What should constitute grounds for suspension?
The issue of whether we are suspending too many students in Maryland schools has hit a chord with readers. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about how to discipline children and what misbehavior should be grounds for a suspension.
Yesterday, The Sun ran two stories I wrote about the subject. I report that the state's public schools are now suspending one in 11 students every year, and blacks and boys are twice as likely to be suspended as their peers. A number of readers responded to the story on the paper's Web site, saying that they believe too few students are being suspended.
"I get the feeling you want us to feel sorry for these kids. We need more detention centers, bring back the draft, keep them seperated from good kids. We all know if you play in dirt, you will get dirty," one person wrote.
Another comment: "That that the headline on the story was wrong. It should read:'Thousands of Md. students are suspended each year, often those who should be on death row....'"
Those comments come from people who clearly believe in harsh punishment. Many others expressed the view that it is better to sacrifice the education of misbehaving students for the good of all the students in a classroom who want to learn.
So what should schools do if they have large numbers of students who are talking back or disrespectful of authority?
It is up to parents to teach their children to respect authority and to behave correctly, but what do you do if a child doesn't have a parent who is capable of doing that? What if the parent is on drugs or abdicating his or her responsiblity? Do you throw away the child? What is the responsibility of the community in those cases?
Several school systems are using old-fashioned, common-sense approaches, and others have tried new tactics. Carroll County schools don't send students home for poor behavior; they make you come to school on Saturday. Now there is an incentive to be good! And Anne Arundel County officials are trying in several schools to focus on the students with the worst behavior, figuring that if they can help them get under control, classroom teachers will be able to teach.
It is interesting to note that the KIPP middle school in Baltimore has very strict discipline. No student is allowed to be disrespectful or to act out without a consequence, but the school suspends very few students every year. Its solution is to require students to stay late after school -- sometimes as late as 9 p.m. -- until they have written enough letters to other students or their teachers about their misbehavior.
Two years ago, I spent about five days in the school. I never saw a classroom that was out of control or students who weren't engaged in their courses.
Several administrators made the point that good instruction will keep discipline problems to a minimum. If students are interested in what they are learning and the curriculum is good, discipline is much easier.