Last academic year, from the start of school until Winter Break, the school sent 15 written disciplinary reports home to parents. This year, during that same period, the number was 196. Yes, that’s a twelve hundred percent increase.
Last year, during that time, there were no in-school suspensions (technically called “in-school restrictions”). This year, there were 17.
Last year, during that time, there were no out-of-school suspensions. This year, there were three. There were no expulsions in either year.
The superintendent’s office included a letter arguing that no one should use these data for comparison purposes because of the many variables that affect how disciplinary incidents are recorded. I don’t find the argument very convincing, and I’m especially put off by its attempt (foreshadowed by the principal’s emails) to scapegoat the previous principal. Both the superintendent’s letter and the principal’s emails were quick to imply that the previous principal was doing something wrong, but they couldn’t quite get their story straight about what she was doing wrong. On the one hand, the superintendent’s office, like one of the principal’s emails, implies that the previous principal did not keep accurate records of disciplinary incidents. The superintendent’s letter says that last year’s numbers seem “unlikely,” and so it is “likely that the parent contacts were made but not recorded.” At the same time, though, the principal’s emails repeatedly emphasize that there is “a difference in how those behaviors which are bad choices are being handled this year” and that there were “behaviors that should have been worked through in the past and never were.” (And again, many parents have commented on the increase.) So was there a big increase, or not?
It’s true that the numbers for the second half of last year are higher (though still far lower than this year’s): 1 out-of-school suspension, 1 in-school suspension, and 50 disciplinary reports sent home to parents. But it also seems reasonable that the numbers would naturally be higher in the second semester, since you would expect that there would be some warnings given early in the year before the reports kicked in. One can only imagine what the numbers for the second half of this year will be. In any event, you can read the superintendent’s letter, below, and see if you agree that the reported numbers shed no light on whether discipline has steeply increased from last year to this year.
Here’s what I think the most plausible hypothesis is: Last year, we had a principal who used a lighter hand with discipline. Maybe when kids were sent to the principal’s office, she had a serious talk with them, and then sent them on their way. Maybe she put a high value on remaining approachable. Maybe she contacted parents only for serious problems, and then often by phone or in person instead of through an impersonal letter. Maybe she would have balked at the idea of accusing a third-grader of sexual harassment. I certainly had my disagreements with the previous principal, but that approach to discipline seems perfectly reasonable for elementary-school-age children.
This year – although the new principal herself acknowledges that misbehavior has not increased, and that the kids are, “overall, very well-behaved” – somebody decided to step up the use of discipline by several orders of magnitude. Why? We can only guess. The principal seems to believe that this heavy-handed law-enforcement approach to behavior is just what kids need. Another theory is that the district is worried about the racial disparities in its discipline numbers, and has decided to address the issue, not by treating minority kids better, but by treating all the kids harshly. In any case, nobody involved seems interested in how the kids are experiencing this disciplinary crackdown, or how their attitude toward school is affected by this constant emphasis on behavior and discipline, or what values they learn by being subjected to this increasingly authoritarian approach, or whether this policy is creating a negative, adversarial environment in the school.
If the district really believes that this kind of steep increase in discipline and punishment is good for the kids, why doesn’t it just say so? Why does it try to evade the question of whether there’s really been an increase? Why doesn’t it directly address people’s objections to the policy, and defend it publicly? Why didn’t it announce the increase in advance, and try to persuade the community that it was a good idea before imposing it? If it’s such a great idea, what are they worried about?
I should point out that the district did not charge me for compiling the information, as it initially said that it would. Its letter makes a point, though, of saying that the district is under no obligation to compile any more numbers for me. To read the full response, click on the “Read More” link.
The district’s cover letter read:
Attached is a response to your request for information including the three behavior report templates. The behavior report and follow-up agreement are the templates being used this year. The office referral is the template from previous years.I’ve posted each page of the response as a JPEG file. Click the pictures to enlarge them.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.