Tag Archives: discipline

Suspended for a tweet?

Suspended for a tweet

In Michigan, a student was suspended for using ‘profanity’ in a tweet that encouraged his district superintendent to clear the snow in the school parking lot. In Maine, a high schooler was suspended for tweeting that poor student treatment by administrators meant that “they’re asking to be the next Columbine.” And in Florida, a student was suspended for ‘cyberbullying’ a coach with a single tweet that allegedly just reciprocated the same insult that the coach had called her earlier.

As these and other instances show, one of the more recent challenges for school administrators is students’ use of social media to express their opinions. As Deron Durflinger, Superintendent of the Van Meter (IA) Community Schools notes,

The world we live in today provides ample opportunities for everyone to express their opinions on a variety of topics through social media. The focus in our district is always on helping kids learn how to use the tools that they have at their disposal in the appropriate manner. We want them to share what they are thinking, but we want to help teach them the right way to do it.

What Durflinger describes is frequently a difficult task and it’s not altogether clear that we’re navigating an appropriate balance between school concerns and students’ constitutional rights, particularly when our youth express themselves off campus.

Private schools have it easier – their ability to regulate student and educator speech is governed by contract. If they wish to enact tighter regulations, they merely change the attendance contract and then families decide whether they wish to comply or go elsewhere. Public schools, on the other hand, must navigate a whole host of constitutional protections, state laws, and court decisions.

The general parameters are relatively clear for public school administrators who face student speech situations. The U.S. Supreme Court said in its landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision that the default rule is that students have constitutional speech rights and that schools must respect those absent a ‘material and substantial disruption’ to the school environment. Later Supreme Court cases articulated some additional exceptions, saying that schools can regulate student speech if it is vulgar and on school grounds, part of the school curriculum, or advocates at a school-sponsored event for the use of illegal drugs.

The same speech that may result in discipline at school, however, often can’t be regulated if at occurs at home. For instance, a school can’t suspend a student for swearing in his backyard even though it could at school. Similarly, a student that expressed unhappiness with her teacher verbally to her friends at home wouldn’t be disciplined, so it’s unclear why putting the same statement in electronic form makes a legal difference. The requirement of a ‘material and substantial disruption’ still applies.

This doesn’t mean that students can say whatever they want off campus. Student threats to cause real harm – like the implied threat in Maine – typically aren’t protected. And sometimes students fall under codes of conduct that accompany extracurricular participation. But in general, students are allowed to have opinions and they’re allowed to express those opinions, particularly when they’re not in school. School leaders can’t suspend students for off campus speech just because they don’t like what they said or how they said it.

Accordingly, I’m not certain that the Michigan student should have been suspended. Yes, he could have been more polite. And, yes, he could have used different wording. But the ‘profanity’ he used was on the lower end of the offensiveness scale (we hear it on network TV, for instance) and there’s not any indication that he was being anything other than a cheeky youth at home. (know any of those? if so, do they deserve suspension?) The suspension of the Florida youth is similarly troubling, particularly if her coach had used the phrase about her first (double standard?) and since bullying typically is legally defined as a pattern of behavior over time, not a single incident.

There are many more examples worth mentioning. The school hockey team captain in Alaska who made racist and homophobic comments on Twitter on his own time. The Wisconsin student who tweeted “eat sh-t” to the state high school athletic association. The Washington student who tweeted the same to the school superintendent. The 20 Oregon students who were suspended for retweeting. And the 12 Colorado students who were disciplined for ‘liking’ a fairly innocuous tweet from a classmate. All of these raise important issues about the balance between school concerns and student rights.

Yes, we want to help students learn polite and appropriate communication. And, yes, we want to prevent bullying. But we also must remember that the First Amendment is intended to protect speech that is unpopular and maybe even upsetting. We must recognize that students have a constitutional right to free expression – sometimes even when it’s coarse, antagonistic, or hurtful – particularly when it is off school grounds. The Supreme Court said in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette:

That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.

As school leaders, we must take seriously our obligations to comply with the law, educate our students and communities, and model democratic citizenship and the protection of Constitutional rights. As Durflinger notes, “We can’t get caught up in putting rules into place that not only might violate student rights but also really only apply to 1 to 2 percent of our students. In other words, ‘don’t kill a fly with a sledge hammer.’” If the moral / ethical / legal / administrative angle isn’t persuasive enough, consider also whether we wish to pay six-figure settlements to our students for infringing upon their legal rights.

Let’s advocate that our students be more thoughtful when they tweet. And let’s be more thoughtful too about our own responses…

[cross-posted at Front and Central]

Image credit: Twitter (via Cañon City Daily Record)

Bribing children to take our tests

Bribe

It’s standardized testing season again in American schools. And that means it’s also time for many schools to bribe and punish their children into submission because those tests are ones they don’t want to take.

