As I walked past the principal’s office, I could see that Jonah was sitting outside again, his small legs shaking nervously, his head hung low. His eyes met mine as I passed by to pick up my mail. “In trouble?” I asked, knowing the answer all too well. “Yeah,” Jonah said, staring straight ahead at the cinderblock wall. Outside, we both could hear the hoots and hollers of classmates who were playing tag, bouncing a ball against the wall or sitting in clusters, chatting with their friends. I sighed, wishing I could do something to break this child out of his prison of pointless punishment. “Poor kid,” I muttered to a passing colleague. “ Not such a poor kid,” she glared. “He never seems to know how to act.” This is the story for Jonah and for so many young people like him who sit out recesses or are suspended for being too jumpy, talking out of turn and disrespecting norms that feel like straightjackets to our most energetic, challenging and non-conforming children.
A Golden Opportunity for Schools
For me, a lifelong educator, this is a bitter pill to swallow. I have seen that even when educators are earnest about how they target punishments, the burden of correction falls on boys of color, students with disabilities and others who need our support, not daily doses of our frustration and disdain. What’s even worse is that even well-meaning educators may be subject to intrinsic bias that cloud their lens when making decisions about student disciplinary actions. And if that were not enough, studies have shown that punishment does not work—it does not stop an individual from doing what got them into this jam in the first place. Though overwhelmed and well-meaning adults may feel better doing something that appears to help, the child’s behaviors won’t change. Even worse, the national Civil Rights Data Collection in 2013-2014 reported that a disproportionate number of disciplinary actions were targeted at Black students, boys and students with disabilities in K-12. Guidelines for schools followed and were helpful to help districts gather data to really think through how their apparently neutral policies regarding discipline might actually be discriminatory. By having data on how disciplinary actions were applied, schools have a golden opportunity to be thoughtful about how to keep order in schools, and dig deeper into why some children are punished differently from others. Educators can review their disciplinary data and learn about what kinds of behaviors were receiving punishments, what the overall climate of the school might be and discover together ways that they could support students. They can think about switching from demeaning punishments to restorative justice, a practice that focuses on creating community values, connecting students through relationships, shared accountability and mutual support.
The Administration Isn't Helping
But now, the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are considering scrapping such guidance in the wake of school shootings in an effort to make schools safer. Research studies point out that punishments like isolation, suspension and denial of educational opportunities are bad ways to run a school because they are based on the faulty belief that everyone responds the same to punishments. Children who are survivors of trauma, live in violent communities or struggle with mental health issues are not likely to improve behaviors when the punishments they are given do absolutely nothing to help them learn how to overcome their issues. Instead, we show them that the adults in their world seek vengeance and that they will have to pay for disrupting the good and rule-abiding students with increased isolation, negative attention and shunning. Bad news. Schools should be places where all of our children can be safe from harm, learn well and find a path to a bright future. Educators should abandon antiquated and ineffective methods of punishment to immediately create teams that revisit the policies and practices that keep students excluded and hurt. Meanwhile, there is a kid—just like Jonah—outside of a principal’s office near you—waiting, embarrassed and sad about how the adults in his world have chosen to treat him. We can do better. We must.
Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Gifted and Talented specialist in New Jersey and has been teaching for 38 years.
She is also the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, the winner of the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Award, a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, an America Achieves Fellow (2011-2015), a member of both the Board of Directors of the National Education Association ...