How do we find middle ground on the school discipline debate? Ask the students

“Are you fighting, or are you playing?”

“Are you fighting, or are you playing?”

“Are you fighting, or are you playing?”

I had to ask the 7th grader this question three times before he stopped pushing his classmate, looked at me, and answered me with a smirk: “I’m playing.” Whatever was happening, or about to happen, was over, and the two boys sat down and finished their lunch.

I thought of this moment in the cafeteria when I read about the recent news that the Trump Administration was considering scrapping Obama-era “Dear Colleague” guidance  aimed at ensuring school districts aren’t discriminating against students while disciplining them.

This 2014 guidance sought to confront a systemic and irrefutable issue in our schools: Low-income students, minority students and students with disabilities are disciplined, suspended out-of-school and expelled far more often than their white, more affluent peers.

The feds essentially told schools districts this: We’re going to start tracking your discipline stats, and if they are way out of whack, we’re going to dig deeper and possibly find you in violation of federal civil rights laws.

This guidance was controversial right out of the gate; well-intentioned, but poorly executed on the ground. In too many cases, states and districts did not respond with nuanced restorative justice practices but rather with a top-down overcorrection that sought to trade zero-tolerance policies for zero-discipline policies.

Teachers, perhaps understandably so, interpreted this another affront to their professionalism and further erosion of their autonomy. Their classes could descend into chaos, their students could defy and threaten them, and they had no recourse and no support from central office.

Trading zero-tolerance policies for zero-discipline policies

.School districts could have used this guidance to inspire teachers to rethink their practices and question their biases. They could have doubled down with common-sense guidance and meaningful training around culturally-relevant classroom management. But instead they backed them into a corner and made them fear for their careers and their safety.

So now teachers are aligned with conservatives who are arguing that it is more important to ensure safety and reduce disorder than it is to fight racial disparities. And it’s probably inevitable that Betsy DeVos’ education department will rescind the guidance, and too many of our schools will retreat to discriminatory discipline practices rather than reflect on their mistakes.

But there is another way.

And that brings me back to my squared-off middle-schoolers in the cafeteria. I didn’t know the kids, I wasn’t their teacher, I had no time to establish trust or rapport. And yet I was somehow in charge of ensuring a calm and safe environment in a summer program, and what I was doing and saying just wasn’t working with a small group of kids, who happened to be Black. I wanted them to relax and have fun, to stop cussing and fussing and fighting. But to them I was the racist white lady who was hassling them for wandering the hallways, bugging them during lunch skirmishes, calling their parents about their behavior.

I hate to admit this, but part of me wanted to kick them out. They were breaking the rules and creating chaos nearly every day. Was that fair to the rest of the kids who signed on for a very different kind of summer experience? But the bigger part of me wanted to solve the problem, to engage them in learning, to make them happy to be there, to stop assuming the worst.

So we asked for help. We tried peace circles, for the kids and the staff. And we asked for advice and support, from parents and teachers. And that’s how I stumbled onto my lunchtime question: Two boys are squaring off, cussing, looking very pissed off. How do you know whether they are playing or about to fight?

Turns out, you can ask them. So that’s what I did. And it diffused a situation that could have been a fight, or one inexperienced adult overreacting to adolescent horseplay, or probably some of both.

There was no magic bullet in that little question, no big kumbaya moment, but it did lower the temperature, a little for them and a lot for me. No parents were called, no one was kicked out for the day. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

There’s so much room for those small victories in our schools. And there are plenty of ways to find common ground on this contentious issue, for both sides to reflect on misdeeds, mistakes and misunderstandings. As one advocate on the other side of the political aisle thoughtfully argued:

Many great schools have found ways to thread this needle. It starts with creating a culture where students feel safe, respected, and engaged. Everyone is held to high expectations—both in terms of work effort and behavior—but every adult’s goal is to help students meet those expectations almost all the time. In the rare cases when students fall short and act out (or worse), the schools have a clear, fair, and constructive process in place to handle the situation.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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