Chapter Six: The Chicken or the Egg
New York Times, July 19, 2011: School Discipline Study Raises Fresh Questions (p. A14)
Well, that’s good because that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do – raise “fresh” questions about the purpose of public education. One million Texas middle and high school students were tracked over a number of years in a study said to be “the most comprehensive on the topic yet”. This study was undertaken by the Justice Center at the Council for State Governments, described as “nonpartisan”. Here is a summary of the findings as reported by Alan Schwartz in the NY Times:
1. 31% of Texas middle and high school students were suspended or expelled (out of building) during their middle and high school years.
2. The average suspension / expulsion rate was 4 times each.
3. When “in school” suspensions are included the rate jumps to 60%.
4. There is a correlation between these school disciplinary actions and “higher rates of later criminal activity”.
5. Minority students were “more likely than whites” to face the more severe out-of-school disciplinary actions.
a. 52% of white students faced no disciplinary action at all.
b. 33% of Hispanic students faced no disciplinary action at all.
c. 24% of black students faced no disciplinary action at all.
d. 41% of students overall faced no disciplinary action.
I might add that a professor at the U. of Indiana believes that these Texas findings are “very much representative of the nation as a whole”. Based on my 10 year of experience with 99% minority students in the Bronx, mostly Hispanic, I would consider the 33% rate for Hispanics to be a fair estimate or possibly a bit low.
What are the fresh questions that are suggested by these data? What questions are being asked by those who are on the outside looking strictly at data? What questions are being asked by school administrators who are faced with poor graduation rates and a public relations problem? What questions would be asked by classroom teachers who are trying to cope with these discipline problems while presenting a lesson to those students who don’t need to be disciplined?
What is the purpose of a school? If the answer to this question seems obvious then go back and read Chapter Four: Reform School. If you think that the purpose of a public school is to provide an education for every student who chooses to attend, then the only question that needs to be answered is how to provide an environment where that lofty goal can take place.
I entered a 9th grade classroom once and noticed a new face quickly. This was a male student seated in the center of the room, a student I had never seen before and this was about half way through a semester. I had had no advance notice that a new student was being added to the roster. With several other schools in the building there was the possibility that this was an intruder.
I’ve been told frequently over the past 10 years to lock the doors to my classrooms from the inside. I had heard many stories about poor attendance in Bronx schools and thought that it was very important to get as many students to come into the room as possible so at first it seemed counterintuitive to lock the doors from the inside. I still had the Freedom Writer mindset that I would welcome into the class anyone who chose to attend.
My assumption was that they were trying to get out. This naiveté soon disappeared. While attendance was very bad and students did sometimes exit the room without permission never to return, most non-attending students either didn’t come at all or left between classes or after lunch. Once they had decided to show up at the start of class, the vast majority stuck it out. The real problem wasn’t students on the roster suddenly showing up, though lateness is a serious problem. The real problem was keeping out people who were trying to get in with ulterior motives.
I soon found out that ulterior motives ranged from things as innocuous as someone cutting gym or boyfriends preferring to sit with girlfriends rather than go to their scheduled class to more serious problems such as what happened one day when my room was invaded by about 10 students ranging in age from 15 to 19 – I guessed. This happened to be a former “holding room”, i.e., a room where disruptive students could be sent to get them out of a class but without taking further disciplinary action, such as detention or suspension. Lack of space, however, had caused this room to be turned into a classroom.
The room had 2 doors at opposite ends of the front wall. Since the room was also designated as an emergency fire escape room (3rd floor), it was illegal to have locks on these doors. I couldn’t have locked them if I had wanted to. The room also happened to be directly opposite a corner stairway, which gave easy access to exits below.
This group stormed in through both doors as I was attempting to get class started. They paid no attention to me but walked to the front row of seats and quieted the class down far more quickly than I ever had. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted and was relieved when after a moment of surveying the group, they disappeared as quickly and quietly as they had appeared. When they were gone, I asked the class what that was all about. The kids informed me that it was a gang and that they were looking for a particular student who was, indeed, on the roster and whose attendance was relatively good. She had gotten wind that trouble was brewing, however, and had not come to school that day or maybe she had left early. Some in the class knew this though no words had been spoken by any of the intruders. In any case we were all relieved that she wasn’t there and that whatever was going to happen didn’t happen then and there.
