We all recognize the tough job schools face in creating a nurturing education environment for their pupils. We also understand that appropriate discipline is vital to fostering a fair and respectful climate within schools — however, sometimes schools go too far.
Below are five recent news stories ranging from the ill-judged to the outrageous about when school discipline goes terribly wrong.
1) Using same-sex hand-holding as a punishment — Two male students caught fighting at Westwood High in Mesa, Arizona, were told they could either face suspension or hold hands for 15 minutes in the school courtyard. They chose the latter. The two unnamed high school kids were then pictured shielding their faces during this punishment as a group of kids taunted them with anti-gay language. The punishment provoked an angry reaction from some at the school who said it was reinforcing negative attitudes about being gay by making same-sex contact into a punishment.
The school district responded swiftly, saying in a statement that “the district does not condone the choice of in-school discipline given these students, regardless of their acceptance or willingness to participate. District leadership will address this matter with the school principal and review district protocol regarding student discipline with all administrators.”
The principal of the school has received substantial support from within the school however, with a campaign in his favor saying the punishment was never meant to be anti-gay. They also point out this was elective — the boys could have chosen suspension.
However, critics say that, while recognizing this situation was not brought about by anti-gay animus, it allowed for a climate in which the two boys were then subjected to anti-gay taunts. This, whether intentional or not, demonstrates how ill-judged the punishment was. It also may have exposed other students, perhaps struggling with their sexuality, to a display of anti-gay treatment that could have a greater impact on their well-being.
2) Paddling – When 19-year old Taylor Santos, a high-achieving student and athlete at Springtown High School near Fort Worth, Texas, was accused in September of letting another kid copy her homework, she got to choose her punishment: two days of suspension or being paddled.
Due to the fact that she didn’t want to miss a day of school, she chose paddling. When Santos’ mom later learned the school’s male vice-principal carried out the punishment, she was livid. She also questioned the punishment, which she said left her daughter bruised and her skin “fire-engine red.” You can read the full story here.
In 19 states in the U.S., spanking children using a wooden or fiberglass paddle is still entirely legal. This is despite the fact that according to ABC News, up to 20,000 public school students each year seek medical treatment after they have been paddled. There is also research that says school kids who are subjected to this form of corporal punishment are likely to become more aggressive. Many mainstream medical bodies are also against the practice. Why, then, is corporal punishment still legal, and why is it part of the Texas Republican party’s platform?
3) Placing kids in padded isolation rooms — When outraged mother Ana Bate discovered that Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, Washington, was using a padded isolation chamber to deal with her child and other students who they deemed had “behavioral disabilities,” she took pictures of the padded cell — or “therapeutic booth” as the school termed it — and posted them to Facebook. Like Bate, this policy was not something other parents were aware of and they reacted angrily to the news.
There are also reports of a teacher at Washington Elementary in Caldwell who forgot she had isolated a child in this manner, leaving the child in the room for a protracted length of time, despite the policy saying that an adult must be present to “de-escalate” the situation. Another report has also emerged from Idaho of a father who was angered when his 5-year-old son was put in an isolation room and then also forgotten about for over an hour.
To be clear, separating one child from other children may be necessary in specific circumstances where the child’s behavior reaches a point where they become unmanageable and a potential danger to themselves or others, but that certainly does not mean that solitary confinement is the only option. Furthermore, the use of isolation as a form of punishment has been shown to be very distressing to kids both young and older. There is also evidence to suggest that solitary confinement actually can increase aggressive behavior rather than calm child behavior.
4) Withholding food from underprivileged children – A school in Michigan hit the headlines recently when, as a response to a large-scale food-fight in the school’s cafeteria, the administration decided to stop serving lunch to sixth through eighth graders for a week. They sent a letter home saying kids would simply have to bring their own food. However, parents were outraged.
The school, Bethune Elementary-Middle school, is part of the Educational Achievement Authority, a statewide school district that includes the state’s worst-performing schools.
Many of the district’s pupils are under-privileged and rely on the federal Community Eligibility Option program which states that all EAA schools are expected to provide students with a free breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In depriving sixth through eighth graders of their school lunches, there was a very real possibility that many children simply would not have a replacement meal available that day.
Again, this was a case of poor judgment that should not have happened. Fortunately, on learning about the school’s threat to withhold lunches, the EAA spoke with the school’s administration and had the decision reversed.
5) Kids being arrested for minor school infractions — In August, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Lauderdale County, Mississippi, accusing it of operating what was in effect a “school-to-prison pipeline.” It says students — a disproportionate number of whom were African-American or had disabilities — were arrested and incarcerated for offenses that, in many cases, were minor levels of disobedience like wearing the wrong colored socks.
The DOJ was hoping to negotiate a solution and gave Lauderdale County 60 days to respond. Since no meaningful talks were had, the County is now the subject of a lawsuit in which the DOJ says that not only are students having their rights infringed by incidents like these, but that the County is actively planning for involving law authorities in the disciplining of the County’s school children.
“For example, some Behavior Intervention Plans prepared by the district for students with disabilities have listed ‘Juvenile Detention Center’ as a consequence for student misbehavior,” the lawsuit says.
Putting School Behavior Problems in Perspective
To be absolutely clear, it is important to stress that on the whole teachers and school administrators do an admirable and even exemplary job of educating America’s young people, and that the above incidents are not reflective of the wider behavioral management in schools.
However, these incidents, and their alarming frequency, have raised concerns that certain districts across the country are not acting appropriately or even lawfully when disciplining the children in their care.
Image credit: Thinkstock.