Rethinking school discipline policies

The problem of violence in our schools has led school officials to resort to such “get-tough” strategies as metal detectors and security guards and “zero tolerance” policies that guarantee automatic removal from school. Less punitive measures include conflict resolution training, mentoring and counseling.

Although some of these less coercive strategies have been relatively effective in particular schools, the overall thrust has been in favor of the “get-tough” approach. Pedro A. Noguera, University of California/Berkeley, reports that in their desire to reassure the public that schools are safe, administrators have become increasingly inflexible when meting out punishment, even when infractions are not of a violent nature. Violent (and sometimes non-violent) incidents are increasingly treated as criminal offenses to be handled by police.

Noguera believes that coercive control policies exact a heavy toll on a school community by producing a prison-like environment that remains unsafe and by generating mistrust and resistance that hinder learning. In a recent essay in Harvard Educational Review, Noguera asks educators to reconsider why schools appear to be so vulnerable to violence and to examine whether their current disciplinary policies prevent or perpetuate violence.

Focusing on urban schools, Noguera argues that making control the first priority actually increases these schools’ susceptibility to violence. He asserts that schools must create more humane environments to counter escalating violence and to transform the social relationships within schools, so that everyone in the schools will feel less alienated, threatened and repressed.

To do this, Noguera suggests that policy makers must be more willing to confront the implications of the correlations between race, class, violence and punishment. School punishment is highly correlated with race, academic grouping and high school graduation rates.

Creating a respectful learning community

Since teachers usually make the first referral in the discipline process, they have tremendous influence in determining who receives punishment and why. Noguera’s work with urban teachers reveals that their greatest concern is maintaining control in their classes. This is especially true in schools where the student population is mostly black and the faculty is mostly white. Noguera’s approach to helping these teachers create a respectful learning community is to shift the focus of concern from discipline to getting to know their students better. He has found that teachers who lack familiarity with their students are more likely to misunderstand and fear them, overreacting and resorting to discipline when challenged. The anonymity of large schools adds to the problem.

Noguera helps teachers learn about their students and bridge the gaps between them by asking what kind of information they would need to know if they were invited to teach in a foreign country. After discussing why this information would be important to them, he suggests finding out about their own school’s neighborhood in just this way. By learning about their students’ community, teachers do not react on the basis of stereotypes or misguided assumptions.

Noguera reports that even in schools with notorious reputations for violence, there are always teachers who manage to work effectively with their students and where fear is not an obstacle to learning. In studying these teachers and interviewing students about the teachers they respect, Noguera has gathered data to help schools create a safer, more constructive learning environment. He reports that many of these exceptional teachers had to negotiate differences of race, class or experience in order to establish rapport with students. Students consistently cite three characteristics that make teachers worthy of respect: firmness, compassion and an interesting and challenging teaching style.

The severity of social and economic conditions in cities is one cause for the dysfunction that characterizes social relations in urban schools. Despite these conditions, schools that are successful in creating an academically focused, socially supportive environment have found effective ways to address the problem of violence that do not rely upon coercion or excessive forms of control. In addition to getting to know their students so that teachers can relate to them as individuals, Noguera says, these schools frequently use the arts to humanize the school environment. To help overcome the divide between a school and its community, he says, successful schools use many local adults who volunteer or are paid to tutor, mentor, teach, coach, perform or help out in any way.

In Noguera’s experience, the urban schools that feel safe do not have metal detectors, armed security guards or principals who carry baseball bats. Safe schools have a strong sense of community and collective responsibility. These schools are described by their students as sacred territory, too special to be spoiled by crime and violence.

“Preventing and Producing Violence: A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence”, Harvard Educational Review, Volume 65, Number 2, Summer 1995, pp.189-207.

Published in ERN September/October 1995 Volume 8 Number 4

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