So when I saw a new face in that 9th grade class, I asked to see identification. All students are required to carry photo i.d. and are required to present it whenever called upon to do by teachers, aides, and school security.
“I don’t have it,” was the reply.
I gave him a disbelieving look and he just smiled back at me. Even if he’d lost his i.d., he would have had to obtain a temporary i.d. in order to get into the building. I.d.s are scanned as the students go through the metal detectors.
“Then go get it,” I said and walked to the door.
He sat there with a smile.
“There’s an office right across the hallway,” I said. “You can verify there that you are supposed to be here.”
He sat there and smiled.
“Does anyone know who this is?” I asked, knowing that the more subdued the response, the more likely it was that this was an intruder. No one spoke up.
I opened the door and started to call for security.
“Wait,” I heard. Now he was waving an i.d. that had suddenly appeared.
“Let me see that,” I said.
He didn’t move.
“Bring it up here so I can see it.”
He didn’t move. For all I knew he was waving the fake James Bond i.d. that I had given out as an award at one of the school festivals. I was wondering now if that had been such a good idea after all.
Meanwhile Romeo and Juliet was not being studied.
When I leaned out into the hallway and called for security, the student got out of his seat and came to the front of the room with the i.d. He handed it to me, standing there in the front of the room, which seemed to give him some pleasure, as if he were on stage. Maybe, I thought, this is just another class clown who doesn’t know what humor is.
It turned out that he was, indeed, who he said he was. However, I still had no idea if he was supposed to be in this class or not. His name was not on the attendance bubble sheet.
Since the board was right there and one of my routines is to keep a running score of points and demerits awarded for class participation, I said that unless he sat down and made up for lost time, I was going to give him detention. I began writing the name that was on the i.d. on the board.
“Hell, no!” he said and tried to grab the i.d. out of my hand.
I held tight and a pulling match over the i.d. card ensued.
“Let go,” I said several times.
“You wanna fight?” he said.
“That is a threat, you know,” I replied, still hanging on to half the card.
He smiled again.
Meanwhile Romeo and Juliet was not being studied.
Suspension is mandatory in cases where teachers are threatened or if physical contact is made. Of course, sometimes we have to make the determination if the threat is real or if the student is just “playing”. What look like violent arguments often turn out to be no more than someone’s idea of playing. At the same time playing often escalates to verbal and then physical assault. Most of the time this is between students but occasionally teachers are assaulted. I knew of a case where a teacher had been attacked with a brick on a stairwell. An administrator was pushed in the hallway. Another teacher – a minority himself – had been falsely accused of using the “N” word by a student who routinely used it in and out of class, with students and adults alike. Charges of racism against teachers are taken very seriously no matter who makes the charge.
I had never seen this student before and therefore didn’t know how to interpret this challenge to fight. Teachers are constantly correcting inappropriate language and behavior but in order to do this, you have got to know the student. You have to know the student’s intentions and know when a joke is a joke. This kid was smiling but it didn’t seem like a joke to me.
At about this time a security guard arrived at the door. The student backed away toward the center of the room.
“Do you know this kid?” I asked the guard.
“Yes,” he replied and said that he knew him very well. In fact, this student had only recently returned to school after a very length superintendent’s suspension. He had been out of school for most of the year.
The security guard asked the student to come quietly but he refused. In the end it took several guards to physically remove him from the room though he was not particularly big or strong. He knew that with his disciplinary record, a threat to a teacher could well mean another lengthy suspension. Of course, he just made matters worse.
After about 25 minutes (half the class) we finally got to Romeo & Juliet.
I never saw that kid again. He was suspended at least once more over the course of the semester but even when he was not on the suspension list, he didn’t come to class. Was that my fault? Did I go too far?
