A Parent’s Question about Punishment in Schools

I receive a lot of email and have a lot of conversations with concerned parents, people who know that their childrens’ rights are being violated or that Youth Voice is being suppressed or any of a number of bad, bad things. Sometimes it is overwhelming; sometimes enlightening. Following is an email I received last night:

My daughter was “sentenced” to Saturday work detail (picking up garbage after a Friday night football game) for talking in class. This occurred without any due process. There were no warnings, no “in school” punishment handed out and the “dean” of discipline told my daughter that when he receives a complaint from a teacher (called a referral) he automatically believes the teacher and not the student. there are probably 25 or more of these a day handed out. In addition, the school that she attends (public school) has a “wall” labeled in BIG letters “THE WALL” where the students who had referrals must line up against to receive their assigned punishments. (in this case, my daughter contends she was one of many students talking during an in class “lab” type assignment where students are paired up to collect personal information from each other (by talking). There was no loud speaking during class, no swear language, nothing that should rise to this level of punishment. We recently moved here. My daughter has never had problems with discipline or otherwise, and is a 4.0 college bound senior. The dean who handed down the punishment suggested to my daughter that she should drop this class if she believes she is being unfairly singled out by the teacher. This is the second school official to tell her this. Doesn’t she have the right to protect her transcripts that have already been sent to colleges (by not dropping out). Several issues here seem like a violation of her civil rights. am I right ? I have spoken to school officials who say this is how they handle these situations. what can I do?

The following is my response:

If your daughter is receiving the treatment that you described it is bordering child abuse, and according to the United Nations it is definitely corporal punishment. It is too bad that situations like this have to occur in order to bring light to the situation, but this country is too big and its schools are too big to bring light to every injustice at once. That said, the unfortunate reality is that long ago courts decided that schools operate in loco parentis, meaning that when you’re not there they can act as parents. Furthermore, in 22 states schools retain the right to physically punish students at their own discretion and without consent of parents. The Supreme Court has continuously ruled that schools retain the right to limit the civil liberties of students in – and out – of schools. However, as your daughter’s scenario shows, school discipline is generally in a pathetic situation, and one that we, as parents, should not and cannot continue to allow.

There are alternatives to the ways that schools treat students, including methods teachers and administrators can use to actually teach students. In big cities and small towns across the country, parents and students and teachers and school board members are actually doing good through student discipline. Not all programs are radical; some are subtle changes, and some are just wrong. But the common thread is that things are changing.

In your daughter’s particular circumstance I’m not able to say what the next best steps are. I would encourage you to remember this: Schools are instruments in a democracy, and democracy CAN create change in schools. This requires you, as a parent and school community member, to DO something. If you have attempted to discuss this situation with your school’s principal and other administration, and they have not responded, I would suggest that you attempt to identify the person in your local school district office who is responsible for discipline – every district has one. If that person is not responsive, then contact your district superintendent. If you do not get an answer to your satisfaction from that person, then I suggest that you contact your local school board member. That person is elected by the public to represent the public’s interest in schools. If that person fails to answer your questions or meet your needs, you have several routes to take: There is a state-level official in every state in the nation who has the job of answering these types of concerns from parents. They may be an ombudsman or a state education agency official – but regardless of where they are, they are ultimately accountable to YOU as a parent. Their bosses are either a “chief state school officer” or the governor. Every state also has a state board of education that is generally elected by the public and generally accountable to the public.

If all those steps fail then you MUST run for school board and change this policy from the inside. The end run is that may be your only choice – to use the instruments of democracy to change a democratic institution. Good luck.

I don’t know if this was the best response – but it is what I know and believe: Public schools are not going to behave more democratically until the public demands they behave more democratically. We – parents, students, concerned community members – have allowed them to be autocratic, dictatorial institutions for too long, and we must hold them accountable for that. Transparency: I am not blameless here. I work in a public agency and am responsible for including students, parents and concerned community members in my work, and I have not been particularly successful in each of those categories thus far. I know how challenging this is; however, it does not let us off the hook.

As usual, let me know what you think.

3 comments

  1. I agree with most of your response here, especially regarding this parent’s need to become truly involved in her daughter’s school and work to make positive changes. I do take exception, though, with relating the school’s discipline in this case with abuse. It does seem, from the parent’s description, that this particular instance of discipline is unduly harsh given the described the offense, you do not do the cause of preventing abuse any favors by equating manual labor with child abuse. By your reasoning, it seems that I am abusing my daughter by making her clean her room! Of course children have a right to be protected from abuse, and teens generally garner increased rights given their age, however I don’t think such extreme positions do anyone any good.

  2. Thanks for your response Rob – I always like to hear from folks in response to these posts.

    I shouldn’t have handed out the charge of “child abuse” so patly here – however, I do think that is what it is. The reason is the outcome of the punishment, rather than the punishment itself. When a parent hands down a sentence at home there is a different outcome than when a principal does at school. So if you make your child pick up the trash in the yard that’s one thing; however just or unjust it may be, the effects of this individual incident likely will not extend beyond the house. However, when the principal of this school sentenced the student to trash detail on a Saturday, s/he [potentially] effectively damaged that students reputation with her peers, her teachers, and in many cases, her parents, not to mention the colleges she is applying to. In this way the principal caused the student mental anguish, to which the student was forced to subject herself.

    By ignoring the consequential effects of punishment many school administrators effectively undermine their own best intentions to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for their students. Worst still, they actually further aggravate their efforts by oftentimes alienating and/or ostracizing those students who could potentially be great allies in creating meaningful school cultures.

    There are better ways to deal with these situations, and educators must call themselves to the higher purposes of their profession. All that said, when I see a dog I’m going to call it a dog. This situation is definitely a dog.

  3. Adam, I agree with your differentiation regarding the picking up of the garbage in your reply to Rob.

    Children can be assigned tasks either by their parents, their teachers or the principal. But the motivation should be clear and the goal uplifting. If it results in emotional trauma or mental anguish to the child, then it’s child abuse and we should call it as such. The lack of due process only serves to underscore the oppressive nature of the punishment.

    Your blog should be required reading for education policy makers in the Philippines starting from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Secretary Jesli Lapus of the Department of Education, Chairman Emmanuel Angeles of the Commission on Higher Education, all people working under them and all school administrators and teachers.

    Parents and students, of course, are included. They will benefit a lot from the ideas you so clearly express.

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