Rethinking School Discipline: Focusing on Student Needs

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By Elizabeth Jepsen

On Monday, July 9, 2018, a group of Memphis parents, educators, and education advocates gathered with Stand for Children to discuss the need to rethink school discipline policies to focus on student needs. The driving question posed was, “What skills do students in Memphis need to access the lives they deserve?” The goal was to focus on identifying not only the skills students need to have, but the skills we, as adults, need to internalize that will allow us to be proactive about student discipline. The idea is to achieve this by focusing on assets rather than on punitive measures and behaviors.

Fifteen states specifically allow schools to use of corporal punishment, while eight other states have no laws or regulations against it.  Tennessee is one of the states that still allows corporal punishment as a form of discipline within its schools, according to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.

Tennessee’s law 49-6-4103 explicitly states, “Any teacher or school principal may use corporal punishment in a reasonable manner against any pupil in order to maintain discipline and order within the public schools.” Let’s be clear; however, corporal punishment is not allowed in all schools in Tennessee, only some.

For example, the Shelby County school district in Memphis does not have policies in place that allow corporal punishment. Public charter schools in SCS, though they may operate in accordance with many SCS policies, still maintain autonomy under their charter to implement practices—whether they be academic or behavioral—that they deem best suit the needs of their students.

Therefore, even though the Shelby County School Board of Education voted 13-2 in 2013 to repeal the corporal punishment policy, corporal punishment does still take place within SCS.

As suggested by the title of this gathering, the people in attendance were there because of the recognition of the fact that there is a huge gap between what we expect and anticipate for our students and how we are helping them get there. Across SCS, discipline is an issue that varies greatly and in extreme measures from school to school.

Cathy Emerson, a school psychologist, and Shanieka Smith, a school counselor joined us for the evening, prefacing the discussion with the story of a student who had been failed by the school system. Sadly, the story of this particular student sounded all too familiar

This student, called Quo* was significantly behind academically and although he had support from his family and school, he lacked the skills he needed to be successful without consistent guidance. Unfortunately, Quo became the status of the latter. While Quo was on the right track and progressing academically, he was still missing the fundamental skills to be able to cope with the rigor and various tensions of his environment. As a result, Quo found himself in a system far less (or maybe comparably) forgiving than the public-school system: the prison system.
 

During the meeting, an equity based protocol for rethinking school discipline was given:

Empathy and high expectations

Quality teaching

Understanding and personalization

Incident response

Team approach

You focused policy

Oftentimes, our schools focus so heavily on what students lack and reinforce these deficits through punitive measures. How might our schools be different if we focused on working with students to help them develop healthy emotional, physical, and cognitive practices that enabled them to better self-direct?   

This is Part 1 in a series dedicated to rethinking school discipline.

*Name changed for protection