Is There a Right Kind of School Discipline?

Sometimes military-inspired education is exactly what a struggling student needs.

Grizzly Youth Academy candidates participate in an obstacle course at Camp San Luis Obispo, California. (California National Guard)

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported on what appears to be the latest example of restorative classroom-discipline strategies going awry. Alongside a photo that features a scowling police officer, the article describes “another day of distraction” that included a girl getting harassed and a boy being offensively defiant with a teacher. Over the past decade, particularly the last few years, the trend in school discipline has been toward restorative justice—which emphasizes authentic dialogue, mutual understanding, and communal responsibility—and away from “zero tolerance,” which critics argue discriminates against nonwhite students and exacerbates the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In many cases, these progressive tactics are effective in improving campus culture and boosting achievement. But in some cases, as the circumstances in L.A. suggest, they come with unintended consequences.

Upon reading that story in the Times , I reflected on military-sponsored schools like Grizzly Youth Academy, which take a completely inverse approach to classroom structure and discipline. Boys and girls are separated. Students ask permission to speak. They all dress the same. Police officers are replaced by sergeants, who control almost every aspect of the schools’ operation. As an English teacher who has taught 1984 for a decade, I cringed when I first observed this seemingly dystopian educational environment—and at first, it may sound like the last place teens with disciplinary problems would want to attend. Yet Grizzly’s students voluntarily enroll. In fact, there’s a waiting list, and after 22 weeks of classes, many of them don’t want to leave.

When I visited Grizzly Youth Academy on Orientation Day, I observed as the new students waited in long lines, wearing identical gray sweats and black baseball caps, carrying their minimal belongings in clear garbage bags. Near the entrance, military personnel silently inspected their bags, while a sergeant in the distance yelled out instructions to a large group of boys, demanding that they answer him with a loud “Yes, sir!” I also heard a sergeant firmly promising an anxious new student: “Do not think for a second that I will let you fail here.”

Grizzly is a charter boarding school run by the National Guard that’s designed for high-school dropouts (or would-be dropouts) and operates using “quasi-military” style of governance. Its authoritarian structure is aimed at fostering the kind of protective and caring environment many of these kids—who often have track records of disciplinary issues and substance abuse—are seeking.

And it seems to work. A three-year study conducted by the nonpartisan think tank MDRC showed significant statistical success in the program; participants are more likely than their control group counterparts to have obtained a high-school diploma, to have earned college credits, and to be working.

These are the kinds of outcomes that proponents of progressive, restorative discipline have in mind, too. But as the ostensible fallout in L.A. and other districts across the country indicates, these initiatives don’t always go according to plan. Teachers in Chicago, which recently revised its student-conduct code to emphasize “an instructive, corrective, and restorative approach to behavior,” have described a “totally lawless” situation—a concern echoed by the president of the Oakland Education Association and other educators nationwide. The president of the Syracuse Teachers Union Association, Kevin Ahern, wrote last year that although restorative justice is a “laudable practice” in theory, the effects of implementation in his district didn’t show “significant improvement in school culture as a result of these initiatives” in what he called a “chaotic and frequently violent atmosphere.” Another disconcerting consequence, especially considering the recent video of a policeman violently arresting a defiant girl in South Carolina, is that schools are increasingly relying on police—many of whom lack student-specific training—to handle hard-to-control kids.

Grizzly situates itself in an interesting middle ground. Located at Camp San Luis in San Luis Obispo, California, Grizzly relies on military personnel (known collectively as “the cadre”) to enforce its strict codes of conduct—all while replacing threats of suspensions with assurances of consistent support. “I had hair down to my butt when I got here, and I was skeptical at first, I admit,” the school’s principal, Paul Piette, told me. “I think there should be more of these campuses for students who want them.”

After observing Grizzly throughout the past semester, I began to wonder if recent discipline policies like those espoused in restorative-justice programs risk disrupting the student experience even more in school systems that already struggle with unstable campus climates and serve large percentages of the kinds of students who end up at Grizzly. It’s certainly a noble aspiration to understand a child’s past and help a student learn self-responsibility and personal accountability for his or her future. But in focusing attention on the prior causes of misbehavior and celebrating opportunities for growth, are schools shirking direct responsibility and shifting the attention away from the present moment?