Over the past couple of decades, the political stakes attached to standardized testing have accelerated greatly. So too have teachers’ and administrators’ concerns about their schools’ scores. As a result, there now exists a staggering range of ‘motivational’ efforts that attempt to get students in a positive mindset about testing. For instance, a search for ‘test prep rally’ on YouTube returns over 250 videos of school plays, lip synced songs, and ‘Slam the Exam’ concerts. On Pinterest and at Teachers Pay Teachers, educators can download and attach to candy over 40 different cute, motivational phrases such as ‘You were MINT to succeed’ or ‘You’re a STARBURST of knowledge’ or ‘It’s CRUNCH time. Show what you know!’ At Minds in Bloom, schools can get tips about costuming, audience participation, songs, dances, cheers, jokes, skits, videos, and slide presentation decks for their own test prep rallies. They also can hire the Morris Brothers to perform original songs and share their testing strategies and stress reduction tips. Or they can tap into the numerous other web sites that will help them implement raffles, revise song lyrics, make posters with test taking tips, and stage Are You Smarter Than Your Teachers? game shows.

More troublesome are the post-test ‘celebrations of learning’ that are available only to certain children. A Colorado school made the news recently for its plans to reward those students who show up for every testing day and ‘try their hardest’ (one can only imagine how that will be measured), despite state laws that allow students to opt out of state testing without penalty. As Alfie Kohn reminded us long ago, the withholding of a reward is most certainly a punishment, particularly in the eyes of young children. Is it kind and sensible for educators to preclude from the fun those children who exercised their legally-protected rights? Similarly, I know of a school in Iowa that kept half a dozen of its eight hundred students back from its trip to the video game / bowling / laser tag center because the principal felt that they hadn’t given their best effort on the state exams. Do you think those students ‘learned their lesson’ and will ‘try harder’ next year? Or will they merely be resentful and see the punishment as just another example of their school’s lack of support for their learning challenges?

The justification in all of these cases is that the tests are ‘important,’ that the schools can face potential penalties for poor performance or lack of participation, and that students need to take the assessments seriously. But how seriously should the students take them? After all, our children don’t get any noticeable, tangible benefits from these exams. It’s not as if they can get the questions afterward, see what they missed, get timely feedback on how they did, and get learning assistance from their teachers. All they receive is a meaningless-to-them set of numbers, bar charts, and percentile rankings 4 to 6 months later, typically in their next year of schooling when it’s much too late to really be helpful. And if they attempt to discuss in any way what the questions were and how they think they should have solved them, they get in trouble for ‘cheating’ or ‘violating test security.’ Moreover, the testing windows are artificial events that get inserted into – and usually disrupt the pacing and flow of – the school year. They also often suck up all of the school computers and Internet bandwidth for weeks on end, taking away technology-enriched learning opportunities.

Let’s face it, these assessments are rarely seen by children as a natural outgrowth of their learning. Instead, they are high pressure, high stress activities that are forced upon them by their school systems. These tests are for adults, plain and simple. And while some students may be eager to please their teachers or ‘help out’ their school, it’s hard to argue with those who weigh differently where they want to place their time, effort, energy, and attention. After all, if we have to bribe or punish our students into taking our exams, that’s probably a sign that we need more meaningful assessments…

What do test prep and student ‘motivation’ efforts look like in your school?

[A modified version of this post is at TrustED under the title, Test prep rallies, ’slam the exam’ concerts, and other testing season follies

Image credit: BRIBE, Alpha Bravo Foxtrot

Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?

Deluxe teacher grading kit

When I was in high school, we didn’t have an ‘open campus.’ We were supposed to stay at school and eat our lunches in the cafeteria. Many of us would drive off anyway, hoping that we could make it back in time for our next class. We often were late because of the distance between our school and the fast food joints. But since I ran with a crowd of ‘good kids’ who got high grades and were heading off to college, we could stroll into class late – sometimes with coffee or an ice cream cone for our teachers – and suffer no adverse consequences. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the privilege I enjoyed simply by being a white, male, middle class, high-achieving student (or that I ‘earned’ by being mostly compliant).

Fast forward thirty years… Today we see a number of ‘no excuses discipline’ schools – particularly in urban school districts – that punish students for the slightest noncompliance. Tardy to class? Shoelace untied? Not walking quietly enough? Failing to follow the taped line in the hallway? A stripe on your sock? Slouching? The wrong color undershirt? Not raising your hand with a straight elbow? Rolled-up sleeves on your school uniform? Not tracking the speaker with your eyes? ‘Willful defiance,’ however arbitrarily defined? Yelling, shaming, assignments that get ripped up, public tracking charts, demerits, detention, suspension, expulsion, and numerous other academic and disciplinary punishments await…

Critics of these schools note that the children who attend them invariably are ‘other people’s children.’ They’re not the children of the white middle class. They’re typically black, brown, and poor. And the folks who often are the strongest advocates of these kinds of schools would never, ever send their own children there. But, you know, ‘those children’ need more structure. ‘Those children’ need that kind of discipline because they don’t get it at home. Hey, don’t blame us, those parents ‘chose’ that kind of environment for their children. And so on…

