Common Sense Needed in School Discipline Policies

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


The horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut sparked a continent-wide discussion about school safety. This renewed interest in security is understandable since everyone wants students to be safe at school. Unfortunately, common sense seems to be in short supply as many proposed measures are not particularly helpful.

For example, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty reacted to the Newtown massacre with a hasty pledge to implement a “locked-door policy” in all elementary schools. Along with requiring schools to lock their front doors when classes are in session, McGuinty’s government will spend $10 million to make sure all schools come equipped with security cameras, buzzers, and locking doors.

However, turning schools into miniature fortresses will not guarantee student safety. The front doors at Sandy Hook Elementary were already locked—the killer simply shot through the front door and forced his way into the building. Short of turning every school into Fort Knox, it is nearly impossible to keep out a madman intent on inflicting damage.

Any public place, whether a movie theatre, shopping mall, church, or school is a possible target for someone determined to harm as many people as possible. No amount of planning can make any of these locations absolutely secure against outside intruders. The public needs to guard against politicians overreacting to tragedies that, fortunately, remain extremely rare, particularly in Canada. The last thing we need is to turn our schools into virtual garrisons.

There are more immediate safety concerns. Rather than obsessing about the remote possibility of deranged gunmen entering schools, administrators should instead focus their attention on student discipline. Cracking down on bullying, maintaining orderly classrooms, and preventing physical altercations in the hallways are the types of things on which all school administrators should focus, which would have an effective impact on safety. Students have the right to a safe and orderly learning environment.

Sadly, when it comes to student discipline, schools often veer into one of two extremes, neither of which is particularly helpful. At one end, some school districts implement draconian zero-tolerance policies that remove all discretion from students, teachers and principals. While zero-tolerance policies may look good on paper, they often lead to absurd disciplinary actions.

For example, a public school in Maryland recently suspended a six-year-old boy for pointing his finger at another student and saying “Pow.” It is unlikely that his fellow students feel much safer knowing their school is cracking down on dangerous finger guns!

Other zero-tolerance absurdities abound in the public school system. Students have been suspended for things ranging from bringing a butter knife to school to drawing a picture of a gun. In 2009, a six-year-old boy in Delaware was even ordered to attend reform school for 45 days for bringing a camping utensil to school. These incidents demonstrate how zero-tolerance removes the ability of teachers and principals to use their professional judgment and leads to ridiculous decisions that make a mockery of the rules.

At the opposite extreme, some schools bend over backwards to accommodate troublemakers, even those who persistently disrupt the learning environment of others. Progressive educators often place so much emphasis on keeping troublemakers with their peers that they refuse to punish students who repeatedly disregard the most basic rules.

Alfie Kohn, a regular speaker at teacher professional development sessions, is a key proponent of this soft approach. In Kohn’s view, schools should be fully egalitarian communities where rewards and punishments for students are nonexistent. According to Kohn, behaviour problems in schools disappear when teachers provide students with engaging lessons.

However, Kohn’s permissive idealism is based on a hopelessly naive understanding of human nature. Some students intentionally choose to disrupt class, bully their classmates, and destroy property, regardless of the quality of instruction they receive. Teachers who fail to enforce clear boundaries from the outset often end up with unruly classrooms.

In order to provide safer settings and more stable learning environments, schools must avoid the equally misguided extremes of zero tolerance policies and permissive idealism. Rather, school administrators should set and enforce clear standards of behaviour for all students, and do so in a way that allows teachers to use their professional judgment. Rules need to be carefully designed, clearly explained, and consistently enforced.

While no school can devise a foolproof plan to protect against every outside violent attack, all schools can and should establish effectively safe and orderly environment learning for their students. When it comes to school discipline, common sense is needed now more than ever.