Suspended Disbelief in Providence Education Discipline Policy


The opening scene of 1989’s Lean on Me sticks in your mind (even if your father didn’t teach in the high school on which it was based a few years after the movie was released).  It shows a school in chaos, where teachers and administrators can just barely protect a handful of students from the worst of the abuse.  The screen shot above shows students fighting in the hall as paramedics wheel a teacher out on a stretcher after he tried to break up a fight and had his head repeatedly bashed into the floor for his reward.

Thankfully, it appears that Rhode Island still has time to keep Providence from getting that low. If we’re going to accomplish that goal, however, we’ll have to acknowledge that it takes a whole squad full of errors to bring a school district to that condition.

Yes, the district’s governing structure is challenging and, yes, the teachers’ contract is absurdly generous, particularly when it comes to time off and job security.  But those are issues across the state.  Something in the way Tom Ward puts things in his Valley Breeze column rings a familiar bell (emphasis added):

When teachers told researchers of “no backup for discipline issues,” their stories pointed to the much deeper rot of parents who complain loudly about the perceived “rights” of their misbehaving children, and back them no matter what. When school administrators cede control of classrooms to threatening, pain-in-the-neck parents, and teachers are not backed up, nobody should be looking for a good outcome. There is none. No amount of money will fix terrible parenting.

And, of course, “there is no student accountability,” reported one teacher. Students are “cutting class, smoking weed in the bathrooms, and there are no repercussions because the administrators have been told they can’t suspend kids” so the numbers of students – counted by bureaucrats – looks good.

Who has told the administrators that they can’t suspend students?  Well, as of June 2016, the General Assembly and Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo.  As Linda Borg reported in the Providence Journal at the time:

Governor Raimondo signed a bill into law Wednesday that limits the use of school suspensions in Rhode Island.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Grace Diaz and Sen. Juan Pichardo, both Providence Democrats, is designed to prevent the use of school suspensions for minor misbehavior, while allowing youth who pose a physical risk or serious disruption to students to be suspended. The law limits out-of-school suspensions, not suspensions that are enforced in school.

In recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has issued a series of reports analyzing school suspension data, and found that among the most common grounds for suspending children are such minor infractions as “disorderly conduct” or “disrespect.”

That legislation was part of the progressive effort, spearheaded by the ACLU, to root out all statistical differences between identity groups on the assumption that there’s no reason for the results other than bigotry.  The ACLU’s argument focused in particular on exactly the sort of behavior that leads to the deterioration of the learning atmosphere; it also insinuated distrust of the people we trust to education to use their judgment:

The disparity is highlighted when one focuses on so-called “subjective” offenses. These are the vague, generally less serious types of infractions – such as Disorderly Conduct, Harassment, Insubordination/Disrespect, and Obscene or Abusive Language Toward a Teacher or Student – that are dependent in part on the perceptions of those involved and where the decision to punish is largely discretionary.

As Rhode Island strives to figure out the problem in Providence, the assumptions behind current policy have to come into question.  Maybe professional educators know what they’re doing when they suspend students for disorderly conduct.  Maybe reacting harshly in response to abusive language toward a teacher isn’t just personal offense, but an important lesson in acceptable behavior.

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In this light, look back to a paradoxically titled Providence Journal article from December, “Student suspensions cloud charter’s success.” Achievement First schools (with three in Providence) “were the highest-performing schools on the new standardized tests.”  Yet, one of the schools had “among the highest out-of-school suspension rates in the state.”

As I wrote at the time, maybe those two data points aren’t a contrast, but rather are connected.  Perhaps inconveniencing parents with out-of-school suspensions is what it takes to enlist their help enforcing standards for their children.

Across the state, we need to reform how we organize schools and staff them with teachers, but the especially tragic puzzle of Providence education should lead us to question why we treat ACLU activists as education experts and to challenge the assertion that the same state that hobbled discipline in the state’s capital city would run the schools better than the community itself.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I went to school when 50% of the teachers were men, WWII vets who “GI Billed” themselves into a teaching job. I am not so sure how much difference that made, the conduct complained of here simply never occurred. I would blame the parents (or lack of them), not the schools. I wonder about the so-called “minor offenses” here. “Disorderly Conduct” can get you arrested.

