Op-Ed: Discipline in schools

By Andrew Gove, Shearer-Cantrell, Daisy Miranda Cardoso, and Tzuyu Chen

Research done through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (LCCREJ) shows that Massachusetts’ students missed at least 208,605 days in the classroom due to disciplinary removal in the 2012 to 2013 school year.

While fair and firm discipline is necessary to sustain classroom order, research has repeatedly found that an over reliance on these exclusionary school punishments comes with a long, sobering list of consequences that alienate and handicap students. Heavy reliance on disciplinary removal not only creates an unwelcoming school environment oriented around punishment and security, but also fails to provide students with educational alternatives during their absence from the classroom, forcing students who are removed from the classroom to work harder to function successfully within the school environment alongside their peers.

Often the infractions students are removed from school for do not warrant the discipline that they receive. The “non-violent, non-criminal and non-drug” offenses students were being removed for ranged from dress code violations to acts of disrespect. The majority of students experiencing disciplinary removal are experiencing it for minor misbehaviors, which is concerning considering how subjective these circumstances could be and how negatively disciplinary removal affects student achievement.

Students of color were found to be disciplined both more often and more harshly than white students within the Massachusetts school system. A study of male students in a Midwestern school district found that black students tended to receive harsher punishments than their white peers for similar behavioral infractions.

Racial disparities in suspension rates appeared to be attributable to “prior disproportionate referral of African American students to the [principal’s] office,” suggesting that teachers played an important role in determining which students would be punished.

It also seemed that white and black students were generally referred to the office for different types of disciplinary infractions. White students were commonly referred to the office for “smoking, leaving without permission, vandalism, and obscene language,” whereas black students tended to be referred for “disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering”, offenses that are not only more minor than the ones white students were being referred for but also more subjective and based on the teacher’s perception of the student’s behavior which could include bias.

Effective discipline is a key part of a successful schooling experience, however, these cases of discipline can only be valued when they are used to teach a student about conflict resolution and promote positive, cooperative behaviors in a classroom setting. Disciplinary removal fails to embody this factor of personal and social growth because, rather than providing the student with alternative behaviors, it removes them completely from the classroom and creates more stressors that fuel misbehavior by putting them behind academically, generating feelings of anger or distrust between the students and teachers involved, excluding or disconnecting the student from the school environment, and labeling the student as difficult or delinquent.

These social factors do more than just alter an individual’s experience with the school system; they systematically exclude specific populations from an environment of socialization that aids students in personal success and their development of political, economic and civic capacities within the community.

[Editor’s Note: This op-ed was written as part of an assignment for a sociology class at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.]

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