Justice and judgment

Published 7:45 pm Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Just what is the proper punishment for a second-grader who is accused of using his finger to pretend to shoot his teacher? That’s the question Ida Thompson tackled recently with Suffolk School officials after her son, Aidan, was suspended for allegedly making the gesture. Aidan was suspended from school for a day over the matter, but his mother fought more than a month to have that suspension erased. Her struggle highlights one of the biggest problems in public schools today: discipline.

There was a time many of Suffolk’s adults will vividly recall when corporal punishment was allowed in both public and private schools, when teachers and principals had broad authority to discipline unruly students. But much has changed across all levels of society since then. Today’s students often are less likely to experience corporal punishment even at home, for one thing. And the behavior exhibited in schools today sometimes goes far beyond the kinds of infractions that once would have resulted in a personal visit with the principal.

Providing a positive learning environment in the face of such challenges is a complicated matter that many school systems, including Suffolk’s, have sought to approach through the imposition of zero-tolerance policies and standardized discipline.

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The idea is that giving a child and his parents a list of infractions and their related punishments and then applying that list to every disciplinary situation will result in a standard, fair response to nearly every incident that takes place in the schools and will relieve administrators of the burden and the risk of making judgment calls in the midst of volatile situations.

In reality, though, such polices ignore important information about the incidents themselves and about the children who are involved in them. The prescribed responses, therefore, are often inadequate and — as it turns out — unfair. Suffolk’s own disciplinary statistics bear out the inadequacies. Of the 91 suspension or expulsion cases the city schools’ Pupil Personnel Committee heard on appeal in the 2011-2012 school year, 55 were changed by that committee and three more were changed by the School Board.

On the other side of the equation is the concern that some teachers and parents have that the process leads to the city actually underreporting problems in schools, as administrators choose to ignore some infractions entirely rather than risking black marks on the records of both students and schools.

In our litigious society, it might be too much to ask for school administrators to be given full control over choosing appropriate discipline for students who act out at school; perceptions of inconsistent punishment from one student to the next could easily result in expensive lawsuits. But it’s clear that across-the-board discipline polices also are not effective and that they often create even more problems than they solve.

It’s time for Suffolk schools to readdress how discipline works in public schools. A policy that demands fair application of punishment, while acknowledging that every situation is different, would go a long way toward teaching students not just about justice but also about judgment.