Progress or Penitentiary: The New Education Quandary

Reading, writing and incivility. Students don’t always leave school on the school bus, some leave in squad cars. Some students’ days don’t end with homework, they end with suspension papers. School administrators know how to handle students who break the rules. It is only when these student’s behaviors escalate beyond school administrative intervention that law enforcement assistance becomes necessary. In the wake of numerous publicized police shootings of unarmed African-Americans around the country, it has become more incumbent upon parents of African-American students to have candid conversations not only about law enforcement interaction, but also about respect for authority and following directives.

Educators in urban schools, as well as many suburban schools, encounter countless incidents of refusal to follow instructions and levels of disrespect towards teachers and school administrators that can be utterly alarming. Schools are places of growth and development, however when the instructional environment is peppered with insolence, belligerence, or acts of affray, offenders are met with consequences. These consequences are issued in an effort to provide lessons, and unfortunately sometimes those lessons are adorned with ‘silver bracelets’. Upon asking a simple question, redirecting, or any other routine communication, a student’s behavior can dictate arrest. However, they are returned to school, not delivered to the morgue.

Although students committing disciplinary infractions are only roughly 10-15% of most school populations, that small number often requires a significant amount of attention from school personnel. When students, particularly African-American students, are rude and disrespectful towards school security, they may lose days of class attendance, when the same offense occurs in the community they may risk losing their lives. While parents are teaching their children the appropriate way to respond to police, they must also instill the lesson that respect for authority is not restricted to the confines of law enforcement interaction. Respect and appropriate behavior must be shown towards school staff as well. Although school is a microcosm of society, the consequences for the offenses committed in school do not replicate the consequences doled out in society. Unfortunately, a bad attitude can cost them their lives.

Working as a high school administrator, I can recall meeting with a set of parents whose son was verbally abusive to a school security officer. The parents’ response was that the officer should have been more polite. That is not the real world. They literally defended their son’s rude and disrespectful behavior towards a person in authority. At that time I took the personal privilege to share with them the potential ramifications of that type of child rearing. It starts at home and must be demonstrated at school. Children, not just African-American, but all children must be taught the importance of respecting authority. Sadly, media reports continue to reveal African-Americans are dying over disrespectful behavior and hostile exchanges. The same student who causes a disruption or displays rude and disrespectful behavior returns to school and is met with an opportunity to start anew. Educators come to know and love these children, our children. We know that “little Bobby” is angry because his upbringing hasn’t been stellar or he feels alone and occasionally he verbally lashes out because he’s hurting. We also know that his flippant tongue does not paint a portrait of a criminal. The patrol officer on the block does not know these things. However, should disrespectful behavior coupled with aggression or assault on school personnel be handled like a skipping class offense? Absolutely not. Abuse of students OR staff is never okay.

School staff is in place to educate and support students, but their jobs do not entail some of the behaviors many are subjected to routinely. For some offenses in school, law enforcement intervention is essential to protecting the learning environment. There have been situations publicized in the media due to the use of excessive force by school officers; these incidents are not the norm, nor are they condoned. A good educator is mindful of emotional baggage and will be supportive of those students, however emotional baggage is not a pass to punch or assault school staff. Schools are supposed to educate students for the world they are graduating into. School discipline problems are getting out of hand in this country. If we as a nation are serious about improving schools and student achievement, we better first get a handle on the serious discipline problems plaguing many of our classrooms. If this does not happen, not only will we continue to lose our children to incarceration and death, we will continue to lose great teachers. Education is not a shade of gray, it’s black and white. Either we prepare children for progress or we prepare them for the penitentiary. Do we want our children adorned with books or adorned with silver bracelets? You decide.

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