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Not many students would volunteer to attend Grizzly, nor should society want many teens to be there. Grizzly lacks lots of the extracurricular activities that can make school fun, gives students little control over their attire and diet, and, with the exception of a few visits, forbitds kids from seeing or talking with their families or friends. At the beginning of Orientation Day, I saw one sergeant addressing a platoon almost as if the students were children, telling them that they were going to learn how to enter a room, address adults properly, and make their beds. In fact, Grizzly is similar in some ways to prison.

Nevertheless, the waiting list for enrollment indicates that this school is fulfilling a need in a unique and valuable way. In contrast with the high suspension rates often found at schools with a strict discipline policies, Grizzly makes a point to keep its students within its vision and reach. “We make it very hard for your son or daughter to quit,” one sergeant explained to the parents on Orientation Day. The school even takes custody of the students in cases of emergency. “For the five months they’re here at Grizzly, it’s like they’re our kids,” I heard a sergeant promise a group of parents, “and we take full responsibility for them.”

On the first day of classes, I stood with a Grizzly teacher as the kids jogged to their respective classrooms along designated clockwise paths, forming lines in front of classrooms and each staring at the head of the person in front of them as they waited for permission to enter the room. “If you saw this without any context, you might think it’s oppressive and question the purpose of it,” the teacher told me. “But many of these kids come from an absence of structure, and they really respond to this. A lot of them lack stability—family stability, home stability, economic stability—and the environment here is safe and predictable. They come to appreciate all the routines and rules.”

The cadre prioritizes a hawk-like vigilance. On the first day of classes, the sergeants appeared to notice every little aberration, every untied shoelace—but they also looked for signs of bigger problems, like depression or drug withdrawals. While their watchfulness could feel oppressive, it could also be interpreted as the requisite action of a parent figure who promises success. Their panoptic vision also recognizes any potential disturbance to their controlled environment—which in one case was me. On Orientation Day, when I thought I had blended in as an independent observer among hundreds of parents, a sergeant swiftly picked me out and asked me to explain my purpose for being on campus. I stuttered my explanation until he cracked a warm smile and shook my hand.

And this paternal confidence is rarely seen in a typical administrator. As a public high-school teacher in Central California, I have never promised anything to a student with as much bravado and assurance. When a teacher only sees a student five hours a week, and that student is completely off campus for most of the day, it’s hard to make such guarantees with a comparable degree of honesty.

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The cadre both models and explicitly teaches conflict resolution. Based on what I saw over three days of observation, and on what I heard from students and teachers, the cadre’s sergeants themselves seldom speak using negative terms; I rarely heard the word “punishment.” Instead, I heard a lot of talk about “discipline,” “strength,” and “character”—terms that could be interpreted as euphemisms for the same action but, when concerning kids who buy into the structure, attests to the school’s emphasis on student-centered self-control instead of teacher-centered shows of power. Even when the cadre made a cadet do push-ups for a mistake I didn’t even notice, the stern commands were made with low, respectful voices that weren’t intended to embarrass the student.

And ironically, the authoritarian discipline imposed by the cadre protects quiet, cooperative learning spaces, where credentialed teachers promote a curriculum characterized by critical thinking. Students in a health class shared personal, relevant thoughts about fast food; in math class, they discussed different ways to solve a single word problem; in English class, they wrote arguments for or against Pete Rose entering the Hall of Fame.

One teacher found the classroom management techniques at Grizzly more in line with an elementary school than with a continuation school or boot camp. “Elementary teachers invest a great deal of time in training their students to follow daily routines: to line up a certain way, enter the room a certain way, sit at their desks a certain way. When you reintroduce this attention to detail, many at-risk teenagers rediscover the success they once had in school.” Grizzly’s unconventional structure also facilitates an extremely efficient system of feedback for the cadets. Many schools try to establish what are often called RTI, or Response to Intervention, systems, which provide checks to each student’s progress in a timely, consistent fashion—and the cadre’s presence enables Grizzly’s exemplary version. Every Tuesday, for example, cadre members check in with students who have any Ds or Fs. Since the cadets live at the school, the interventions are as they should be: systematic and timely. The struggling student isn’t left much choice but to visit a tutor or use the quiet study hall. I asked one staff member whether those check-ups also keep the teachers more accountable, and he took a deep breath and said, “Oh yes, they certainly do.”

