Crime and Punishment
Two things cropped up simultaneously in my Twitter timeline this week. One was the outrage over the brutal assault of a black teenage girl by a white police officer in class that you sure all heard of. The other one was less prominent and I would have missed it if I hadn’t refreshed Twitter in that very moment, but the two stories seemed very connected to me because they both deal with how schools in the USA react to discipline problems.
As somebody who isn’t USAmerican I can tell you I am horrified by both stories. Both reactions are completely alien to me and believe me, the esteemed author of this post was no angel back in school.
What you might call “discipline problems” began pretty much in first grade because I was terminally bored. My teacher would find me playing under my desk. I would still give the correct answer to the question asked, mind you. Most of the time at least. When the teacher tried to deal with those problems in the usual way I would get angry. Legend has that I once threw a pencil at her. Now to me those anecdotes are just that: funny anecdotes. Obviously yours truely didn’t become a psychopathic massmurderer because I threw a pencil at a teacher once and since my teacher had to find a different solution than suspension, she finally found something that worked. She looked at why I was acting up and then simply handed me more demanding work. The problems quickly disappeared and I still remember her fondly and last I heard, so did she.
Discipline methods are very limited by law in Germany. Suspension is the very last step and it has to be decided by a council. In my entire school career only very few students managed to get a temporary suspension and that was for smoking marihuana on the school toilet. You cannot simply send students out of the room because you are responsible for them and if they wander off and either get hurt or do something bad that’s your fault. Even extra work is very strictly regulated: it must relate to the objectives of the class in which it was given. This means no push-ups for talking in class. No mindless copying of school regulations, a favourite one of my middle school teacher. I probably still have a few pages of them somewhere.
I understand why this often leaves German teachers exhausted and frustrated since there are so few sanctions they can impose on students. And yet, and still, they manage. Note what is totally off the list: calling the cops on a peaceful student. If you are an adult who is supposed to be in charge then calling the cops on a young girl who apparently has gone through two major losses in one year means you are not an adult who should ever be in charge of anybody. You are terminally incompentent because you never even stopped to think why this student was causing what you deemed a problem. If you are an adult who is charged with teaching children, then your priority should always be those children.
Yet the “zero tolerance” approach many US American schools practise completely ignores the question “why” and simply operates on a system of crime and punishment. There are long lists of infractions from wearing shoes the wrong colour to using “bad language”. The punishment is truely Draconian as there are no questions asked. Even if the method succeeds you do not end up with students who have mastered the important life skills of behaving in a social setting, you end up with students who mindlessly obey silly rules because they are scared.
One example from the article on the charter school quite struck me: In defending her discipline regimen, the principal said that “a single incidence of using “sexually explicit language” would get a 5-year-old suspended”. Please read again. A single incident. Of sexually explicit language. Would get a 5 year old suspended. That is a very clear rule and there is so much wrong with it. Of course children will use “naughty language”. They will do so exactly because it is deemed naughty. I think all parents and teachers can testify to that and and they can all testify that you need to regulate it because words have meanings. But suspending a kid doesn’t achieve teaching them why calling your classmate a “dirty sl*t” is not OK. A 5 year old usually has no idea what “sexually explicit language” actually means. They heard adults using those words and they are trying them out for a reaction. A friend of mine once told the story how her son could name half a dozen horrible synonyms for sexworker but had no idea what those words actually mean. Which is usually a good thing. Because if a 5 year old actually knows what those sexually explicit words mean, maybe it’s time to take a closer look. Sexual abuse of children is real and abused children often pass it on. But if you just suspend the 5 year old who told another 5 year old to suck his dick you will never ever find out why he said that. At worst you send this kid right back to his abuser. Youare n ot just failing this kid, you are supporting a system of abuse in which children are ultimately held responsible for the bad things that happen to them.
I started this post with the story about 6 year old me acting up in class. Fortunately I live in a different country where the approach to solving discipline problems is usually to work with the child and find solutions that allow the child to get an education. The USA approach doesn’t do that. Had I been a black girl in the USA, would I be writing thoughtful posts on the computer now? Most likely not.