How to Discipline Students Without Turning School Into a Prison

Now imagine if Jones Jail had decided to go with harsher enforcement instead of restorative practices. Of course, that’s disregarding the fact that many Philadelphia schools have long had very martial approaches to discipline and extremely tight security with linkages to school police, truant officers, and juvenile probation and still suffered a tremendous violence epidemic over the years. But if Jones Jail had instead taken on some of the harsher zero-tolerance policies that predominate, such as automatic suspensions for minor infractions like tardiness, in order to forcibly impose order? Then the school would only send more of the most at-risk children home, where they would be deprived of instruction time and exposed to more social pathology that predominates in their neighborhood.

Junior high kids hanging out in the West Kensington neighborhood that feeds into Memphis Street Academy instead of being in school are more likely to be recruited as look-outs and runners by the older kids who sell drugs on nearly every block. If there is violence in their homes, which considering the rates of domestic violence in the neighborhood are not unlikely, they’re more likely to be exposed to even more of it. If there’s no food in the house, which is distinctly possible, considering that food scarcity is a major problem in North Philadelphia, they’ll go without the school lunch they would have received. And receiving punitive messages from an institution you’re already ambivalent about can be enough to push a struggling student away from school altogether—from any school.

As a social worker I’ve worked both in public schools and in the criminal justice system, so I’ve seen what it’s like at both ends of the pipeline. I remember arriving for the first time at the probation department and immediately thinking that it was uncannily similar to the public high school I worked in just before I took the job. The metal detectors, the barking security demanding removal of items of clothing and access to bags, beeping wands waved around in people’s personal space and the long line of black and Latino men and women stretching out the door all could have been transplanted from one institution to the other.  The bigger picture, from my perspective, concerns America’s continued struggle to get beyond its racially based fears and the impulse to monitor, control, discipline and punish black and Latino men for even the smallest infraction or else chaos will break loose in our cities. It starts as early as the first day of elementary school and for some will last until they get off parole. It makes one wonder how much of the problem we’re creating through the solutions we’ve crafted.

In schools, like in adult society, there are serious crimes that deserve serious punishment. But as the Departments of Education and Justice demonstrate with their Civil Rights Data Collection survey, the generalizing of the misbehavior of some black and Latino students has become so broad that it’s out of control. The policies crafted in their bias are arbitrary and damaging. And, as the Guiding Principles outline, there are many other ways to provide safety and security in every school without using force or threats.  That is, if we can finally let go of the impulse to overly condemn and punish black and Latino students.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker and writer based in Philadelphia. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, and he is columnist at The Fix

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