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Addressing the Discipline Problem

By Jay Mathews Washington Post May 11, 2004

How Not to Handle Suspensions - District Loses Lawsuit

I wouldn't last a year -- no, make that a month -- teaching in an American public school, and I know why.

I would be okay on content. I was a good student when I was in school, and got the high scores that seem to correlate with effective presentation of subject matter. I confess I have even fantasized about abandoning journalism and getting a job as a teacher of U.S. history, my favorite subject when I was 16.

But I would be bad at it because I would not be able to keep order in the average classroom of 25 to 30 distracted, resentful and apathetic adolescents.

Having spent the past 22 years watching hundreds of real high school teachers struggle with such students, I have wondered why more attention hasn't being paid to the discipline problem. It is rarely the subject of the educational conferences and seminars I am invited to cover, or the books I am asked to review. When I did a research paper for an online university course in classroom management three years ago, one of the most depressing things I learned was that education schools don't teach much about how to keep order in class, and don't think their students would appreciate it if they did.

So I was eager to read a major report on discipline in our schools being released today by the New York-based public policy research organization, Public Agenda, one of the most interesting and useful chroniclers of opinion inside American classrooms.

It is both an intriguing and a disturbing document. The vast majority of teachers surveyed say they are often treading water in a sea of adolescent misbehavior and parental mistrust. The report, entitled "Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today's Public Schools Foster the Common Good," can be found at publicagenda.org/research/pdfs/teaching_interrupted.pdf. Common Good, a legal reform coalition that seems to span the political spectrum, having both Newt Gingrich and George McGovern on its board of directors, sponsored the study.

Here is the report's most unsettling summary of its findings: "Teachers operate in a culture of challenge and second-guessing -- one that has an impact on their ability to teach and maintain order. Nearly half of teachers (49 percent) complain that they have been accused of unfairly disciplining a student. More than half (55 percent) say that districts backing down from assertive parents causes discipline problems. Nearly 8 in 10 teachers (78 percent) say that there are persistent troublemakers in their school who should have been removed from regular classrooms."

This obviously affects learning in the classroom. One teacher told the researchers: "Instruction becomes -- I don't want to say the minimal piece, but often it does become that. . . . . They're not focused on getting an education." But there is also a wider dread that poisons life all over the school. "We have students that just terrorize other students," another teacher said, "and yet we can't get rid of them, and they know this."

I don't think discipline is the most important problem in American education. Poverty is. Children from low-income families are severely handicapped by the survival culture of their neighborhoods and their parents' strain making a living. It is often hard for such children to understand the importance of their lessons and to focus on learning. The difficulty of following proper classroom decorum is just one of their many handicaps.

But I also think, unlike many problems in schools, discipline can be improved significantly with just a few adjustments in the way schools are organized, and the way teachers are trained. We have several examples of schools that have triumphed over the problem, even in the worst circumstances. The KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) public charter and contract schools, for instance, use consistent rewards and punishments to turn low-income middle schoolers -- usually the most troublesome of American students -- into successful learners in 24 cities and towns.

As "Teaching Interrupted" makes clear, the number of disruptive students in any classroom is usually small, but if a teacher doesn't deal with them quickly and firmly, he is toast. So what is the best way to handle these unhappy, lesson-killing rebels?

The survey says which approaches are most popular with teachers and parents. This is fine as far as it goes, but it occurred to me, as I read their suggestions, that if teachers and parents are having such trouble making classrooms orderly, they may not be the best sources on what will work and what won't.

Their favorite solutions to the discipline problem, as revealed in the survey, are enforcing the little rules so that bigger problems won't occur, no mercy for students whose offenses merit suspension or expulsion, and alternative schools for chronic offenders. If we take the KIPP schools as a measure of what works in practice, the strict attention to small problems makes the most sense. All new fifth graders in KIPP's 31 schools spend three weeks in the summer learning how to raise their hands for attention, how to sit and observe the teacher, how to come to order quickly when that is requested and why failure to complete one's homework each and every night will cost them rewards, such as points toward the big year-end trip, and even lead to their parents being called to the school.

KIPP educators, however, rarely suspend or expel a student. They think they have better ways to change behavior by keeping children in their school. I would love to believe that regular public schools could just adopt that philosophy and all would be well, but the teachers in those schools know better. At least in the short term, they need a way to get their most troublesome kids out of their classes.

After all, the current system, which tells teachers they are just going to have to put up with it, jeopardizes their careers. I have told the chilling story of Darlene Hamilton [July 23, 2002, column], who found herself escorted off the campus of Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County by security officers because one emotionally disturbed student said Hamilton pushed, poked and scratched her. When Hamilton was cleared and the police charged the student with making a false report, the judge decided there was not enough evidence to find the student guilty.

The book "Guilty Until Proven Innocent," reviewed in this column [Oct. 28, 2003], tells many similar horror stories. The "Teaching Interrupted" report shows they are not isolated cases. Not only do half of the teachers surveyed say they have been accused of unfairly disciplining a students, but a third say the problem of keeping their classroom orderly has become so frustrating that they have considered some other line of work. Given the severity of the threat, transferring disruptive students to alternative schools may be necessary, at least until we develop a way to change school cultures, starting with the youngest students.