But here’s the thing: educators and parents who are aghast at these ‘no excuses’ schools need to recognize that most traditional schools aren’t much better. The discipline may be slightly less draconian for most students, but the heavy emphasis on punishments and rewards remains for virtually all students. In most schools students lack significant agency, are told what to do nearly every minute of every day, rarely have meaningful choice or input into their own learning environments, and are punished by teachers and/or administrators if they don’t comply with whatever is demanded of them. Students can tell you how disrespectful, disempowering, and apathy-inducing these environments can be. It’s pretty stifling to have so little choice in what you learn. And it can be soul-killing to be 17 years old and still need permission to use the bathroom. So, yes, like for myself, the ‘good kids’ may be afforded a smidgen of leeway and autonomy that seems utterly lacking in the ’no excuses’ schools. And, yes, traditional schools – back in my day and now – may be a little less worrisome because the penalties usually are slightly less severe. But when it comes to our disciplinary practices, we need to climb down from our pedestals because the differences are mostly a matter of degree, not orientation.

My University of Colorado Denver faculty colleague, Dr. Manuel Espinoza, has been talking with us about the concept of student dignity – about the idea of affording students basic, inalienable rights of autonomy and respect. Not because they comply with our demands. Not because we bribed or forced them. Not because the economic need for self-directed workers has never been higher. But simply because our children are human beings – precious, unique individuals – who deserve to be cherished and treated as such rather than as mere objects of our desires for control and order (no matter how well-meaning our motives are). To quote Manuel, “What would it mean for schools to treat children as if they were of supreme value, of invaluable exchange?” And, no, this doesn’t mean chaos and anarchy in our schools…

Learning environments that empower students as meaningful contributors and choice-makers – that recognize and treat students as worthy of basic dignity – look very different than those that view students as unable or unwilling partners and/or problems to be managed. Which views predominate in your school system? And before you answer, ask yourself 1) what alternatives to punishment/reward disciplinary systems do you see around you, 2) how many times a day and in how many ways is a student’s basic dignity disrespected, 3) what happens when a student disagrees or doesn’t comply with a classroom or school behavior policy, and 4) who gets to make and enforce the policies in the first place.

Compliance remains the central goal

Alfie Kohn said:

Whether or not it’s stated explicitly, compliance remains the central goal of most classroom management programs, character education initiatives, and parenting resources. Sure, we stress the virtues of independent thinking and assertiveness, but mostly in the context of getting kids to resist peer pressure. If a child has the temerity to resist unreasonable rules and demands imposed by adults, well, then, bring on the “consequences” (read: punishments) to “hold them accountable for their behavior.”

What is so offensive about Skinnerian programs like PBIS or Class Dojo isn’t just their methods, which amount to extended exercises in manipulation, but their goal, which is to elicit mindless obedience.

via http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/26/how-to-teach-students-not-to-do-everything-they-are-told

Trading pills for recess

Recess

Janelle Wilson said:

For some reason, we have traded sunshine, wind on our faces, and running for more desk time and tests. Magically, older students no longer need to move and run. That’s what we pretend anyway. We’ve even started pretending that elementary students don’t need recess either, and then we wonder when our kids can’t sit still. Instead of prescribing some time outside in the fresh air, we prescribe pills for hyperactivity.

via http://mrswilsonscience.com/stretchingforward/is-it-time-to-stop-pretending-aprilblogaday-makeschooldifferent

Image credit: First Friday of School, Bruce McKay

William’s pseudochoice: Obey or suffer

Beyond discipline

A teacher wrote to a parent:

William had several hours to complete an assignment but chose not to. He will be sent to the room of opportunity for 90 minutes tomorrow to complete it. If he chooses not to finish it, it will be a zero. Not the best way to start the semester…

Messages like this occur every day in schools: You chose to get a bad grade. You chose to be punished. You chose to be separated from your peers. Alfie Kohn reminds us that this is a ‘fundamentally dishonest, not to mention manipulative, attribution [whereby] … children are told, in effect, that they wanted to have something bad happen to them.’

There is no way that we can justify these ‘obey or suffer’ messages under the guise of ‘student choice.’ The only choice that William has here is to 1) do what the teacher wants, or 2) be punished. Neither is something he would freely choose on his own. The teacher’s language is a threat that hides under the cover of student free will and it is disingenuous (Kohn calls it a ‘pseudochoice’). If we are going to exercise our power and authority over students and force them to do our will, we should at least be honest about it.

Here’s how I might rephrase this teacher’s message:

William didn’t want to do something that I asked him to do, likely because he found it meaningless and boring. Rather than working with William to find a learning project that better aligns with his talents and interests, I am instead going to try and force William to do the perceived-as-worthless task by isolating him from his friends and peers. If social isolation doesn’t work, I am going to punish him further and will continue to do so until he modifies his behavior and is compliant with my wishes. I am letting you know so that you hopefully will help me vanquish his resistance.

Of course this message is much more difficult to send to a parent. Thus the masking language…

What are your thoughts on William’s ‘choice’ and the ‘room of opportunity?’