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On the Obama Administration offering guidance for school discipline

Arne Duncan and his DOJ counterpart Attorney General Holder offer new guidelines for school discipline.
Arne Duncan and his DOJ counterpart Attorney General Holder offer new guidelines for school discipline.
Photo by Bryan Bedder

One of the Obama Administration’s first acts of 2014 was to issue new guidelines on how schools should approach student discipline. In doing so, the Departments of Education and Justice warned schools to respect civil liberties and apply reasonable disciplinary action in an evenhanded approach as is required by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The move came in response to a growing trend of schools to be overzealous in their application of so-called zero tolerance policies and other disciplinary actions, including the criminalization of truancy and misconduct in the classroom.

Unfortunately, school administrators and teaches often find themselves in a position of power over younger students where weak oversight leads to unchecked policies and decision-making. Given such a situation, some individuals will more often than not behave in a reasonable manner, whereas, others let the power go to their heads. School employees are certainly not immune to human nature and their own personal faults, thus they need proper guidance, strong enforcement of professional standards, and continual outside oversight.

Instead of balancing student interests with school interests, it is the tendency of school administrators and teachers to over focus on their perspectives and the requirements of their jobs, thereby positioning themselves to neglect the full spectrum of student interests. This not only encourages a heavy-handed approach to discipline, it also encourages school employees to avoid problems and go for the easiest options that serve their interests first.

There were many great teachers at my rural Pennsylvanian high school who did at great job of educating and supporting students, especially considering our region’s issues with poverty and domestic violence. That said, there have been some shocking events that were intentionally ignored, or even suppressed, over the years in addition to some rather bizarre and heavy-handed decisions made by the school administration. A few years ago, for example, I learned the administration decided to suspend all bus pass privileges, because a few students forged bus passes. Instead of taking a just, targeted approach, they cracked down on the community.

As another example, the school administration decided to close the library for the majority of the school year instead of cutting the budget elsewhere, e.g. football. If a school cannot afford to keep the library open then it should cut back on the sports and other nonacademic programs. If football is so important to the parents and the community, they need to figure out how to pay for it without educational dollars. Standing up to parents in order to protect the academic mission of a school would be a sign of strong leadership and quality management.

The former Principle once told me I needed to learn to take “personal responsibility” when I reported a misbehaved kid, who they never managed to throw away, after he decided to use my book bag as a trampoline. Because I was bigger than the other kid, I was apparently supposed to beat him up or something like, which I would have been in trouble for doing so. Clearly, that is a perverse argument. Quite frankly, it was just a way of the Principle getting out of his responsibilities.

Furthermore, heavy-handed, egocentric behavior of school officials should raise concerns over how students are treated: we must question if children should be educated under the hand of a self-serving authoritarian regime or be supported by a school system that is there to serve them. At their worst, school officials train students through a dysfunctional environment to react inappropriately to situations in an egocentric, heavy-handed manner without any sense of the broader consequences of their actions or the interests of others while stripping away a sense of normalcy for children who often live in dysfunctional home environments. As such, the Obama Administration’s first steps to offer guidance should be welcome by school and communities alike while more should be done.

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