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Marqueece Harris-Dawson Headshot

Ending Our Punishment Culture

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Imagine standing in front of a crowded classroom of 40 teenagers. Some sit on the floor because there are not enough desks and many need to share books. One student looks out the window bobbing his head to pounding music that escapes his oversized headphones, while others appear asleep with heads on desks buried under pulled-up hoodies. Students in the back gossip loudly, while those in front look up with expectant eyes waiting for order to be restored. Today's lesson? Using graph coordinates to compute perimeters of polygons and areas of triangles and rectangles.

For most of us, the thought of this scenario is enough to bring on heart palpitations and sweaty palms. However, for teachers in inner-city Los Angeles, it is often a daily reality.

No wonder, then, that there has been much controversy over the recent decision by the Los Angeles Unified School Board to end the practice of suspending students for a catch-all behavioral category called "willful defiance." This powerful disciplinary measure, instituted in the wave of "zero-tolerance" laws that swept the nation after the Columbine tragedy, gave incredible authority to teachers and administrators to implement order. If a student failed to obey a command, any command -- refusing to remove headphones, failing to bring a pencil to class, not wearing a school uniform -- he or she could be suspended immediately. And please take note -- these behaviors are real examples of student conduct that led to suspensions in Los Angeles Unified under the willful defiance policy.

After the school board's decision, some teachers spoke out via Twitter to share their concerns about their perceived loss of power. For example:

  • Twitter user @AvalonSensei tweeted on May 14 (the day of the school board's decision): "The question in the lunch room: how many f-you's is one supposed to take before student faces a serious consequence? As of today, infinite."
  • @Geniusbastard tweeted: "We're depriving some little angel who tells me to f--- off in my room from reaching his potential if we suspend him/her!"

In the short-term, for teachers and administrators stretched thin, suspensions for willful defiance are a seductive classroom management tool. The problem appears to get resolved nearly instantly with the student removed from the school. The adults can then focus their attention on the 39 other students in the classroom.

The problems with this approach, however, are numerous. For one, there is mounting evidence showing that this policy is incredibly harmful to the students who are suspended -- leading to an increased risk of dropping out and involvement in the juvenile justice system. And further, for the school as a whole, increased suspensions are associated with a degraded learning environment and decreased test-scores.

Perhaps even more troubling though, subjective categories like "willful defiance" permit room for racial bias and targeting of students of color. Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that students of color, and particularly African-American males, face harsher disciplinary consequences. In Los Angeles Unified, black students are suspended at three times the rate of whites. And national research has shown that African-Americans do not "act out" more often than their white counterparts, but rather "African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons."

Despite the comments from some teachers on Twitter, the debate on how to handle student disrespect does not need to get polarized between the two extremes of "doing nothing" vs. suspensions. No one believes that there shouldn't be consequences for student misbehavior. The question is how to design discipline policies that allow students to learn from their mistakes, and address the root issues which cause the misbehavior. The good news is that disciplinary alternatives do exist. For example, in East Los Angeles, Garfield high school implemented a new disciplinary system that "took suspension off the table" and over a year they reduced their annual suspension from 613 to one. Additionally the school saw their test scores rise, and their attendance and graduation rates improve.

Students and parents won a huge victory with L.A. Unified's recent decision to move toward solutions that encourage student growth and success. It is important to note, however, that the pressure to change this policy came from the young people themselves, who bravely shared their stories with the media, lobbied school board members, and mobilized hundreds of students to rally at the school district. Local community organizations, including Community Coalition, helped organize the young folks, and under the leadership of the Liberty Hill Foundation formed a group called the Brothers, Sons, Selves coalition -- which aims to ensure young men and boys of color are given the opportunities and support necessary to become successful members of our society.

Yes, classrooms are overcrowded, students are forced to share books, and there is a shortage of academic counselors, mental health professionals and college advisers. And we must not take our eye off the goal of properly investing in our schools.

We can't wait, however, to transform the punishment culture of our schools, which resemble jails with iron-spiked fencing and a constant police presence that intimidates instead of protects. These conditions contribute to wasted potential, as students with untapped talents get pushed out of school toward low-wage labor, gangs and incarceration.

We all understand the desire of a teacher to lookout for the "other 39 students" in their class by suspending a student for misbehavior. However, if we step back, we realize that when the "bad apple" is simply removed from a school and not given the proper support, the problem only becomes more serious -- for all of us. In fact, we have a responsibility to address the root issue of the misbehavior, and do whatever we can to keep the student in school. Our students, and our society, will benefit from more graduates and fewer inmates.