“Take your f…… hands off of me” a young man said to me after I tried lead him out of the hallway from a fight.

Think about it.  How many times have you heard people complain about the “bad” kids, the young men and women who are the gold medallion award winners for repeated trips to the office?

Have you ever thought about how and why this happens?

If you look at disciplinary records for schools across the United States (U.S. Office of Civil Rights) the patterns are amazingly similar.  Those who are most often referred to the office for discipline are low-income and minority students.  They are most often referred for refusing to follow directions, “defiance of authority” or fighting.  Adding to this pattern recently are the children of middle- or higher-income parents coming to school so spaced out on drugs or alcohol that at times they can barely articulate a coherent thought.  Witness the tragic pattern of opioid deaths among youth nationwide where related school discipline issues are like a warning bell being rung.

We are aware of what I’ve said because all of those who were disciplined, suspended or expelled came to school. They made a choice. There’s a sad misconception out there that students who act out don’t want to come to school. Au contraire, then why do they show up?

Young people don’t like being bored or isolated.  And contrary to what many people think, they come to school because they want boundaries.  Strange as it sounds, they like being told what to do, even if they don’t like the message.  Come on now, how many young people have you met who really like being told to clean up their room, do the dishes,  or in general do what they’re told to do?  It’s almost a rite of passage to give your parents or those in authority grief.  Yet for many young people across income levels, school is the only time during the day when an adult may actually say hello, ask them how they’re doing or tell them how they’re supposed to act and do their classroom work.  Adults at school demonstrate that they care.

Think of how many young people across income levels are coming to school from single- parent families where the parent can’t be home because they are working two or three jobs just to pay the bills.   Think of how many young people come to school from homes where parents either barely talk to them because they barely talk with each other, or place immense pressures on them to succeed academically, athletically or socially.

How is it that we reduce the number of young men and women being suspended and expelled from school?   A number of steps are very important.

  • Acknowledge that many young people who get into confrontations with adults know of no other way other than violence to confront what they see as a threat.
  • Acknowledge that many young people have never been taught how to express or deal with anger or other emotions. They can’t identify most of their feelings. They don’t know words that describe anger, frustration, embarrassment, happiness, sadness, despair or depression.
  • Teach young people how to identify and express emotions and what to do when they feel them.
  • Teach young people how to solve problems or conflicts without fighting — through programs such as “The Good Behavior Game,” Restorative Justice, peer mediation, and Juvenile Review Boards.
  • Acknowledge that a vital reason that many young people act out is that they are failing in school, that in many cases they have been allowed to “move on” when they cannot read, write or do math. Teach them those skills.
  • Dramatically increase the short- and long-term mental health resources available to schools and communities. Over a five year period in reviewing the cumulative academic records of students recommended for expulsion, it became clear that virtually every student had suffered a serious trauma in life.  Among these were parent divorce, death of parent or grandparent, and/or death of a sibling.   Many students who are defiant or fighting are angry or surviving life experiences out of school that would traumatize many adults.
  • Teach adults how to positively set rules and manage student behavior consistently using programs like PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports).
  • Teach adults and students how to avoid being backed into a corner, and what to do when you are.

Certainly the purpose of any school discipline or behavior management system is to build and sustain a safe and orderly environment for students, staff and parents.  Ultimately, a safe and orderly environment is essential to effective instruction and student success, and student success is what we need to be about in schools.

Nicholas A. Fischer is a former superintendent of schools in New London, Fall River, MA. and Christina Public Schools, DE.

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