An ‘improvement’ that hurts students

Published 7:50 pm Monday, May 26, 2014

By Joseph L. Bass

When I first taught in public schools in Oklahoma and California in the mid-1960s, teachers maintained safe and secure learning environments through summary discipline. Today in public schools, teachers can no longer apply summary discipline, and schools are not safe and secure. What happened?

Summary discipline is based on teachers being able to use their judgment and knowledge of individual students and their parents regarding what disciplinary actions will work the best to maintain order and a quality learning environment.


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The effectiveness of summary discipline began to be undermined when the federal government demanded through lawsuits that every category of infraction be handled the exact same way for all students. This assumed that different disciplinary actions taken against a black student as opposed to a white student represented discrimination on the part of a teacher.

This emasculated teachers’ judgment for determining what would be best for different students in terms of having a safe and secure learning environment.

Today in many schools if two students are involved in a fight, regardless of the circumstances, disciplinary action must be the same. Every student involved in a fight must be dealt with the same. They can be expelled. Often the police are called, and criminal charges can result. A teacher’s knowledge of the students and their parents makes no difference.

In the late 1960s, a knock-down, drag-out fight broke out in my seventh-grade classroom. Desks flew, and innocent students fled to safe corners of the room and out the door as I waded into the fight. Soon, I had arm locks on the bloodied combatants and marched them to the office. I was surprised at the boys’ conduct. I lived in the community and knew their parents well.

The two boys were patched up by the school nurse and sent home, but not before I told them I would be at their homes later in the day to talk with them and their parents. I knew their parents would ensure that no such thing happened again. The next day, the sheepish boys apologized to the class about their conduct.

Fifteen years later, that same series of events could not have occurred. By then, rules were established that any student involved in a fight would be suspended and considered for expulsion. I also could not have done what I had done earlier.

There was an effort underway at the time to bring police officers into schools, because teachers could no longer maintain discipline, order and an effective learning environment. I would soon decide I didn’t want to be a public school teacher anymore.

I remember the day well when the chief of police sent two officers to tour the school with the possibility that they might become our resource officers. Two fine young men in uniforms walked into the classroom where the fight had occurred. One came in grinning, and my students wondered why I laughed. The grinning officer was one of the bloodied combatants, all grown up.

I had to wonder what would have happened to that young man’s life if I had been powerless to handle that situation as I did. Would he have been expelled from school? Would he have a criminal record based on a fight involving the charms of a teenage girl?

Maybe we should reexamine some of the “improvements” made in our schools during the last 50 years. Maybe some of them did more harm than good.

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at