The D-Word: Good News from New York, But…

Perhaps it was coincidence, but New York City seems to have gotten the message of the Civil Rights Project (CRP) about discipline and has revised its student code of conduct to help keep kids in school. According to Al Baker in the New York Times students

can no longer be suspended for one-time, low-level infractions, and the youngest pupils can be suspended only for 5 days for midlevel offenses, down from 10, according to new disciplinary rules posted by the Education Department this week.

This is great news, but try to find that in the code of conduct, officially titled, “Citywide Standards of Intervention and Discipline Measures: The Discipline Code and Bill of Student Rightsand Responsibilities, K-12,” which is an eye-popping twenty-nine pages of small print and includes sections on “Promoting Positive Student Behavior,” “Progressive Discipline,” “Restorative Approaches,” and “Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.”

I must admit to being old school and focusing on the section called “Prohibited Weapons.” Were there some weapons that weren’t prohibited? Alas, no—the list is as comprehensive an itemization of mayhem as you can find, featuring air guns, spring guns (“or other instrument or weapon in which the propelling force is a spring or air, and any weapon in which any loaded or blank cartridge may be used”), daggers, stilettos, dirks, razors, both sling shots and slung shots, kung fu stars, nunchucks and shirkens—and, of course, your garden variety explosives, “including bombs, fire crackers and bombshells.” And that’s just Category I.

They mean well. But these types of documents, mind-numbing in their detail, tend to be self-defeating. For one thing, you’d have to be a constitutional lawyer to interpret them (though we could be minting them with these codes, since, in my experience, kids are pretty savvy about the fine print); secondly, you’d need twice as many cops as there are students to enforce the rules in anything approximating a fair and consistent manner (try this one: “Colluding (engaging in fraudulent collaboration with another person in preparing written work for credit)”); finally, in the end, there’s the all-purpose “Defying or disobeying the lawful authority” clause, which makes most of the other clauses redundant.

In the end these codes of conduct tend to be colossal wastes of administrative and instructional time and money, in record-keeping alone. But the sheer opaqueness of it all—and the level of detail actually contributes to the ambiguity (dare I say `arbitrary and capricious’?) of the thing—helps explain the results of the Civil Rights Project and National Education Policy Center’s recent reports  suggesting that African-American students were more apt to be suspended from school than their white counterparts. Student suspensions, concluded the latter “are significantly influenced by factors other than student misbehavior.”

I don’t doubt that NYC’s administrators are well-intentioned. “We want to be able to address improper behavior before it reaches a higher level,” Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman, told Al Baker. “And to do that, we are focused on providing strong student support services coupled with parent involvement.”

And it is commendable that being tardy, being absent without an excuse, and talking back to teachers won’t get you suspended. But relying on an exhaustive code of everything that students could do wrong to improve student conduct (and school discipline) seems less promising than planning opportunities for them to do right.

It would be simplistic to suggest that you toss the code out and invoke the other meaning of the word discipline—a subject or field of activity, e.g. an academic subject—and start giving out more homework! But we might do well to aim in that direction. In the Ohio schools I have been visiting (for my Needles in a Haystack report, due out in the fall) it is rigorous and consistent attention to academic discipline that helps ensure a culture of respect where behavioral discipline is less necessary. In these schools the emphasis on academics, at every turn and at every level, helps create a positive and proactive environment. As many students told me, “We don’t have time to get in trouble.” The KIPP schools have whittled this down even more: Work hard, be nice!

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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