Does the New Data Tell Us Anything About School Violence?

This past September, New York's public schools introduced a new discipline code keeping in line with an emerging federal policy initiative that seeks to reduce the "disparate" rate of minority incarceration in this country.
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This past September, New York's public schools introduced a new discipline code keeping in line with an emerging federal policy initiative that seeks to reduce the "disparate" rate of minority incarceration in this country.

This "theory" posits that there's a direct road from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse for minorities because a "disparate" rate of school suspensions for Hispanics and Blacks cultivates a criminal class. In short, "the schools made me do it!"

The path to lower suspension rates is to reclassify discipline infractions while introducing more guidance intervention and parental involvement when a student misbehaves.

The number of students arrested in schools and taken to jail dropped almost half in 2012 in the New York City school system. The drop in summonses issued to students was even more dramatic.

But does the statistical reduction in arrests and suspensions reflect a safer and more orderly school environment? Not in my opinion. In practical terms these policy adjustments have made the education process and classroom management all but impossible if you are saddled with a disruptive student.

I wrote about these changes in August, but now that I've seen the process firsthand I'll explain why it threatens the stability of the classroom and portends more violence in the schoolhouse. These policy changes wrap the suspension process in a web of red tape that cripples classroom discipline.

I was teaching a global history class and a student I'll call "P" wouldn't stop talking. I asked him to please stop and listen and he said, "You just keep teaching and mind your business."

When I repeated my request he replied with a string of expletives. Before the discipline code was revised that would have merited a principal's suspension.

But now a teacher is required to follow a lengthy series of documented steps known as a "ladder of referral" over the course of several days before any action may be taken to remove the student from the classroom.

My inability to remove the student was a signal to two other students who had seen that there were no consequences to P's behavior to take out a deck of cards and dice. My problems had just multiplied threefold.

When the class ended a student said to me that, "in my country the teacher would have..." Before he could finish I said "thrown him out of the classroom." He corrected me and said, "no the teacher would have hit him and his parents would have approved."

The following week I recounted my experience with P to a Spanish teacher. She told me that whenever she tried to get P to stop talking while she was teaching he would tell her, "you just teach." The next day she told P that he would have to re-take a test because she caught him cheating and he told her to "suck my d..."

On Friday we were informed that P was going to be given a five-day in-house suspension for various violations of the discipline code and that his father was coming to school to meet with the administration.

The practical effect of this "process" is to de-stabilize the classroom environment and allow teaching and learning to be paralyzed by anti-social behavior.

If you'd ask the faculty to compile a list of students who make teaching and learning all but impossible for them and their students I don't think it would amount to more than 3 percent of the enrollment. At least that was my experience when I was a dean.

So in a small school of 450 students about 20 or fewer students can hold the entire learning process hostage because it's been decided that it's much worse for society to remove the miscreants than it is to let them remain and poison the well.

This is a textbook example of Daniel Moynihan's description of "defining deviancy down." What's more, it destroys the school's ability to socialize and mold citizens and will result in more crime not less.

We have zero tolerance policies for guns and drugs in our schools but an infinite tolerance for anti-social behavior. In the past two years not a single student has been expelled from New York's schools! Washington D.C., a school system that is less than 10 percent the size of New York's, removed three students. However D.C.'s charter schools removed 227 over the same time period.

Suddenly the penny drops. The charter school as envisioned by Albert Shanker, was supposed to serve as a laboratory for education innovation for creaky urban school systems that suffered from bureaucratic sclerosis. The lessons learned were supposed to be imported by the old public schools in order to usher in a sort of Renaissance.

In the case of the D.C. schools it seems apparent that for those supporters of charter school expansion, ridding the schools of incorrigibles is central to their experiment.

How ironic then, that Arne Duncan and Eric Holder are enshrining a policy for the public schools completely at odds with discipline policies that characterize charter schools. These changes amount to a poison pill for the public school systems that have been ceaselessly under assault for the past decade for their failure to educate the inner-city underclass.

Lower suspension rates will please Arne Duncan, Eric Holder, and a passel of local politicians from Maine to Hawaii, but they've placed a ticking time bomb in the very schools that they are ostensibly committed to "turning around."

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