The NY Times article ends with a statement from a Houston teachers union leader: “There are potential times when human beings have had it and they drop the hammer, and maybe the hammer crashes too far.” This may be true, although this isn’t the point that I want my union rep to be making on my behalf. I hadn’t “had it”. In fact, my reputation is that I rarely get pushed over the edge. Even the fan had not pushed me too far. Like all other approaches to discipline, this has its advantages and disadvantages but I’m inclined to err on the side of leniency rather than dropping the hammer “ too far”. If this kid had simply sat down and made no further disturbance, the incident would have gone no further. If he had simply shown me his i.d. in the first place, I would have gone on with class and checked up on where he was supposed to be later as long as I knew that he was in the right school.
Did he deserve to be suspended? As it turned out he had not merely been suspended but had been sent to an upstate center for chronic disciplinary cases. When his mother brought him to parent-teacher night, she was accompanied by his state-mandated counselor and said that he has a problem with male authority figures. This I had already guessed but I assured all three of them that I was ready for a fresh start and that all would be forgotten. We shook hands. They were glad to hear that and promised that he would be back to class. He never showed up again.
I don’t know anything about Texas schools but the suggestion that the higher rates of severe discipline directed toward minorities might be attributed to racism is absurd. In fact, it is my experience in the Bronx that while every teacher approaches the discipline issue in his / her own way, minority teachers generally rule with a firmer hand than white teachers. I’m a white male in my 50s and often try to portray myself as a father figure to my students. But I’m the kindly father rather than the military code type. I’ve frequently been told that I need to crash the hammer harder than I do but this I won’t do.
As a white male teaching all minority students, it’s hard to imagine how it could even be determined if my discipline is based in any way on racist ideas or feelings. I know that it isn’t but, of course, you would have to know me and watch my interactions with students to know that with certainty. It cannot be gleaned from statistics. Since I teach only minority students, statistically, I only discipline minority students. When they put that on my teacher evaluation – 100% of Mr. Haverstock’s disciplinary actions have been taken toward minority students” – it won’t look so good. Statistics, as Mark Twain well knew, don’t show context.
Where does a teacher draw the line for inappropriate classroom behavior? There is a “ladder of referral” that outlines steps that are to be taken for various infractions (See Chapter: The Ladder) but every teacher I have ever known in the Bronx has allowed behavior that was grounds for disciplinary action to pass. In part that is because we don’t want to waste the 25 minutes that were wasted in the class just described. In part, it’s because there are much more serious issues that frequently come up and so the small battles just aren’t worth fighting. In part it’s because we understand that we are there as role models and we want to allow enough time for that to take effect. If every classroom “fuck” were disciplined, the figures would really skyrocket.
So here’s a question that isn’t so fresh: what came first: the chicken of the egg? The suggestion in the study analyzed by the NY Times is that disciplinary action in schools leads to elevated disciplinary action outside of school, which makes the suggestion of racism even more serious. Does disciplining a student in school create expectations that lead to more serious disciplinary action being required after school? Or is a student that gets suspended or expelled from school already acting out of circumstances or conditions that lead to problems both in and outside of school?
And here’s another fresh question: do schools exist to reform and rehabilitate or to educate? Ironically either way the answer is the same. If school is meant to educate then students who interfere with that process must be removed in one way or another so that students who don’t require discipline can learn without an excessive waste of time, energy and resources. If the purpose is to rehabilitate, then those students, too, must be removed from educational settings to a place where true rehabilitation can take place. That would be “schools” staffed by people who are trained in rehabilitation. Teachers are trained to teach content and cannot be all things to all students.
For students who average 4 suspensions during their educational career, clearly a different environment than one created for the purpose of education is needed. In attempting to do both, schools are doing a great disservice to all but especially to those whose time and educational lives are being stolen right out from under them because teachers are expected to rehabilitate even as we educate. Even worse, the students who don’t need discipline are being used for the same purpose. See Chapter: Sacrificial Lambs.
NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the entire book.