Last April, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the use of corporal punishment — in this case, paddling — by a Miami junior high school, did not violate the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The decision, reversing a recent trend by the nation’s court to limit the freedom of school administrators in dealing with students they consider to be unruly or disruptive, caused immediate controversy. Proponents of educational law and order — including such otherwise liberal groups as the American Federation of Teachers — said they approved the decision. Defenders of student rights, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Defense Fund — as well as the American Federation of Teachers’ fellow union, the National Education Association — were outraged.
Although the Supreme Court’s decision may well encourage some teachers and principals to dust off their canes and rulers, most parents and students have little to fear; corporal punishment has long been generally abandoned and is currently outlawed in all but a few states. Nevertheless the debate continues.
Student misbehavior, and how to deal with it, has been growing national concerns since the late 1960′s, when an explosion of street crimes began to engulf many inner-city schools, while the so-called youth and drug revolutions eroded classroom decorum in the placid suburbs. In 1974, a Gallup Poll of 1,700 adults found that “lack of discipline” was the top-rated issue facing American education, muscling out such others concerns as “integration/segregation problems,” “lack of proper financial support,” and “use of drugs.”
A 1975 report by the Subcommittee on the Juvenile Delinquency of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which showed a sharp increase in student crime — including robbery, weapons possession, and assaults on teachers and other students — confirmed many parents’ worst fears.
Striking evidence of the extent of student misbehavior — or at least what teachers and administrators choose to classify as such — is also provided by a recent study undertaken by the Maryland State Department of Education. Based on questionnaires completed by administrators whose schools contained 75 percent of Maryland’s enrollment in grades 7 through 12, the study reported the number of disruptive student as 15,685, or 5 percent of the total enrollment.
For the Maryland study’s purposes, a disruptive student was defined as one who had committed at least one violent act in school or had been called to the principal’s office at least 10 times for misbehavior. The most common “misbehaviors” were: class disruptions, disobedience, insubordination, tardiness, smoking, fighting, truancy, class cutting, profanity, verbal abuse, leaving campus without permission, and theft. Other, less common offenses ran from vandalism and obscenity to assault, extortion, arson, and “riot participation.
Equally revealing is the number of office referrals and the number of students who are the subjects of such referrals. In seven months of school in 1975, the administrators of 293 Maryland secondary schools reported handling no fewer than 310,000 office referrals. In other words, one third of Maryland’s secondary students were displaying behavior that caused their teachers to refer them to the school office an average of three times within seven months.
Peter Laarman, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, traces the “discipline problem” to an increasing failure by the schools to “reach children at an early age.” “A student whose ego is gratified will not misbehave,” he said. “It’s the student who feels like a captive that you have t watch out for.”
Like many others, Mr. Laarman also blames the deterioration of the family and the increasing inability — or unwillingness — of many parents to set reasonable standards of behavior. “Students who run amok at home will also run amok at school,” he said.
“Everyone has let up on his responsibilities,” said Dr. Scott Thomson, director of research for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Parents, teachers, law enforcement agencies, counselors, principals, administrators, school boards, the courts, and, of course, the students themselves all share in the blame.”
Another measure of the extent of teachers’ and administrators’ concern with disciplinary action is provided by a recent study by the Children’s Defense Fund, estimating that in the academic 1976-1976 year two million secondary schools students — a staggering one in 12 — were either suspended or expelled from the classroom.
Alarmed by the growing number of suspensions — the rehabilitative value of which seems questionable at best — many schools’ systems have tried to develop alternative methods of neutralizing disruptive students or redirecting them before suspension, not to mention corporal punishment, appears necessary.
For instance, McKinley Senior High School, in Baton Rouge, La., has instituted a “behavior-clinic” that provides after-school group and individual counseling. At the clinic, a moderator, trained in human relations and “behavior modification techniques,” listens to students talk about what troubles them and, if possible, offers solutions. The moderator also evaluates student behavior and attitudes and decides when they are ready to “graduate” from the clinic.
Wilde Lake High School, in Columbia, Maryland, has established a program based on psychiatrist William Glasser’s “reality therapy.” When a student breaks a rule teachers and administrators confer with the offender and “contract” with him for acceptable behavior in the future, so that the student himself is aware of the exact consequences of misbehavior.
Other schools stress preventative methods. Officials at Jamaica High School in Jamaica, Queens, say there has been a complete turnaround in student behavior as a result of curricular programs designed to attract previously “turned-off students.” These programs include a “paramedical health careers program,” a “pre-law humanities core” and an independent study field for seniors, as well as expanded art curricula.
“Discipline in the classroom is not something you can impose,” says Aaron Maloff, principal of the school, which has a minority enrollment of almost 50 percent. “Discipline is the result of meeting children’s needs.”