The Disturbing Discipline Problems in Public Schools
I signed into the substitute teacher notebook and walked immediately to the cafeteria area of the elementary school where I had accepted a job in an “Emotional Disability” (ED) classroom for the day. A row of study carrels lined the wall between the main office and the cafeteria, and there at the center carrel sat a little boy whom I recognized from 2011 when I taught Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) during the summer semester. This little boy, who had an impish face, with bright eyes and a squinty smile, sat quietly, shifting in his chair and craning his neck occasionally to watch the people passing by. I could see that he was in “in-school suspension” (ISS) so I knelt by him quickly and said, “Hey I know you! What happened to get you here?” He hung his head and his face tightened as tears welled up in his eyes. “That’s okay,” I said. “I can see you’re in trouble. Do me a favor and try to stay out of trouble, okay?” He looked up at me, his impish grin breaking through the tears as he choked the words, “I will.”
I proceeded to fulfill my assignment in the ED classroom, which was more or less a decompression chamber for kids blowing out, or a warehouse for those whose disruptive, oppositional, or aggressive behavior became intolerable within their general education classrooms. ED, “emotionally disabled,” or “emotionally disturbed,” is a branch of Special Education that is growing at an alarming rate. Students will receive a diagnoses of an emotional or behavioral disorder based on teacher and parent observations, and sometimes the input of a psychological professional, and are subsequently placed in a special program.
Genuinely disturbed children, burdened with mental illness or behavioral disorders, have always been around, but they are a minority in these classrooms. When no diagnosable mental illness is present and oppositional and anti-social children simply become to difficult for regular teacher or administrators to manage–which is usually the case–a program will receive a “Severe Needs Behavior” (SNB) designation. Once rare, SNB and ED programs are now being created in most schools, and if the trend continues, every school in my district will have such a program within two or three years. My observations and the anecdotal evidence presented by teachers and aides who interact with these children on a daily basis, however, indicate that most of the students populating ED programs are not organically emotionally disturbed, but are the products of poor parenting and disastrous disciplinary policies.
The cute little boy with a shock of unruly brown hair sat at his study carrel for most of the day. He ate his lunch there and labored quietly with a stack of worksheets placed there by his teacher. I asked an aide why he had been consigned to this level of punishment when it was obvious that he was not a kid with behavior or aggression problems. “He brought a lighter to school in his pocket.”
“Really?” I said. “Has he ever done anything like that in the past? Is he a problem kid?”
“Nah,” she replied. “The school has a zero-tolerance policy on weapons.”
“Weapons?” I thought. “A cigarette lighter in the pocket of a sweet little boy with no record of behavior problems is considered a weapon?”
Meanwhile, back in the ED classroom, one little girl who was rude to her teacher came to me to “cool down.” She was rude to me as well, tore up her assigned work, and then went the corner of the room where she screamed and bawled. I ignored her tantrum until an aide who works with her came in the room, immediately flew to the girl’s side and said, “If you stop crying I’ll give you a quarter.” The girl screamed louder. The aide upped the ante. “Shhhh,” she pleaded. “You’re being disrespectful. If you will stop crying I’ll give you a dollar for the school carnival.”
I was a little flabbergasted. I gently explained to the aide that once she offered a carrot to the girl, she would only escalate her naughty behavior in order to get a bigger carrot. “If you reward this behavior,” I said, “all she will have to do to get a bigger reward is escalate the behavior. Then all bets are off and you have completely lost control of this kid.”
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, the girl did not immediately calm down and so did not get the dollar. But this scenario is a microcosm of the disciplinary disaster that many schools have fallen into using a “rewards system” to address behavioral problems. In my school district well-paid “behavioral specialists” have set up a system where children with behavioral issues can earn toys, candy, or movie tickets as rewards for good behavior for a given period of time. The problem is, most of these kids are smarter than the so-called behavioral specialists, and so they game the system. The kids know that they can get away with almost anything for part of the day, just as long as they are good for the final hour or two. The carrot, or reward, is held out to them early in the day when a teacher says, “If you will stop this bad behavior you will get such and such.” So the kid does his thing until the last hour or two of the day. Having stopped the bad behavior, as requested, the squishy teacher will feel obligated to give the child the promised reward. This pattern is established quickly, and so the system churns out children who learn how to manipulate their way to just about any reward.
The “rewards system” simply magnifies the sociopathic tendencies of some children. And it’s easy to do because few teachers have the gumption to hold students to high standards for 100% of the day, and withhold rewards and praise until the child actually modifies his behavior. This is a disciplinary disaster and ED programs are failing to modify behavior, and serve only to contain disruptive, aggressive, and rotten kids.
The majority of children in ED programs come from homes where parent(s) lack parenting skills, or refuse to use sensible and age-appropriate discipline. Substance abuse, government dependence, generational poverty, and moral dissolution account for many of the problems that land young children in the ED Special Education system. They are born normal, but become socially and/or emotionally disabled through exposure to chronically dysfunctional, addicted, sexually promiscuous, irresponsible adults. Additionally, Special Education law limits the kinds of disciplinary actions that one can affect upon an out-of-control kid. Almost any attempt to physically hold or direct a child, leading them by the hand or placing hands on their shoulders, for example, is considered “restraint.” If a teacher performs an act of “restraint” such as grabbing a fleeing child by the arm, they must then complete documentation describing the incident that required the restraint, and its justification.
Instead of punishment or suspension for the kids in the ED classroom, their behavioral problems must be “accommodated,” and their classrooms “modified” to meet their needs. In many cases, these kids throw the entire learning environment into chaos, yet because they have an ED designation governed by Special Education law, it is exceedingly difficult to either punish them, suspend them from school, or hold parents to account for the havoc wreaked by their kids.
This article encompasses the observations of one day at one elementary school. Multiply this account by tens of thousands and you have the current state of behavior and discipline in the public education system.
When I finally got a chance to sit down and eat my lunch I went to the cafeteria and sat across from the cute little boy relegated to isolation in the lonely study carrel. He had fallen asleep, his head resting on his outstretched arm, a pile of papers next to his head. I went to the principal and told her that he had fallen asleep, probably exhausted. Mercifully she woke him up and sent him to his classroom to finish out the last two hours of the day.
My heart breaks for the children in our public schools where zero-tolerance is applied to innocent errors in judgement, such as bringing a Bic lighter to school in one’s pants pocket, while violent, angry, rude, miscreant children are improperly disciplined, if at all, and a pass is given to parents for whom public school serves as little more than containment for the monstrous children they’ve created through an irresponsible and dissolute lifestyle.
There is something deeply amiss with our schools and the philosophy which governs them when a boy is suspended for munching a Pop Tart into the shape of a pistol, tiny little girls are punished for mentioning “Hello Kitty” bubble guns while at school, and a Kindergartner is suspended for wearing his hair in a Mohawk, all the while little monsters, sometimes dangerous, always disruptive, are given reign within their classrooms and over their teachers because federal mandates govern their “disabled” status. As for my day in the ED classroom at a public elementary school, the thought of a sweet little boy, and his disproportionate punishment based on an arbitrary zero-tolerance policy, was the most intolerable thing of all.
by Marjorie Haun 10/18/13