There are no easy answers or magical presciptions for finding the right balance on student discipline. It requires extensive thought, thorough research and sincere collaboration by school leaders, teachers and the students themselves.
But finding the right balance should be at the top of the to-do list for Fresno Unified School District when classes resume in January after the winter break because its discipline policies clearly aren’t working in many classrooms.
In fact, some teachers believe that their campuses are spiraling dangerously out of control. They say that students who are are openly defiant, swear or commit more serious offenses such as fighting or bringing drugs to school are quickly returned to the classroom and aren’t held accountable for their actions.
“We can no longer remain silent,” stated a petition signed by teachers at Bullard High School. “We are concerned about the safety of our school site and the well-being of our students. When safety and discipline issues begin to affect the classroom, it’s time for a change.”
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Teachers at Ahwahnee, Tioga, Tehipite and Fort Miller middle schools have signed similar petitions in recent months, The Bee’s Mackenzie Mays reported Dec. 15.
The teachers’ demand for tighter discipline follow the district’s implementation of a “restorative justice” program. This model focuses on early intervention, efforts to identify the reasons behind a student’s disruptive behavior and keeping troubled students in school instead of suspending or expelling them.
Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, told Mays that she supports the restorative justice concept, but that the effort thus far is failing because “what’s happened is that students are learning very quickly that there are no consequences for disruptive behavior.”
At the other end of the discipline scale are zero-tolerance programs, which foster a stable learning environment but increase dropout rates among students who struggle with self-control.
Dropping out, as well all know, is a ticket to a minimum-wage job, jail or worse. Dropouts also pose big costs on scociety – draining the workforce of a potentially skilled individual and often sticking taxpayers with the high price of incarceration.
Thus, for the good of everyone, it is better to give troubled students second and third chances than to show them to the door.
Providing ample opportunities for students to better theselves while maintaining classroom control is a challenge wrestled with by many public school districts. Other Valley school districts – Central Unified and Kings Canyon Unified among them – have adopted their versions of restoratve justice and report varying degrees of success.
The difficulty of finding that sweet spot, however, is exponentially higher for Fresno Unified. Many of the district’s students come from families with a long history of poor choices and few positive role models. Some of these students have little or no respect for lawful authority. And they emulate the defiant, bullying or destructive behaviors exhibited by the adults in their communities.
Few teachers – regardless of how inspirational they are or how much training they’ve received – are capable of controlling that kind of student in the classroom.
Our suggestion is that Fresno Unified trustees plan now for the district to invest a larger percentage of its budget in alternative schools so that troubled students receive the education and counseling they need.
We also suggest that Superintendent Michael Hanson’s administration work more closely with the teachers union on ways to improve the restorative justice program now in place.
Absent a discipline policy that results in safe campuses and positive classroom learning environments, the district most assuredly will see continued flight by families to neighboring districts and private schools.