Public Education Plague: Teachers Who Write Student Discipline Referrals Are Ignored And Often Punished

I was shocked when learning that the suburban middle school I once attended and idolized became the target of negative publicity when it was revealed that two students unsuccessfully plotted a school shooting there this week. What wasn’t shocking is that I was told by a source very close to the situation that one of those students had been given several discipline referrals, only to be returned straight to the classroom without any consequences.

I am not accusing the school of anything, and the “proof” I have is strong hearsay by someone I trust rather than concrete evidence. But it wouldn’t surprise me if discipline referrals were ignored; this is a serious issue that has plagued public schools for a long time, especially since the 1990s.

Now, let’s be honest. A teacher who writes a discipline referral for a student who chews gum, fails a test, talks out of turn, or who drops a dime on the floor isn’t being reasonable. This is the equivalent of someone being arrested for smoking weed — an annoyance (to many, at least), but not something to waste time on. However, when teachers such as myself have written referrals for students who physically threaten us and are ignored, it becomes a serious ethical issue that should result in punishable consequences both for the administrator and school district. In addition, students who threaten other students should not be tolerated, and a teacher shouldn’t fear losing their job for writing the offending student up.

Those who haven’t experienced what it’s like to be inside the public education system may think I’m talking about extremes that usually don’t occur. They don’t understand that many teachers who complain about the lack of support from their administrators on behavior problems find themselves in professional trouble, even if the punishment is disguised as something else. Most teachers don’t have control over their classrooms anymore, and a third of teachers quit their profession within five years while citing lack of support as a major issue.

There are countless articles on this issue, with many coming to various conclusions as to why this is happening. However, a lot of it comes down to money and the fear of retaliation by parents. In my first year of teaching in Costa Mesa, CA, one student threw a chair, which nearly missed another student. When going to the principal and vice principal with my concerns, I was yelled at and called insensitive, especially when I asked that the student be removed from the classroom. I was soon told that the school district loses money when a student is thrown out of a classroom, especially in a class like “Opportunities,” which is for troubled (but not necessarily “bad”) students.

There are too many examples that are much worse than mine. One famous one occurred in 2008 when high school art teacher Jolita Berry was beaten up by a student, and instead of getting support, was told that she (the teacher) was the one who provoked it. In 2015, Downey, CA teacher Amy Sulkis sued her school district, who allegedly refused to do anything about the teacher being sexually harassed and attacked on social media. There’s also the 2014 case concerning Houston geometry teacher Michael Van Deelen, who filed a federal lawsuit after he was punished for reporting violent and abusive students to administrators. These are just three of the many reported cases. Thousands of others haven’t been reported.

Where are the parents in all these situations? There have always been parents who refuse to take responsibility for their children, but these parents have been given power in the public education system over the past 20 years or so. I’ll never forget calling a parent to tell them that their child was failing my class. I was told that since I was the teacher, I should do something about it. When I indicated that help was needed from the parents, there was nothing but a loud click.

Despite not caring about their child’s progress all semester, that same parent marched into my classroom without a conference (something considered illegal) and threatened me when I failed the child, which meant they would have to take summer school. Instead of any consequences for the child and parent, the student was not only placed in a different classroom next semester, but their failing grade was changed by the principal.

It’s important to note this event, because it bleeds over to student discipline referrals. Administrators are afraid that if they push a detention or suspension on certain students, their parents will scream, sue, and threaten. They may even go to a popular news outlet and complain how unfairly their child was treated since many news outlets love shaming teachers, regardless if the accusations are true or not. It’s a situation that has become progressively dangerous, and ignoring it results in dire consequences.

School administrators who refuse to take serious student discipline measures when needed are not only hurting their schools, but they are hurting society as well. The first solution to this plague is realizing that it is actually a serious issue that has been buried by public education administrators who care more about money than the well-being of their students. After that, concerned parents, teachers, and students need to band together and demand change in the public education bureaucracy.

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