Public Agenda compiled the report from the responses of 725 public middle and high school teachers reached by mail and 600 public school parents reached by telephone. The margin of error for both the teacher and parent surveys is plus or minus 4 percentage points. There is, as you would expect, a gap between teacher and parent responses on some questions. Asked if they thought a school needed good discipline and behavior in order to flourish, both groups said yes, but that view was stronger among teachers, 97 percent, than parents, 78 percent.

The report raises several questions worthy of further research. Ninety-four percent of teachers, for instance, see a problem in lax punishment of misbehaving special education students, who are often protected by individual education plans and a wrong-headed view that their disabilities make them less responsible for their acts.

Readers like me who think that more interesting ways of teaching might reduce the mischief will also be troubled to read that only 26 percent of teachers and 32 percent of parents agreed with this statement: "When students misbehave, it usually means the teacher has failed to make lessons engaging."

On a more encouraging note, 72 percent of the teachers surveyed said they could "virtually always" or "most of the time" count on their principal "to firmly support teachers on matters of student discipline and behavior."

Everybody shares the blame for poor discipline, the report says. Some parents -- fortunately not the majority -- either don't care or don't pay attention. One teacher said, "The student will mouth off or not do homework, and I'll contact the parent in writing or on the phone, and I'm lucky if I get a response."

And teachers need better training. Public Agenda notes that the university education schools have not made this a priority. Education professors have told me they cannot teach classroom management effectively until the prospective teacher is in a classroom with the problem in front of her, his big feet on his desk, loudly chewing gum. Some education schools have significantly increased the amount of time their students spend as practice teachers, but most count on them learning the important techniques ofclassroom management on the job. And young teachers all know, once they start their first full-time assignment, that the advice and help from their principal or designated mentor teacher is often laughably inadequate.

We all remember those of our teachers who knew how to squelch bullies and comedians. Some principals have this knack and try to teach it to their new hires. What is necessary is a few rule changes to back them up, more attention to discipline in teacher training courses, and maybe the long-awaited acknowledgement from the foundations and the school districts and the think tanks that until they pay more attention to this, much of the time we insist our children spend in school is going to be wasted.

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.

Lawsuit settlement offers free tutoring to West Contra Costa students who were improperly penalized

By Shirley Dang, Contra Costa Times, May 2, 2006

For years, the West Contra Costa school district dealt with poorly behaving students by shipping them from school to school, often against their will.

Administrators scheduled disciplinary hearings that were weeks in the future, refusing children entry to classrooms until the appointment date, according to a lawsuit filed last year.

As a result, some students missed six weeks of class -- much longer than the five consecutive days and 20 days a year maximum outlined in state Education Code.

Five students and their parents who sued over the district's discipline policy last year recently settled. If no settlement had been reached, the case would have gone to trial today.

As part of the agreement, students found to have been wrongly penalized will have improper suspensions cleared from their records. They may also receive free tutoring to make up for missed class.

"It definitely gives students much greater protection," said Oren Sellstrom, lawyer for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Under the settlement terms the district denies any wrongdoing, but it overhauled its discipline policy in October.

Assistant Superintendent Sylvester Greenwood, who oversees student discipline, said he believes that transferring students to new campuses offered them a fresh start -- and a better alternative to expulsion.

"I still stick by that," said Greenwood, who is retiring at the end of the school year. "I did what I thought was best."

The old discipline policy allowed the district to reassign students to a new school or put them on probation for a semester to a year "if it solved an extreme personal relations problem."

The district also allowed for "pre-expulsion." During that time, the district could move the student to another campus while awaiting an expulsion hearing.

Lawyers argued that these policies violated parents' right to choose a school for their children and did not follow the state law governing expulsion hearings. In some cases, the district gave families no notice of the meetings or their right to have witnesses and advocates, according to the complaint.

As a result, the district violated state law by keeping students out of class for an excessive amount of time, the suit said.

A third-grader missed nearly six weeks of school after being removed from Bayview Elementary School in September 2004, according to the complaint. A student originally at Pinole Valley High was transferred to DeAnza but missed 21 days of school in the process.

A 7-year-old girl accused of sexual assault missed school on and off from September 2003 to February 2004, according to the complaint.

The settlement was finalized April 5 in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez. The major terms are as follows:

  • The district must provide a parents' rights sheet when a student is recommended for expulsion.
  • The district may not transfer students to new schools without consent from parents.
  • The district will offer free one-on-one tutoring to students found to be wrongfully suspended between the 2000-01 and 2005-06 school years. Total tutoring costs will not exceed $75,000.
  • Improper suspensions may be removed from records of eligible students.
  • The district will cover plaintiff legal fees of $146,137.
  • A monitor will audit the district's compliance with the policies through June 2008.

In addition, the district will provide training to administrators on new discipline codes to avoid violations in the future.


Students suspended by the West Contra Costa school district in the 2000-01 school year through the 2005-06 school year may be eligible for free tutoring as a result of a legal settlement. Students who qualify may also have their records cleaned of inappropriate suspensions.

FORMS: www.wccusd.k12.ca.us.

CONSULTATION: free from Legal Services for Children, 415-863-3762.

DEADLINE: April 14, 2007


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Last modified: December 10, 2004

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