Friday, October 2, 2009

We need a clear plan for disciplining our kids

If you've ever watched Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader, you've probably been stumped by a fair amount of the questions that throw at the contestants. Some of them are bloody hard, but that's good - it prepares our kids for much tougher things, like reading the Code of Conduct for the New Paltz Central School District.

Some background: every year the Health Advisory Committee, a group of faculty, parents, and community members appointed by the Board of Education, review and revise the district's code of conduct. Then the Board reviews what they say, and approve some form of it.

What the actual Code ends up being is a Gordian knot of vague statements supported by endless appendices that is damned near impossible to decipher. The actual Code lays out what's expected, because it frames it in a positive light. However, this means that one might want to look up in a stressful hurry - say, what happens when you or your kid is accused of doing something wrong - you discover it all crammed in the back, as if it were an afterthought. To make things even more fun, the list of prohibited conduct is one appendix, and the consequences comprise another one entirely. What this means is that you have to find the bad behavior in Attachment C, and then cross-reference it against the list of punishments in Attachment D.

I'm sure that all of these hard-working volunteers have the very best of intentions, but it makes me recall the joke about a camel being a horse built by committee. And the organization of the document hides some even more troublesome facts.

When I was a kid, it was universally accepted that there could be no more terrible punishment than having to sit quietly in a room, doing nothing, for an entire school day. Okay, maybe some schoolwork if you were lucky enough to have a teacher send some down (and you'd be begging for that to happen after a couple of hours), but no talking, standing, moving, singing, sleeping, leaving, or enjoying was permitted. There were always tales about that really bad kid who decked the principle and got expelled, but that was serious stuff - it never happened to someone you knew or anything.

I'm finding that in the New Paltz Code of Conduct, the phrase "permanent suspension" (which sounds like Newspeak for "expelled") is popular - it's a listed consequence for twenty-four different offenses, ranging from violence and theft to lying and using an MP3 player. I emailed the superintendant on September 18 requesting some fairly detailed information about how often this and related consequences (suspension from school, as opposed to in school suspension) were actually meted out last school year; as of this writing I haven't even heard whether or not she intends on supplying me with those data.

Removing a misbehaving child from the classroom is often a good idea, and in extreme circumstances I'm sure it's useful to keep them out of the building, too. But in a world were parents have to work, being sent home isn't so much a punishment as it is an abdication of responsibility. If a kid brings a weapon to school, of course the first priority is safety, but shouldn't the second be to figure out what's up with this kid? That might be harder if they're, oh, wandering the streets for an extra four hours a day (figuring two hours a day is being spent with a district-supplied tutor). If it's serious enough to keep the kid out of school, it should also be serious enough to keep the kid in a juvenile hall or psychiatric facility. Any kid that isn't in one of those categories shouldn't be sent home as a reward for "Engaging in any willful act that disrupts the normal operation of the school community." (prohibited conduct A9).

So my concerns about the existing Code of Conduct are three:
  1. It's so badly organized as to appear to be deliberately confusing,
  2. It permits removal of children from school when that may be detrimental to both the child and the community, and
  3. It provides so much latitude in meting out punishments that a child could be expelled for lying (prohibited conduct D1).
Let's keep the kids in the classroom, or at least the school, unless it's dangerous to do so - and get those kids the help they need, instead. Understanding that the current Code provides flexibility so that an administrator won't find her hands tied when she needs to act, let's take another look at whether or not the punishment fits the crime. And to make any of that possible, let's make some real changes to how the Code reads, so that's it's understandable to the layman instead of the lawyer.

Otherwise, what are we teaching our kids?


Martin McPhillips said...

Dangerous post, Terence. You've stepped into the mountain of buried premises, like the innocent archeologist who just wants to grab a few artifacts from the tomb and expects to get back out.

My advice is to delete the entry and not to look back.

Terence said...

Tough questions with even tougher answers, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be asked, Martin. Think of it as another way to see how your tax dollars are being managed.

Brittany Turner said...

nice work, terence. this is why you're one of my original gadfly, unlike other gadfly-wannabes who are merely pundits.

Brittany Turner said...


Martin McPhillips said...

Well, at your own risk, Terence.

But here's a bolt cutter:

It might help.