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A Note on School Discipline

June 04, 2013 By Ian Keith, Guest Commentary

This week Minnesota 2020 is exploring the topic of school discipline and suspensions. The following is a condensed version of a letter from a long-time St. Paul teacher urging the district to re-evaulaute its current conduct and suspension policies. Click here for the full letter. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a grassroots group that’s involved in improving education outcomes in urban schools.

I am proud to work for the St. Paul Public Schools and believe that we have a great urban school system with dedicated administrators, teachers and support staff. While I respect and admire [your] dedication, I think some of the current approaches to improving student conduct are too narrowly focused or misguided, lack adequate resources, and fail to meet the practical needs of our students in some critical areas.

Read the Pioneer Press story that elicited this letter:

First, we are focusing precious training time and resources on holding “courageous conversations” where people “speak their truth” about race in the hopes that teachers will better understand themselves and the “stories” of others. This may improve racial awareness and has led to some heartfelt and challenging conversations, but I would argue we are missing out on a far more important conversation – what are the common values and behaviors that bind us together as people and that help our kids succeed in school and life like hard work, caring for others, being responsible, respecting others, following directions, listening to teachers and appreciating other cultures. These values and behaviors are universal. They cut across race, culture and ethnicity and are the bedrock of our communities.

Our approach to improving student conduct and achievement must be grounded in these common values because these values are what children need to enter the workforce, participate as productive members of society and live a good life.

I ask the board to reformulate and expand the foundation of our district’s approach to student conduct beyond a narrow racial awareness focus to the common values that will best served our kids and families.

Secondly, district leaders have concluded that a focus on positive behavior intervention is the most effective approach to improving student behavior. When done well this is a powerful tool for helping schools get a handle on behavior issues. However, schools still need to concentrate on effective consequences for misbehavior when the positive interventions fail. In my experience troubled children need lots of love and support and they desperately need firm, fair and meaningful consequences. They need limits to be established. Discipline has come to be seen as a negative thing, but in reality it is a positive value that undergirds our society. Learning self-discipline, in particular, is an attribute associated with almost all productive members of society regardless of ethnic, class or racial background.

If kids are constantly fooling around or refusing to work, they should have a consequence of spending more time in school or, when used judiciously, lose free time like recess to finish their work. If they are disrupting a classroom, they should apologize to the class or spend time in buddy rooms or ISS rooms with fix it plans or schoolwork and should earn their way back into their learning community. When I was teaching 6th grade I kept kids who failed to complete their work after school for up to two hours on Fridays. Within a month behavior improved and kids completed a lot more work. Tough love works. The trick is to surround troubled kids with caring adults, create positive behavior interventions and to establish meaningful consequences that build character and teach important lessons.

Thirdly, given the high number of suspensions for African American boys, district leaders are sensitive to the criticism that the schools are failing these children and that teachers may be culturally insensitive or even racist. Thus, the district has regularly conducted diversity and now equity workshops to address this issue. This may have some benefit, but it is not nearly enough. What teachers and administrators need are specific, time-tested strategies to help struggling African American boys succeed. Hiring more African American teachers may help, but it has not significantly reduced behavior issues in other districts. We need to find better ways to surround these boys – before, during and after school - with caring adults and role models, and to establish meaningful consequences for misbehavior. This means working more closely with families, community organizations, social services and others.

Fourthly, the district has concluded that suspending children should be curtailed and has offered principals a $3000 bonus for cutting suspensions. This is a worthy goal because out-of-school suspensions are less effective in many cases than in-school suspensions, buddy rooms, after school detention, Saturday school and other options. But I am very worried that without a strong commitment to these alternatives, that the problems in our classrooms will only get worse. Kids will just be sent back to class and get the message that they can get away with bad behavior.

Finally, we must do all that we can for troubled children, but not at the expense of others in the class. Given the district’s push to have EBD children spend more time in regular education classrooms, it is imperative that the district provide the staffing and tools to ensure that the EBD students are properly served and that the learning of other students is not adversely affected by violent or disruptive behavior

Ian Keith is a teacher at Randolph Heights Elementary School. He’s spent nearly 30 years in education.

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  • diane labovitch says:

    August 26, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    The St. Paul School District’s attempt to narrow the achievement gap, by sensitizing its white staff to racial inequity, is a very narrow, one-dimensional approach.  The foundation of the entire experience is to define “whiteness” in terms of social and economic advantage, and to lead its participants in a great deal of soul searching. Raising the awareness and consciousness of the injustice suffered by people of color everywhere in our society, on all levels, is a worthy goal. The problem is that the St. Paul School District has its white teaching staff in the cross-hairs while completely ignoring its responsibility to examine its own policies and activities at the district and building levels.  For example, in one building, while staff is being led through exercises of intense introspection on their whiteness, the phone system that greats all callers to the school speaks a greeting only in English (there used to be a greeting in Spanish and Hmong as well, until this summer).  There are no translators at family events, and no Hmong-speaking staff.  There is no attempt to specifically relate to the Latino or Hmong community in a planful way.  I can’t help but sense the hypocrisy in the message of “racial equity” that seems to be the entire focus of teacher training this year.