Policies on student behavior need overhaul

Published 2019, Providence Business News   |    Melissa A. Ugarte


In the wake of the John Hopkins report that exposed some of the behavioral challenges that affect Providence public schools, there were inevitably other educators across the state who thought to themselves: “This happens in my classroom, too.” In fact, this school-life struggle between youths and adults permeates classrooms across the country.


The report has brought the harsh struggles that have often lurked in the background in Providence to the forefront, and has drawn national attention, too. With this comes a sense of urgency to act and a new opportunity to make things right. In order to seize the moment, however, we must first be willing to acknowledge what isn’t working.


In my 17 years of being a first responder to school-based misbehavior and crisis, in addition to training teachers and administrators nationally, I have encountered two policies driven by critical misunderstandings that saturate our academic infrastructure and prohibit substantive change: the shift in the historic student-teacher construct and zero-tolerance policies.


The traditional teaching methods of the past delivered identical instruction to every student, where a teacher was strictly the giver of knowledge, and whose authority was never questioned because they simply knew more. In addition, the celebration of students’ social cultures was historically considered the family’s responsibility, not the school’s. This construct is outdated and no longer works. Today, information is at our fingertips; family and community social ills are more widely exposed; communities are increasingly diverse; and our imbalanced society leaves students with needs that far outweigh available resources.


Another reality is that zero-tolerance policies designed to punish kids into better behavior simply do not work today. In the last two decades, when less-severe infractions chronically occurred, we stigmatized youths through extreme and harsh punishments, such as suspensions for wearing a hood in class or for quietly roaming the halls after the bell. Over the years, we processed students through a punitive matrix that communicated to them, and their families, that they didn’t belong. Through this exclusion, we have taught youths that we lack confidence in our own ability to make the subtle judgement calls that it takes to manage low-risk conflict. Not surprisingly, this sent the signal that our practitioner style couldn’t be trusted in general. Generationally, we undermined our ability to teach students accountability because we are now educating the children of those who were harmed by the simplistic zero-tolerance policies years ago. The consequences in our schools and communities of those adult-wary youths are now hard to ignore.


Within our current educational realm, schools need an effective series of interventions to discipline and problem-solving that include approaches based on relationships. Effective practices create conditions where everyone can succeed. They widen the range of options for handling less-serious infractions by prioritizing relationships when school misconduct occurs. Even when consequences are warranted, they allow us to see each other as social-emotional human beings. When implemented effectively, restorative practices encourage stakeholders to move in the direction of long-lasting change that replaces approaches dating back to colonial times with models that include empathy – and basic humanity.



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