Desiyah, a 10th grader, began arguing with one of her classmates about a group project they were working on. The teacher asked her repeatedly to calm down and lower her voice. Desiyah ignored her teacher. Instead, she continued to argue and became increasingly agitated. She used inappropriate language and cursed at her classmate. The two girls faced off in the front of the classroom while other students reached for cell phones to record what was sure to become another one of Desiyah’s legendary fights. The teacher walked over to Desiyah and placed herself between the girls to prevent a physical fight. Desiyah screamed, “Leave me the f–k alone!”

The issue of academic disengagement is essential to any discussion about discipline.  Many behavior problems are actually caused while students are  in school, but are simply not engaged in classroom instruction.

The teacher called security to remove Desiyah from the classroom since she refused to calm down on her own. Security arrived and led Desiyah out of the classroom. The Dean of Students arrived a short time later and attempted to guide Desiyah to his office by placing his hand on her back. Desiyah became even angrier and screamed in the hallway, “Touch me again and I will whoop your ass!” At this point, the Dean tried to physically restrain Desiyah but, she resisted and tried to smack him in the face. Security called the school police officers for assistance. The two officers, one of which was female, told Desiyah to calm down immediately or they would have to cuff her. Desiyah refused to comply. Instead, she continued making threats and screaming profanity in the hallway, loud enough to disrupt classes on the entire first floor of the school. Desiyah was ultimately suspended for her behavior but was also arrested for attempted assault.

Sound familiar? It does if you are a teacher, administrator, social worker, dean or counselor in an urban school. The case of Desiyah describes a scene that plays out too often in the most low-resourced and high-risk schools. Although the name and gender may change, the common denominator is a seemingly small, or at least manageable, issue in the classroom that escalates swiftly and intensely.

In the case of Desiyah, we see how poor classroom management strategies led to the escalation of a level one incident. The results included a classroom that was left out of control after Desiayh left and an arrest for a student who previously had no run-in’s with the law. Desiyah later admitted, when she had calmed down of course, that she should not have cursed at her teacher or the Dean. She also understood the serious nature of threatening to physically harm the Dean when redirected. However, if we look closely at the scenario, we see that when the Dean physically touched Desiyah, it actually intensified the situation. Desiyah may have been more likely to calm down had she not felt a perceived threat.

Yet, in many urban environments, the disciplinary team and security are often trained to physically restrain students who become violent or whose behavior indicates they have lost self-control. They are trained to de-escalate situations including preventing and/or breaking up fights, which can be extremely dangerous work. Indeed, this discussion is not an attempt to minimize the seriousness of the fights that occur in schools. For over five years I served as a hearing officer and listened to horrifying stories of fights, some of which ended in hospital visits. I also saw photos of students who were victims of violent assaults, one extreme case even resulted in a girls’ hair literally being pulled out of her scalp. I do understand that the intensity of these fights cannot be taken lightly and in most cases, administrators and security are doing the best they can in very challenging environments.p>

The Role of Adults in Urban Schools

Rather than an indictment of the adults who deal with these situations daily, my point is to stimulate an important conversation about whether the strategies that are currently being utilized with mostly low-income, minority students, is helping or hurting. Furthermore, teachers and other staff should have access to more intensive training to help curb the incidents that actually originate in the classroom setting.

If a teacher is identified as having a classroom management problem, the administration may provide support for that individual teacher. However, a better response would be to involve all teachers and adults in the building in long-term planning and implementation of a school-wide discipline system. This would decrease the likelihood of teachers creating their own individual policies which may be in conflict with the mission and vision of the school. Furthermore, when teachers create individual behavior systems, they often create more confusion for students who are struggling with self-control.

I noticed vast differences in students’ behavior when I shadowed a student in a predominately African American, low-income high school. The same “frequent flyers” that appeared to get in trouble in almost every class were suddenly transformed into model students in music class. Why was this class so different? There was certainly less traditional structure than in the academic-based classes. More importantly, all students were expected to participate in creating musical pieces. The teacher gave attention to each student and even students who couldn’t sing would pick up instruments, unprompted.

This class was definitely a community and the teacher acted more as a facilitator than the authority figure. I even noted that students waited to record a musical piece until one of their classmates returned from the rest room. Rarely had I experienced a group of high school students who were so willing to collaborate and support each other. This was definitely a teacher who had figured out how to effectively involve students in their own learning process. Students responded by giving the teacher a level of respect that was absent in classrooms where there was a lack of classroom management or where the behavior expectations were rigid or unrealistic.

The Link Between Academic and Behavior Issues

The issue of academic disengagement is essential to any discussion about discipline. Many behavior problems are actually caused while students are in school, but are simply not engaged in classroom instruction. Instruction that is poorly paced, developmentally inappropriate or that lacks rigor, is usually a set up for a classroom that is rampant with behavior problems. Furthermore, classrooms that are devoid of meaningful relationships between the teacher and students can be frustrating for students who need adult mentors.

Another set of students who are often left out of the discussion are the highest performing students in a classroom. These students can easily become a disruption merely because they are uninterested in the academic content and fed up with the low level of instruction. In fact, the Northwest Education Association (NWEA), an organization who administers a computer adaptive assessment to more than 5,000 school districts nationwide, published a notable article about the stagnation that many high performers experience. They found this crisis to be particularly significant in urban environments where students in the 90th percentile and above are simply not being challenged.

As a school or district begins to grapple with the question of discipline, they must be willing to take a hard look at the policies and practices that may cause certain populations to receive the most severe consequences. A discussion about the hidden curriculum of the discipline system is a vital starting place. In other words, what are those practices that are assumed and continue to perpetuate societal stereotypes? The issue of discipline is a complex one, fraught with political and social implications that can be a source of tension for many stakeholders. But we must have those hard conversations, on behalf of minority children who often have no advocates with the political will or economic resources to represent their voices. In the words of orator and civil rights activist, Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Our discipline policies must reflect this sentiment.

Andrea Brown-Thirston, Ph.D. is founder and CEO of Optimal Learning Solutions.

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