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School Discipline and Criminal Law

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Gary Fields and John Emshwiller have this article in the WSJ on the overuse of police arrest and the juvenile justice system to deal with misbehavior that should be addressed with school discipline.

This article makes some very valid points, but it is disappointing in its failure to fully explore why the use of traditional school discipline has declined, and at one point it goes completely off the rails:

In recent decades, a new philosophy in law enforcement had been applied to schools. It was "deal with the small stuff so they won't go to the big stuff, and also it sent a strong message of deterrence," said James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of criminology at Boston's Northeastern University.

The zero-tolerance approach started as part of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, Mr. Fox said, but it expanded to other weapons, then to drug contraband and "finally into ordinary violations of school rules, disrespect, skipping. It eventually became an across the board response to discipline."
Fox is seriously trying to equate "broken windows policing" with "zero tolerance" nonsense?  The two are nearly diametric opposites.

But the primary emphasis here should be understanding why traditional school discipline has declined and fixing it.  School administrators just don't want to punish misbehaving kids like they used to.  When they do punish, their instrument of choice is suspension, exactly the wrong thing to do with a kid who doesn't want to be in school anyway.  Suspension has gotten so absurd that some schools suspend kindergarteners.  What are these people thinking?
The article does not even mention the huge problem of schools getting sued for disciplining kids, which is a major component of the problem.  The people claiming to be advocates for student rights who sue the schools at the drop of a hat are, in fact, a major cause of the overuse of criminal sanctions.  Dropping the problem in the lap of the police is one way to get rid of it, if you are going to get sued for doing it right.

The article briefly mentions the old movie "The Breakfast Club," which many of today's school administrators saw when they were kids.  That may be part of the problem.  Nobody wants to be the teacher in that movie.  People who choose education as their profession want to be teachers, not cops and certainly not jailers.  Yet "staying after school" is a far better punishment for unruly kids than suspension and far better than calling the cops for minor misbehavior.

In reality, discipline is part of teaching, and an important part.  People are basically wild animals, just one step removed from the beasts from which we evolved.  To live in society we have to be civilized -- as a verb before an adjective.  People need to be taught from early childhood onward that there are certain norms of behavior we all have to abide by in order to live together in society.  That is not to say we want stifling conformity.  We don't want to raise automatons incapable of thinking outside the box.  But we are so far in the opposite extreme today that there is absolute zero danger of that.  Civilizing kids is just as important as teaching them grammar, math, and music.  It is just as much a part of the job of schools.

The true root cause of crime is the failure of the people who are supposed to instill in children the basic values of respect for society's norms of behavior and the rights of others.  That includes parents, schools, and popular culture.  These failures are more prevalent in some ethnic groups than others, and that is the true reason for the oft-decried "disparities" in crime rates, arrest rates, and incarceration rates.

Schools are the part of the equation government has the most control over.  School discipline is one area of life where the old way was far better, and the notions of "progressive" thinkers and advocates have been a disaster.  The problems noted in the article are an example of unintended consequences, of yesterday's reforms spawning today's problems.  To fix the overuse of police and arrests, and to address a true root cause of crime, let's get schools back in their proper discipline role.

3 Comments

Kent,

1. I'm counting the milliseconds before someone in cyberspace labels you a Nazi for thinking that kids need to learn the rules of civilized life.

Hey, look, what happened to self-expression?

2. As my friend Paul Mirengoff on Powerline has often noted, one of the main sources of the breakdown is, not litigation or the threat thereof, but specifically race-centered litigation.

As with crime, blacks are disciplined disproportionately often in school. Also as with crime, this is because of behavior, not skin color.

Notwithstanding this fact, the principal litigation menace is now, not parents, but Eric Holder's DOJ, and specifically the Civil Rights Division. It would seem that the civil right to learn in a safe and peaceful school has gone out the window in favor of the civil right to invoke the all-purpose shriek of "RACISM!!!"

I am pretty new to this parenting thing (one year and a week to be precise) so my thoughts are probably somewhat dated (for the record I graduated high school in 1994).

I recall that the typical school punishments of that era were usually some form of detention for the usual stuff like mouthing off to a teacher or causing problems in class i.e. being disruptive. Having done a few tours in detention it largely consisted off doing menial chores like cleaning black boards and whatnot for 30 minutes after class. Honestly, it was hardly a punishment but I guess at least for me I got sick of scrubbing so I saved my mouthing off in class for my future law school education.

I think to some extent if kids need more discipline than that there isn't much more the school can do - those kids most likely have issues i.e. bad parents.

Personally, I never was on the wrong end of corporal punishment in my school days and I do not think it is an effective tool in an educational setting. I have heard some stories from my father from his experiences in catholic school in the 50s and getting your hands beat with a ruler is not something I can really support.

I do not suggest bringing back corporal punishment. I think what Diana Baumrind, the parenting research pioneer, said about parents spanking children also applies to schools -- whether you do or don't is much less important than your approach to discipline generally.

When I was a grade-school kid (significantly earlier than you were) the principal was rumored to have a paddle, but I never saw it.

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