Friday, June 1, 2012

Behavior über alles

The Associated Press reports:
Public schools in Jackson, Mississippi, will no longer handcuff students to poles or other objects and will train staff at its alternative school on better methods of discipline.

Mississippi’s second-largest school district agreed Friday to the settlement with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had sued over the practice of shackling students to a pole at the district’s Capital City Alternative School.
. . .

The Mississippi lawsuit was filed in June 2011 by Jeanette Murry on behalf of her then-16-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It said staffers routinely restrained students for hours for offenses as minor as dress code violations, forcing them to eat lunch while chained to a stair railing and to shout for help when they needed to go to the bathroom.
What can you say about news like that? Given that Jackson’s population is seventy-nine percent black, it’s impossible not to suspect that race plays a large role in that story. But aren’t some other factors at work, too?

The more schools obsess over enforcing behavioral “expectations,” the more frustrated and angry school staff will naturally become with the kids who don’t comply. It’s only a quick step to justifying harsher and harsher treatment of the kids: if they choose not to follow the rules, they get what they deserve. It is a recipe for creating an adversarial, inhumane school environment. It may find some of its worst expression in Jackson, Mississippi, but it’s happening at some level across the country, including in Iowa City.
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19 comments:

Billy Zelsnack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Billy -- I didn't; the demographic info is from Wikipedia. (I should have linked in the post.) The suspicion that it plays a role is my own, but I stand by it.

Billy Zelsnack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

It turns out the Jackson public school population is 97.6% black. I wonder how many 97%-white school districts in the deep South (or anywhere) have been accused of shackling students for hours at a time "for offenses as minor as dress code violations."

I am basing my suspicions on the long history of race relations in the deep South. I think you're being disingenuous in questioning how anyone could suspect that race plays a large role in the use of particularly harsh discipline in an almost entirely black school in Mississippi. I didn't say that the school chose those methods of discipline simply because the students were black; I think that would be reductive and simplistic. But if you're going to pretend that there's no reason to think that race plays a large role in that phenomenon, or that those practices are just as likely to arise in an entirely white school, I think you're being willfully blind.

Billy Zelsnack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

No, I'm coming at it from the idea that being born black in America, and especially in the deep South, carries with it a lot of social disadvantages that make treatment like this a lot more likely than if you are born white. I'm inclined not to put much energy into defending that point, though, if you won't even say whether you're disagreeing with it. Do you think that this kind of discipline for any given offense is just as likely in schools with entirely white student populations?

Billy Zelsnack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Then you and I are just disagreeing about what it means to say that race plays a role. In my view, to the extent that the race of the student population makes the use of harsh discipline more likely, it makes sense to say that race plays a role in that outcome. My sense is that it probably makes it much more likely, so I think it probably plays a large role.

You're agreeing that that kind of discipline is probably less likely in an all-white school. What's your evidence for that suspicion?

Billy Zelsnack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

We can agree on that. I felt the same way about your suggestion that my "suspicion" was not based on any evidence in the article.

But if we agree that this kind of harsh discipline is more likely if the student population is black, then don't we have to wonder about why that is? I do think that the societal disadvantages of being born black are a big part of the explanation. What's your theory?

Chris said...

Meanwhile, Mandy writes in to point out proposed federal legislation to outlaw schools’ use of physical restraint for non-dangerous behavioral infractions and to limit the use of seclusion. She links to a letter of support for the legislation from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, arguing that students with disabilities are particularly likely to be subject to unjustified restraint and seclusion. From the letter:

“The undersigned organizations have serious concerns about a recent report from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) that promotes the use of restraint and seclusion as tools to protect students and school personnel. This report argues that no federal law be enacted and asks to protect the status quo. With no source cited, the AASA simply asserts that 99 percent of school personnel use seclusion and restraint safely and only when needed. This assertion is not supported by any facts.”

The AASA report is here. A report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which found disproportionate use of restraints and seclusion on students with disabilities and on racial and ethnic minorities, is here.

Billy Zelsnack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

I don't understand your argument. I don't know what POS stands for, but more importantly, I don't understand your theory for why a student in a largely black school is more likely to receive harsh treatment for a given infraction than a student in a largely white school is. Can you clarify?

SCF said...

POS= "piece of shit" in my neck of the woods, it's a descriptor for cars, also once in awhile music instruments or gear.

Chris said...

SCF -- Thanks for the info -- though I can't say it helps me understand Billy's argument.

Chris said...

By contrast, here’s how Duluth, Minnesota, disciplined kids who vandalized the school building, spray-painting “profanity, crude depictions of male genitalia and more” on school property and throwing enough eggs at the building to require a full day’s scrubbing, with the total damage estimated at $3500:

“The district quickly identified five students as culprits and could have filed criminal charges against them. But it didn't.

“Instead it leveled punishments that included suspensions, paying restitution, performing community service, meeting with members of the community to talk about what happened and being kept from end-of-year festivities.

“The punishments were meant to ‘allow for some growth opportunities’ and to help the students ‘realize the gravity of the situation,’ as Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. . . .

“There should be - and will be [consequences]. The students will be held accountable for their actions.

“But in a way that doesn’t threaten to derail their entire futures, something felony charges almost certainly would have done. Doors would have slammed shut on certain colleges and on specific careers among other negative potential impacts.”

For what it’s worth, Duluth is 92.7% white and 1.6% African-American.

LAB said...

I thought you might be interested in this completely uncritical article about "managing kids" (complete with photo of police officer!):

Caught doing good: PBIS goes community-wide

http://forestparkreview.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=38&ArticleID=6619

For what it's worth, I was in Catholic school for eight years in the 70s, and not once was anybody in the school hit with a ruler. You hear that charge repeated over and over again, and my understanding is that it did go on in Catholic schools in the past. But I have friends who were "paddled" in public schools in the South as recently as the 1980s (and I suppose it still goes on in some public schools). My Catholic elementary school was much, much less authoritarian than the public school my kids are assigned to today.

Chris said...

LAB -- You prompted me to post a comment on the article, though it would be a full-time job to comment on all the uncritical discussions of things like PBIS.

I went to a Catholic high school in the late-70s/early-80s, and I pretty much concur with your description. It had its share of authoritarian practices, but there was certainly no corporal punishment. (My siblings, who are a good deal older, do remember the days of rulers on the knuckles.) I don't think the school was anything special academically -- in a lot of ways it was probably worse than the available public schools academically -- but I do think it was a kinder and gentler place than the publics would have been.

We certainly had nothing resembling PBIS's patronizing style of behavior management. Instead, there was a general assumption that we were capable of thinking and reasoning about moral and ethical issues -- of doing things because we thought they were the right thing to do, not because we'd get a prize.

Karen W said...

That was my Catholic high school experience too--no rulers and an expectation of development of moral/ethical reasoning.

Re: Forest Park--does anyone else think it might be scary for children to be approached by police officers when they aren't doing anything wrong? I think I would have learned to try to be good but not good enough to attract attention.