. It also helps the teachers and school leaders give lessons of character, which is a part of school curriculum anyway. The article describes some of the great results that “restorative justice” is having so far, but the key is that every school is different and should find a discipline plan that works best for its students. The other key is that everyone is involved in the decision: teachers, students, and parents agree on discipline that works instead of harsh consequences imposed top-down by the administration.

I hope that more schools will look into revamping their discipline guidelines with corrective measures that focus on helping students, instead of hurting them.