01/07/2011 03:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Arrest of a Middle School Student for a Permanent Marker is a Symptom of Deeper Problems

Just before Christmas, when everyone in schools was stressed out, it was reported that a teacher made a citizen's arrest on a 13-year-old for possession of a permanent marker. Predictably, some outraged commentators attacked teachers, while others blamed parents and the school system. Some of the readers' comments sounded racist to me. A colleague of the teacher wrote that she had not sought the arrest of the student.

This week, the Oklahoma City Public Schools explained that the teenager allegedly was making tagging-type letters, that were bleeding through to the desk, while doodling on a paper. The student then hid the marker and refused to give it to the teacher. The school has a severe problem with graffiti, and in those situations, teachers are supposed to summon the authorities. A police captain explained that the students: "Know that those officers are not there to enforce house rules, they are there to enforce law."

Schools today are criminalizing routine, teenage misbehavior, and that is wrong. Except in threats to safety, students should operate under "house rules," or the district's code of conduct which lays out maximum and minimum levels of consequences for every type of offense.

After making those clear-cut affirmations, everything else becomes murky. Few things in education are as difficult as discussing discipline in a constructive way. It forces us to discuss race, class, parenting, and other issues that many of our mothers taught us were not topics for polite conversation.

Why send a child to the juvenile detention center, and fine his guardian, instead of assessing a "parental conference suspension" for the defiance and/or the district's consequence for the marker? A defiance of authority referral, however, is the archetypal consequence that schools are pressured to not process, fearing it will be seen as evidence of a "disparate impact" in discipline. Principals, knowing that their disciplinary numbers are monitored, tend to second-guess teachers' reports of inappropriate conduct, and in my experience, the result is a "blame game," and chaos in our secondary schools.

Today, schools have renewed fears that the federal Department of Education will see statistical patterns, alone, as evidence of discrimination. But this fearfulness predates the current administration, and besides, the federal regulators have a point. "Defiance of Authority" is a vague term, and often educators misperceive responses of poor children of color. Similar protections must be extended so that children with emotional disabilities are not punished inappropriately for actions that are due to their disability. Also, we want the federal government to monitor schools' effectiveness in preventing bullying, as well as their effectiveness in maintaining safe and orderly schools. And we want federal overseers to have credibility.

The better approach would have been the collection of disciplinary data for evidence-based decision-making, not data-DRIVEN accountability. When stakes are attached to data, the response of systems is to play games with numbers. And when school leaders do not feel confident in enforcing their "house rules," under-the-gun educators will find other ways to maintain control.

We should use data for conversations about tough problems, rather than to punish. This dialogue should not be limited to teachers' professional development. Parents, students, and the community must all be heard. This is not some wimpy, touchy feely, liberal's response. Tough-minded conversations about discipline are not easy, but they are essential.

I was in the room with conservative businessmen a decade ago when we first read of a suburban middle school student arrested for fighting, and we were all shocked at the apparent overreaction. But now, rather than let disciplinary statistics suffer, criminalizing misbehavior is routine. Back when my 450 student high school had 180 arrests in a 173 day year, and no in-house suspensions, most or all of those arrests were legitimate. Now, our students routinely receive a $300 ticket, in lieu of a day or two in in-house suspension.

We must find a humane and credible way for urban schools to enforce their "house rules." I recall a basketball game when students, as they routinely did, ignored instructions from teachers and principals to stay off of the playing surface. A city policeman stepped onto the court, and a student responded in the insolent manner that is common in schools, so the cop grabbed her by the throat and dragged her off.

As a crowd of black parents cheered the officer, students ran up to me to express outrage. I played Hamlet. That was an overreaction, I told my students, but listen to your parents. From all corners of the gym, frustrated parents voiced support for a clear-cut assertion of authority. "The cops don't play," was a common statement as was "the schools are setting our kids up. Out in the real world ..."

These parents knew that they had usually sent children, who they had raised to be respectful, to schools where many of their children ran wild. They knew that students were not blameless, but that their kids did not behave at church or on the job in the unruly manner that many did in schools -- especially middle schools. Above all, they knew that the inability of systems to enforce house rules was undercutting instruction, encouraging horrible habits, and setting their children up for failure -- or worse -- after they left school. If schools cannot find credible ways of asserting authority, unfortunately, society has a huge prison industrial complex that will.