I teach in the most crime-ridden neighborhood in my city. I am not the best teacher in the building—they won’t make any Hollywood movies about me—but I am a good one. One administrator described my classes as a Jekyll-and-Hyde affair. There may be utter chaos elsewhere, but when my students enter my room, they will spend the hour reading aloud, finishing essays, and discussing whatever is on the table that day.
Unfortunately, new disciplinary policies have begun to make my work, at times, impossible.
One morning, two female students entered my classroom, dancing and chanting “Googly, googly, googly!” These girls had a record of insulting teachers, threatening a teacher physically, inciting arguments with other students, and refusing basic instructions, such as to sit in a seat. A few minutes into class, the meaning of their chant became clear: They were mocking the new girl for her “googly eyes.”
Rarely do I call the office for backup. I prefer to handle misbehavior myself and impose my own consequences. This time, I radioed for administrators to escort the bullies out of my classroom. The serious looks on the faces of the other students told me that they wanted the taunting to stop. And what message would it send to the new student if two classmates could harass her with impunity?
I expected that the front office would keep these students out of my room for the hour and assign a detention. Given their history, the principal would surely understand that the victim of their teasing—and the rest of us, too—would appreciate a break. But after only five minutes, the two students returned to class. No punishment, no detention, not even much of a time-out. A short conversation with the dean of students had been the only consequence. The girls strolled to their seats with mischievous looks on their faces. If they could taunt a new student and receive only a brief reproof, they could get away with a whole lot more. The new student got the message: No one would protect her. Later that day, she picked a fight, left the building, and never came back.
Another day, I noticed a young man, a frequent target of bullying, bent over his desk with a pained expression on his face. I asked him what was wrong. He said that one of his abusers—one of the girls from the taunting incident—had kicked him between the legs during passing time. I informed the office again, assuming that a physical attack would certainly garner some punishment. Other students expected the same. A few had described this girl as cruel and unruly, and said she often disrupted their studies.
Once again, we got little help. The offender went to the front office, but not for long. A few minutes later, she stood outside my room with the dean of students, eager to argue her case. She had told the office that the young man had insulted her, so, yes, she kicked him. The dean listened patiently—and credulously. The young man had never lied to me as far as I knew, but I had caught the young woman telling the most basic fibs. The discussion continued as the rest of the students waited for class to resume. There was no remorse on her part, and no hurt, either. She waited cheerfully while the dean of students explained what she’d said and asked that I take her back. For him, the case was all about the girl; I was thinking about the other students, including the victim. What message was the dean sending to the rest of the school? The young man might have understood that violence brought no real consequence. He might have thought, “This is going to happen again.” Soon, he, too, disappeared, moving to another school.
These encounters happen all the time. Almost daily, while my students work silently, random kids run past my room cussing, laughing, fighting. Our school has slack attendance policies; students wander the halls freely. Why shouldn’t they? Smoking weed in the bathroom is more entertaining than the most engaging teacher. If roaming the halls in gangs of three or four warrants, at worst, an escort back to class, kids will roam the halls. Play-fighting in the lunchroom is more fun than phonics and basic math. Anyone who stays in class, does homework diligently, and respects the teacher is a chump.
I wish these stories were the result merely of administrative incompetence. Alas, my experiences reflect systemic changes across American education, new approaches to discipline and order. The old behavioral codes are going down, one by one—that’s what I’ve observed in the last few years. School districts, including my own, rely ever less on suspensions and expulsions, replacing them with novel approaches such as “restorative justice.”
After the death of George Floyd, for instance, the leading charter network Uncommon Schools pledged to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions it imposed, eliminate detentions for minor infractions, and drop the requirement of silence in the halls. Previously, Uncommon Schools had led the movement of “no-excuse” charter institutions—along with KIPP schools, which likewise have renounced their strict discipline policies. Countless charters across the country have imitated their reversal.
Entire states have joined the trend. Before the pandemic, the Illinois legislature passed Senate Bill 100, which eliminated zero-tolerance policies and allowed exclusionary practices only for school safety, not for punishment. As the bill puts it: “Out-of-school suspensions of 3 days or less may be used only if the student’s continuing presence in school would pose a threat to school safety or a disruption to other students’ learning experience.” Senate Bill 100 uses terms such as “culturally responsive discipline” and calls for teachers to be trained in “the adverse consequences of school exclusion” and “justice-system involvement.” After the bill was put into practice, one survey of Illinois teachers reported a simple finding: “teachers believe that student behavior and school culture and climate have deteriorated since the implementation of SB100.”
The survey offered a curious account of the causes of this deterioration, however. The reduction in suspensions harmed school climate, the pollsters said, only because teachers lacked sufficient training in alternatives to punitive discipline. Bad behavior is always the communication of an unmet need or a flaw in the system. This is the psychology that prevails among officials. The ideal school is so full of meaningful activity and communitarian vibes that no child will feel the urge to misbehave. In the rare instances in which a child might act out, the proper response is a conversation with a counselor: What caused this, and how can we fix the system so that it doesn’t happen again? Maybe a snack will help, but certainly not a detention.
This approach is spreading. Recently, Oakland Unified School District in California released a long guide on the proper implementation of restorative justice alongside reductions in punitive discipline. The guide suggests that restorative justice “addresses harms, needs, obligations, and causes of conflict and harm.” Students misbehave because they are hungry, or frustrated by cultural conflicts of some kind. Provide them with sufficient food and meaningful schoolwork, and misbehavior will disappear.
This philosophy has its sources in the works of educational romantics such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The opening line of Rousseau’s The Social Contract—“Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”—beautifully summarizes this view. Human beings, and children in particular, are free of original sin, born perfect, full of unbridled potential. Society and its fussy norms corrupt us. The ideal education, then, removes children from society, from social norms, from the control and direction of authorities, and allows them to follow their inborn goodness. “The first impulses of nature are always right,” Rousseau writes in Émile. “There is no original sin in the human heart.”
In modern debates about school discipline, the causes of physical fights or profane speech must lie outside the students themselves. What have teachers done to provoke inattention? If their lessons were more engaging, if their sensitivities were sharper, disruptions wouldn’t occur. If rebellion breaks out, it must mean that something in the school system is oppressive. A child who throws a chair at a teacher—as the girl from the taunting and kicking incidents told me she had, occasioning her expulsion from her previous school—bespeaks an unaddressed wrong.
It is in this fundamental misunderstanding—that evil springs from unmet needs, not from human nature or sin—that recommendations in restorative justice and similar approaches go astray. One section in Oakland’s guide is dedicated to “moving from punitive to restorative practices.” It predicts that once restorative discipline has been instituted, teachers and administrators will never again need to call home or assign detention, for students will be so drawn to schoolwork that they’ll never shoot a spitball, toss a paper airplane, or insist that a teacher perform a four-letter-act upon himself.
This will never work. It is, in fact, terribly destructive. I’ve seen the consequences. Hannah Arendt summarizes them: “By being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority.” When schools remove the structure that punishment enforces, the result will not be, as romantic theories predict, the utopian flourishing of the unbridled child. Instead we will have anarchy, the power of the stronger child over the weaker.
Schools fail when they lose sight of human nature. Children are capable of wickedness and cruelty. There is something rotten in the core of man. When schools deny this, when they fail to punish cruelty, the apple is left putrefying on the teacher’s desk.
Daniel Buck is a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute.
Image by PxFuel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.