* * *

After observing their classes and activities throughout the year, it seemed to me that one key to Grizzly’s success isn’t just its style of discipline, but the order and pacing in which it trains cadets for life after high school.

Later on Orientation Day, I observed a group of boys casually sitting around waiting for the rest of their platoon to finish their paperwork, so they could all be escorted to the barracks. Responding to a question that had been posed by a passing sergeant, one boy answered, “Yeah, totally.” From now on, the sergeant told him, students were expected to instead answer in the affirmative by saying, “Yes, sir.” “Does everyone understand?” the sergeant asked, after which they all sat up straight and, smiling, responded, “Yes, sir.” “I can’t hear you!” the sergeant sung out three times as he walked away, and each time the boys answered with more enthusiasm. When the sergeant was out of earshot, the boys smiled at each other and talked excitedly about the campus’s obstacle course and weight room, and the honors they wanted their platoon to earn. “Let’s go gold level,” one boy told the group.

Two months into the program, evidence of self-discipline became more apparent. The cadets regularly rotate as squad leaders, which gives them the opportunity to learn how organize their platoon, keep their classmates accountable, and mediate conflicts. “When there’s issues, the team takes care of it themselves,” one platoon leader explained.  “The cadre teach us how to do that by the second week here.” During one break, I watched three cadets voluntarily doing push-ups to compare technique with each other in preparation for an upcoming physical-training test. Two cadre members wandered over apparently assuming the trio had gotten into trouble: “Did you guys fall asleep in class?” When the boys explained their purpose while continuing to count push-ups, the sergeants smiled, nodded, and let them be.

* * *

Grizzly is expensive to run, costing the state roughly $18,000 per student—and just as LAUSD teachers are balking at widespread systems of restorative justice, taxpayers may not be ready to pay for a significant expansion of programs the one offered here. But perhaps they should reconsider: A San Luis Obispo civil grand jury in 2011 reported that the national programs have saved taxpayers well over $100 million by decreasing correctional, educational, and federal-assistance costs, while increasing community service and the tax-revenue base. The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, likewise found that the National Guard program’s nationwide results in $2.66 in social benefits for every dollar expended.

Still, even if other schools wanted to borrow a few of Grizzly’s strategies, at least two significant factors in Grizzly’s success are difficult to apply at traditional public schools. First, the students live in the barracks, protected from any outside influences. Second, these students “buy in” to the school—they choose to be there. Aspiring cadets must volunteer for this charter school, fill out paperwork, and pass at least one interview to convince the administrators that they really want to be there. In the pre-academic phases, which includes meetings and a dinner, Grizzly personnel listen closely for negative talk and weed out reluctant students. And ultimately, for all the success indicated in the MDRC study, the same study shows that three years after completing the program, there are few significant differences between graduates and their peers in the control group on measures of crime, delinquency, health, or lifestyle outcomes.

Six weeks after the first day of classes, I randomly chose two cadets to interview separately. Each of them spoke positively about the school, and the cadre in particular. “I thought at first they were mean and tough, but they actually just really care a lot about us,” one said. The first student, a 17-year-old girl, said that she lost her father, and her mother “didn’t step up” as a parent, so the cadre both stood in as a father figure and taught her how to “let the past go, forgive, and move on.” She reported that after her experience at Grizzly, she “couldn’t go back” to her original public school. She was eager to earn her GED, start junior college outside the state, and then train to become an astronaut.

The second student, however, was eager to return to the public school, and then open up a laundromat in his hometown. He recounted all the things he learned at Grizzly and how he’s “become more of a man.” But for all the self-discipline he claimed to learn, he still worried about all the noisy distractions and discipline issues at his high school: “Kids these days aren’t disciplined.” When I asked him what aspect of Grizzly he’d like to take back to his public school, he didn’t hesitate: “I’d take the cadre with me.”