Suspended Disbelief in Providence Education Discipline Policy

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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.