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COLUMN

Is schools' new discipline policy all it's cracked up to be?

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The Fort Report

This week's show will feature City Council President Tom Smith, who will discuss Fort Wayne's proposed condemnation of Aqua Indiana, possible tax increases and other issues. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

What should be done to kids who haven't been taught how to behave?

Saturday, December 8, 2012 - 11:21 am

In a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling suggested that failure to confront small, manageable problems – a broken window in this case – produces larger, far more intractable social challenges later on.

In some ways, the Fort Wayne Community Schools' new code of conduct represents the antithesis of the “broken window” theory. And while it's premature to grade its effectiveness, it's not too early to lament the justification offered for it or the reality it reflects.

“We need to understand where students come from. They may come from different environments that where you or I come from,” explained district spokeswoman Krista Stockman. “We can't assume kids know the rules. Many don't.”

Hence the policy with a name only a bureaucrat could love. The “Culturally Responsive Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” plan reflects the desire to teach students how to behave in a socially acceptable way before punishing actions they may not know are wrong.

“Once we know they know, we will hold them accountable,” Stockman said.

Even though that rationale would create chaos in the adult world where ignorance of the law is not considered an excuse, it makes a certain amount of sense in a school setting, where the intent should be to keep students in the classroom whenever possible.

And so, in some categories, the maximum penalty for misbehavior in the lower grades is less severe than for older students who, in theory, should know better. And all categories of offense offer the district four options, ranging from discipline by teachers for low-level infractions to suspension, expulsion or referral to police for violations that “seriously affect the learning environment or the safety of students or others.”

That doesn't represent leniency, Stockman said. “We want to maintain a safe environment where all can learn.”

But to Lisa Olinger, the most consistently conservative member of the FWCS Board (at least until Glenna Jehl's arrival in January), the policy puts too much burden for discipline on teachers and may allow disruptive or abusive students to remain in class – conditions that would negatively affect teachers students who actually want to learn. And for students who come to school under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they will not automatically be reported to the police.

“If it happened on the street, the police would deal with it,” Olinger said.

Although possession of illegal substances does require police involvement, Stockman said a response to students under the influence that does not require a legal response is intended in part to encourage students to view in-school “resource officers” as sources of help, not as threats. Counseling is mandatory under such circumstances, however, and students are suspended pending a conference with parents.

In theory, the policy makes sense. A student sitting in the principal's offense for a relatively minor offense isn't receiving instruction from the teacher. But whether such students learn more about the need for better behavior by being corrected by teachers and remaining in the classroom – possibly to cause further disruption and distraction – remains to be seen.

Despite some criticism that minority students are disproportionately disciplined, Stockman said the policy will be consistently applied to all students, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. But she also said school officials will base their responses to each student's specific needs.

“We don't want students seen as non-compliant to routinely be sent out of the classroom and labeled as 'difficult' without taking steps to address the issues. We are a very diverse environment and (FWCS employees) need to be aware of that so we don't say or do something” that would be misunderstood or counterproductive.

For now, the only grade this policy can receive is an “I” for incomplete. The district will evaluate discipline statistics and grades over time and make adjustments as necessary, Stockman said.

But the legitimacy and effectiveness of this policy ultimately will be decided not by making allowances for the cultures at home but by demanding compliance with the culture at school: the code of conduct expected of all employees and students.

In elementary school, I was sent to the principal's office for throwing a snowball during recess. The school detailed my sin in a note I had to take home for my parents to read and sign. I was simultaneously ashamed and terrified – and never did it again.

I suspect kids don't get yelled at much for throwing snowballs on the playground these days. I could be wrong, but maybe they should be. In those days, the only people wearing uniforms to school were the janitors.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.