In unruly times, a quest for the best discipline

When the graceful archways of the Buehrle School were erected in 1895, their architects could scarcely have foreseen the day when security specialists with hand-held metal detectors would walk through them seeking out dangerous weapons.

Yet such a practice is routine now at the 220-student secondary school in Lancaster, Pa.

Go to Detroit's Paul Robeson Academy, on the other hand, and you won't find locks on lockers, much less a guard or metal detectors for the 1,000 students there.

"Happy kids who feel valued and have a sense of belonging don't create problems," says the school's principal, Ray Johnson, who scorns such methods. "Creating a sense of family, of community - that's the real answer."

As classroom lights dim for the summer, there could hardly be less consensus among educators as to the best means for keeping students safe and well governed.

The number of incidents of violence in public schools has decreased in recent years, despite highly publicized school shootings. Many states have nevertheless expanded the reach of "zero tolerance" laws that prescribe specific disciplines for certain behaviors. Once directed only at dangerous actions, the rigid bans have grown in some cases to include having plastic utensils in lunchboxes and games of "cops and robbers" at recess.

The movement toward tighter governance is a natural result, supporters argue, of coming to terms with an erosion of school discipline that began decades ago, as standards of behavior loosened and the focus on justice and students' rights intensified.

But concerns are mounting that schools are prescribing overly dramatic remedies, especially as stories surface about kindergartners getting a police record, or a good student being suspended for behavior once considered a harmless prank.

"We're caught in a post-Columbine trauma," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. "But these quick-fix policy things we've come up with aren't going to solve anything."

Few argue that educators don't need to address behavioral issues. In many schools, an atmosphere of incivility makes it difficult for teachers and students alike to focus on work.

Some schools are facing the disruption of violence or other offenses with increasing frequency. The number of incidents reported to the Boston public schools safety office, for instance, rose by 600 this year, to 3,098. The Massachusetts Department of Education also reported that problems are starting younger: In Boston, suspensions went up by more than 50 percent for students in prekindergarten through Grade 3 between the 1997-98 school year and 1999-2000. Statewide, suspensions for that age group have increased yearly for the past seven years.

And since a zero-tolerance violence policy took effect in 1995, the Chicago Public Schools saw a 14.5 percent increase to 37,310 suspensions last year.

The interest in inflexible measures comes as no surprise to many observers. "The reason [schools] moved to zero tolerance is that we keep stripping away the ability of professionals to make decisions," says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "We've taken away the ability to say, 'Your pants are too sloppy and your skirt is too short.' There are concerns about punishment being inequitable. So in the end, you embrace zero tolerance."

But simply meting out tough punishments for virtually every offense is hardly a workable long-term solution, many experts say. "It's the easier route to just give kids suspensions and expulsions," says Kevin Dwyer, senior adviser on prevention and children's mental health at the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va. "It gets it off your desk and temporarily reduces your frustration."

Such methods may also appeal to those who long to see schools return to the more buttoned-down style of the past. But what many people fail to recognize, Mr. Dwyer says, is that schools face complicated situations they once could sidestep.

One factor is the notion of "no child left behind" - fully embraced only in recent years. US high school graduation rates have soared in the past few decades. In 1950, only about half of 25- to 29-year-olds had completed high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington. By 1998, 85 percent were receiving high school diplomas.

Those figures indicate a victory for the US school system. But they also mean that some students with serious problems who once dropped out are now staying in school - often requiring considerable time and attention. "Youngsters who in 1960 were kicked out of school are now staying on," Dwyer says. "In those days, even before they were 16, there were under-the-table ways of getting kids to drop out."

National legislation in the 1970s also promised a full education to children with physical and emotional disabilities. Some educators say that decision caused discipline challenges that have not been fully addressed.

"We have committed ourselves as a nation to educating all children, to not discriminating against children with emotional disabilities," says Dewey Cornell, professor of education at the University of Virginia. But at the same time, he says, society forgot to prepare teachers for the fact that "you can't use regular discipline tools against children with emotional disabilities." As a result, some say, many public school teachers feel unclear about how and when to mete out punishment. A provision in the education bill that passed the Senate last week may further cloud the picture by stating that teachers should discipline disabled children as they would other children.

Racial disparities have also cropped up in the doling out of punishments. A report last year by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University cited US Department of Education data showing that African-American children represent 17 percent of public school enrollment but 32 percent of out-of-school suspensions. According to attorneys, it notes, African-American and Latino children are more likely than white children to be disciplined for minor misconduct.

The number of suspensions doesn't concern Stephen Renne, principal of the 1,000-student Carpentersville Middle School near Chicago. More troubling is the fact that today the punishment seems to pack little punch. At his school, there were almost 500 suspensions this year - a number that has been fairly stable for the past few years.

"Suspension from school is a traditional method of disciplining students, and in previous years it may have been more effective," he says. "But you have to realize that today many of these students go home to an empty house."

Mr. Renne worries that in the midst of an era of get-tough policies, there is still too little focus on longer-term solutions. Reducing school size would significantly ease problems, he says. And more educational alternatives need to be provided for kids who don't respond to traditional classroom methods.

Many who study student behavior argue that more effort needs to go into nurturing respectful relationships between students and teachers. That requires patience and steady attention - rare commodities in the rush toward reform. "We've got to find out how to fix the environment," Dwyer says. "But it takes time. And it ain't easy."

Zero-tolerance headliners

A high school honor student in Florida was jailed and missed graduation because a kitchen knife was found in her car.

A Louisiana third-grader was suspended one day for drawing an armed soldier in a fort.

In New Jersey, two second-graders playing cops and robbers with a paper gun were suspended and charged with making terroristic threats.

For pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying "Pow, pow, pow," an 8-year-old first-grader in Jonesboro, Ark., was suspended for three days.

A 6-year-old in Pennsylvania was suspended for two weeks when a nail clipper with a 2-inch cuticle knife and a bottle opener fell out of his backpack during class.

A 13-year-old in Virginia took a knife from a suicidal friend to protect her and was suspended for 20 weeks for weapons possession.

In Texas, a 13-year-old was asked to write a "scary" Halloween story. The student spent five days in jail for turning in a story about two students and a teacher who are shot.

A 14-year-old Indiana student was expelled for a semester after unwittingly taking a sip of Gatorade spiked with alcohol.

Source: Associated Press. Incidents have occurred since 1999.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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