‘Who killed school discipline?’

Long post alert.  I’ll move much of this off the front page later today.  If you have children in public schools… read it all the way through.  But if nothing else, please read the essay that I drew upon.


Since we are talking about school discipline and administrative efforts to win back control of the classroom through measures such as school uniforms; have you ever wondered exactly why it is that administrators don’t, or can’t, use more heavy-handed tactics for getting disruptive students out of our classrooms?  It’s the Fed, dammit (and the lawyers they wrought).  Read on.

Overly liberal interpretations of the 1975 federal legislation known as IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) have had a devastating effect on orderly schools.  According to Kay Hymowitz’s eye-opening essayWho Killed School Discipline“, the IDEA legislation…

“…mandates ‘free and appropriate education’ for children regardless of disability – and provide it, moreover, within regular classrooms whenever humanly possible – (this law) effectively strips educators of the authority to transfer or to suspend for long periods any student classified as needing special education.

“…Over the past several decades, the number of children classified under the vaguely defined disability categories of “learning disability” and “emotional disturbance” has exploded. Many of these kids are those once just called “unmanageable” or “antisocial”: part of the legal definition of emotional disturbance is “an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers” – in other words, to be part of an orderly community….”

The other big culprits in the erosion of school discipline since I walked to school - in the snow - uphill - both ways, were two Supreme Court decision in the 1960′s and 70′s.

In 1969 came the Tinker vs Des Moines decision which promted Justice Abe Fortas’ now famous quote for the court’s majority: It can hardly be argued that students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

In other words, a teacher or an administrator can no longer unilaterally decide to expel or otherwise mete out swift disciplinary action to deal with disruptive students – the litmus test for keeping order is now a legal question: is the observed bad behavior ”significantly disruptive”? 

Every actionable infraction must meet this standard in order to pass muster with school system attorneys… Or as Hymowitz puts it, “educators’ power to instill civility and order in school dissolves into tendentious debates over the exact meaning of legal terms like “significantly disruptive.”

In 1975, the Supreme Court further castrated school administrator’s ability to keep order through the Goss vs Lopez decision.  This fine piece of judicial reasoning was the one that elevated disruptive students’ due-process rights over the rights of the whole school to get a proper education free of discplinary distractions.

Because of Goss vs Lopez, students know they can do pretty much whatever they want without fear or swift consequences, especially if there are no – or few - witnesses to disruptions.  In our schools, ‘due process’ is known as ‘writing him up’ – a legal set of document that every teacher knows so well and one that has caused many teachers to absorb student abuse and look the other way rather than engage in such a time-sucker.

So in every discplinary action nowadays, the school must have an appropriate number of witnesses, proper reports completed in triplicate - t’s crossed and i’s dotted - lest the disruptor actually follow through on the all-too-familiar-nowadays threat I have heard many times in the halls of our schools… “I’ll sue you“.  Hymowitz again

“…Goss brought lawyers and judges deeper inside the schoolhouse. You want to suspend a violent troublemaker? Because of Goss, you now had to ask: Would a judge find your procedures satisfactory? Would he agree that you have enough witnesses? The appropriate documentation? To suspend a student became a time-consuming and frustrating business.”

As you can tell, this whole school discipline thing is really out of hand – and our administrators hands are mostly tied in their efforts to regain true control of our schools.  If you are truly interested in returning discipline to our school – first read Hymowitz essay a couple of times.  Then get angry.  Then fire all of the lawyers.

Then bring back the electric paddle that my elementary school principal was rumored to possess.

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One Comment

  1. hht
    Posted November 21, 2007 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Thank you for making the connection between school discipline and the legal system! There may be hope for getting things turned back around. Phillip K. Howard, author of the two books The Collapse of the Common Good and The Death of Common Sense has spearheaded a legal system reform initiative that is working to address this very issue. This from the site:

    “Common Good is a non-profit, non-partisan legal reform coalition dedicated to restoring common sense to America.” And this “Common Good is developing practical solutions to restore reliability to our legal system and minimize the impact of legal fear in American life.”

    There is as you mentioned a direct link between school discipline and our “lawsuit culture�. Please check out the Common Good website at cgood.org.

One Trackback

  1. By Hogg’s Blog » Students Rule the Classroom on November 21, 2007 at 7:09 am

    [...] (more accurately, the lack thereof) when this story hit the news last week.  I drew from my 2005 post on the matter, which was based on an essay entitled “Who Killed School Discipline” [...]