School Discipline: The Truth

By: Adam Sutton

I want you to meet Ian.  Ian is a pain in the ass.

Every day Ian disrupts my classroom.

Today, he had a bag of chips.  Neither the bag nor the chips were a major issue.  But, his throwing them into the air and catching them in his mouth and letting out a big “WAHOO!” after each successful toss and an equally loud stomping and slamming of his chair with each miss served to be sufficiently distracting to most others in the room. 

Any request to put the chips away or, heaven forbid, throw the chips away was met with disdain. Loud disdaining.  “I’m hungry!”  “Lunch is too short!”

Yesterday, he stole a notebook from another student’s desk.  He ran around the room claiming the student was attacking him. 

Last week, he made it into class and through the first 5 minutes.  When confronted with listening to a peer read a passage of The Declaration of Independence aloud, he proceeded to start belting out the lyrics to Nicky Minaj’s “Starships.”

My personal favorite was the day he took his shoes off, snuck up behind his buddy Lenny and placed his shoes under Lenny’s chair.  He hoped his shoes would be stinky enough to attract a lot of attention.  When they didn’t stink enough and there was no attention given, Ian proceeded to yell out his intended plans thereby riling up a class somewhat focused on examining the struggles of the first colony at Jamestown.

Most days with Ian aren’t epic.  They are just tiresome and exhausting.  Most days the problem isn’t Ian alone.  It’s the way Ianisms are contagious.  His behaviors spread to other students who otherwise would be focused on improving their academic skills.  A class of 25 thirteen year olds is challenging as is.  Add Ian to the mix, and it becomes nearly impossible. 

It’s December, and Ian’s behavior is the same as September. 

I’ve tried lots of things:

Positioning myself next to him when he is being disruptive

Kneeling down to redirect him while a classmate is reading aloud

Moving him to the cool down chair in class

Removing him to the cool down chair outside the classroom door

Calling mom

Calling dad

Calling on Ian for every question to get his take

Ignoring his every word and movement

Seeking him out in the morning just to welcome him to school and wishing him a great day

Sending him to the office

Removing him to a buddy room

Assigning him lunch detention in my classroom

Designing questions about his favorite sport, baseball, around our content.  How does a baseball team respond when one of their batters is hit intentionally by a pitch?  Do the American colonists seem like the pitcher or the plunked batter?

Writing him notes of encouragement

Stopping him in the hallway when he picks up a buddy’s pencil to let him know that was kind and he should do it again

Positioning his seat close to my desk

Positioning his seat far from my desk

Isolating him in a seat far from others

Surrounding him with my brightest, most focused students

Letting him choose his seat

In short, I’ve tried everything I can think of.

I haven’t yelled at him. I don’t yell.  If I’m so angry as to be yelling, something has gone terribly wrong and a student is about to cease existing.  I’ve lost control of myself.  Students can be out of control.  I cannot.  I won’t yell at him. 

Even with my attempts to improve his behavior, I haven’t the foggiest about what’s causing it.  No matter where or when I catch him, I can’t get him to focus on a few questions for more than a minute. 

Maybe he’s gay and has a crush.  And maybe, his dad is the type to send a gay son to conversion therapy. 

Maybe his dad died last summer and his mom has taken to 16oz cans of Budweiser forgetting he exists.

Maybe mom is at home dying from cancer, and he gets home every day to help her get to the bathroom and feed her since dad bolted when he was 3. 

Maybe mom and dad dropped him at school one morning in the 3rd grade and never showed up again.

Maybe he has a disorder requiring medical care, but his family lacks medical insurance or the means to get quality care. 

Maybe he can’t read.

Maybe he’s a 13 year old with a 16 year old’s body, a 7 year old’s brain and can’t figure up from down.

Maybe he doesn’t have a single place in his school day where he does something that captures his curiosity like coding or woodworking or welding. 

In general, schools have 3 options for dealing with Ian. 

Option #1 is to boot Ian out of class, send him to In School Suspension (ISS), Out of School Suspension, ban him from all extracurricular activities, and, eventually, find an alternative placement for him with the other pains in the ass. 

On the positive side, option #1 allows teachers to teach those remaining students in class now that Ian is removed.  Additionally, it’s cheap and easy to implement.  It doesn’t require much additional staffing—a scary old guy for ISS not withstanding—and when Ian screws up: give him the boot.  It’s a simple system for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. 

But, option #1, for all its simplicity, doesn’t help Ian.  Ian remains a pain in the ass.  In fact, since most of option #1 involves huddling all the pains in the ass together, they accept their fate and act accordingly.  Unless something dramatic happens by chance, Ian’s irresponsibility chases him into adulthood, and he epitomizes the school to prison pipeline. Booting him defers the cost of Ian’s care until he causes real trouble later in life. 

Next to option #1, option #2 is complicated.

Option #2 recognizes the weaknesses of simply kicking Ian out of class and school.  It seeks to mold Ian while he is young so that he can be a productive adult. 

This approach identifies, recognizes and cares for Ian’s social and emotional needs.  A phalanx of professionals is conscripted to help Ian cope with all manner of problems causing him to act out: counselors, social workers, mentors, aides, psychologists, and other physical and mental health professionals.  Compared to the old curmudgeon staffing ISS, option #2 is ripe with costs and specialized skills.  The hope is that as a youngster these interventions avoid the costs of incarceration later and enable Ian to be an asset to his family and community. 

It’s a robust, humane, impressive, and even honorable option.  

Then, there is option #3, which is the one currently employed by school systems.  We shun option #1 as abusive and detrimental to student growth.  We tell everyone how we treat every student as an individual, assessing and addressing their every need like in option #2.  But, instead of that phalanx of professionals, teachers are tasked with saving Ian—and the other 100 students in their care each day.  Blame Ian’s teachers for sure.  They are failing, but who wouldn’t in their position?

Option #3 leaves Ian running roughshod over classrooms all day, every day.

Option #3 not only enables and encourages Ian, it gives freedom to Ian’s less traumatized peers to join his fun.  It also causes angst for the affluent parents of Ian’s classmates.  They worry, rightly so, about Ian’s detracting from their child’s education and imposing safety risks on their kids at school.  These parents have the means to afford a private school education, and if they go that route, we erode the awesomeness that is a public education system. 

So, yes, Ian is still a pain in the ass.  And, we are doing nothing to change it.  

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