    • Joe Smith

      The biggest “eye roll” with the previous Commissioner was when he would tout that “our classrooms need to reflect the community” (clearly at more minority teachers) and completely duck the point that 90% of elementary school teachers were female – when the biggest statewide educational gap is the one between girls and boys in literacy.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      I think I have mentioned this guy before, but he deserves another mention. Somewhere around the 7th grade, I had a phys ed teacher with only one eye. Only quite recently, I learned that he had the eye shot out at Normandy. He then spent a day on the beach before anyone realized he was alive. I never had cause to find out, but wonder what he would have thought of ‘Disorderly Conduct”, or “Disrespect” (In a day before “dissing” would anyone have recognized the term). I remember breaking a window with a discus. His attitude was “Accidents happen”. Anyway, he didn’t “shirk the job” and he wasn’t on disability (at least as we now know it)

      • Rhett Hardwick

        Out of curiosity, I just googled this guy. Apparently, 20 years after his death, a very large “collection” of WWII explosives was found in his house.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          Just doing some thinking about how things were, and how things have changed. In the 7th grade, the janitor was “Mister” Brannigan. Among “nice kids” I expect he still would be. He was a good type, probably why I remember him. In some of the schools I hear being described, I doubt he would last. I expect that explains something, but what can schools do for parentless kids; other than provide day care. Show me a parent who “respects” a cashier at McDonalds, and I’ll show you a “nice kid’.

  • Joe Smith

    Justin – it helps to start with the correct facts.

    Achievement First schools (with three in Providence) “were the highest-performing schools on the new standardized tests.” The article stated “As a district, the Achievement First charters, a middle school and two elementary schools, were the highest-performing schools on the new standardized tests,”

    This is factually incorrect; especially considering the ProJo doesn’t bother to actually put AF in context. AF in 2018 had 3 schools, AF Providence Mayoral (the one noted for the excessive suspension); AF Illuminar, and AF MIddle (which is only Grade 5 so to say it’s a middle school for the purpose of comparison at that point is disingenuous).

    Now, what’s different about AF Illuminar vs AF Mayoral (besides the suspension rate); AF Illuminar is balanced gender wise while Mayoral is skewed male; AF Illuminar has few ELL while Mayoral had almost 20%>

    Why is that relevant – because the test scores are far from similar. AF Illuminar was among the highest (not the top, but high for sure but again for ELA it skews female); AF Providence Mayoral was slightly better than the state, but far from the “highest” and certainly aggregating the two distorts the differences between the schools.

    And that is important because AF Providence had the suspension issue – so high suspension and only relatively better scores while AF Illuminar had almost no suspensions (again the gender disparity at AF Mayoral plays a role) and great scores. Hence your point on the “connectedness” is certainly questionable, unless you want to say well among poor Latinos in Providence schools vs poor Latinos in AF Mayoral – but to leap to some generalization is just sloppy and taking ProJo’s statements on education anyway without doing some research is risky business.

    I would say though the point made by Tom Ward is spot on. We have a law in RI allowing the arrest (citation) and fining of parents for truancy. I don’t think it’s ever enforced – I ask my local town council member when the school committee raised the issue of both (1) illegal enrollments in our district and (2) truancy/chronic absenteeism about why the police weren’t being used since (1) is making a false statement/theft/fraud and (2) by law is criminal offense and the TC said “ah, the school has a truancy officer and the state handles enrollment disputes”.

    Well, the state handling enrollment disputes is a joke (according to the school department it’s time consuming and RIDE often just says let the kid finish) and a truancy “court” seems a joke as well.

    I’m sure there are lots of classroom and school specific things to fix, but it seems to me a rather cheap fix could be to consider truancy as child neglect by the parent (like we should do with failure to pay for lunch or sign up for free lunch instead of shaming the kid) and to put cameras all around the school/classroom (can let the teacher control audio) and stream it for parents. The Gov wants to throw her hands up and say schools shouldn’t be like a prison, well after giving Providence $1B of taxpayer money after the last 6 years I think maybe making it more like a prison with a lot more police presence in the schools and taking on truancy support is appropriate.

  • Makaha Ken

    Bravo Justin for doing a little research and pointing out the fact that RI politicians meddling in education and governor sigining into law stupid ideas that give children free reign from adult supervision in schools is possibbly some of the cause of Providence School District problems.

    RI general assembly grandstanding in news media reported they are proposing 6 new state laws for education.

    March of 2018, federal department of education reported that it had accepted RI Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Law Plan and that RI was released from No Child Left Behind Law.

    I wonder if RI has officially instituted its ESSA Plan state-wide or was it a paperwork drill?

  • ShannonEntropy