GUEST COLUMN: Basic accountability is a better option for students’ inappropriate behavior

Bob Rinearson

When I was a junior in high school, Ike McQuinn and I got into a fist-fight in the locker room just before basketball practice. Seeing that it’s been over 45 years since Ike and I put our pugilistic skills to the test, for the life of me I cannot remember what started it. I do remember however how it was handled.

Getting into a fight inside the school is probably pretty stupid, considering that there are always adults and coaches close by. Sure enough, the assistant coach, who stood 6 ft. 6 and weighed an estimated 250 lbs., was the first to arrive. He put his massive arms around each of our scrawny necks, put us up against the wall and held onto us until he knew we were calm enough to let go of. We were then sent home and instructed to report to the principal’s office the next morning.

Waiting for us was the Assistant Principal. He was known for being an island-hopping Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The students referred to him as Big John, appropriate considering his first name was John and he was big. He asked us why the fight took place. I’m sure both of us did our best to put a positive spin on our testimonies. But as we both expected, Big John felt we’d had enough sitting time, and were instructed to stand up, turn around and hold onto our chairs. Then he pulled from his desk drawer a paddle that seemed as big as a Louisville Slugger and made of the finest oak. Each of us received three affirming strokes to our backsides.

Ike and I did our best not to show that being on the receiving-end of Big John’s paddle caused us any discomfort whatsoever. However, as soon as we hit the hallway after being ordered back to class, both of us let out a tremendous exhale along with a few choice words. And yes, it probably took a minute or two to properly sit in those hard wooden desks. But, Ike and I never got into another fist-fight. At least with each other. That’s the way it was in those days.

But paddling has become taboo. So too has standing in the hall, writing an apologetic statement forty times on the blackboard, or putting your nose in the corner. We are lectured that such acts are humiliating. During my time working in educational and correctional environments, it seemed every other year a new philosophy would become popular in academic circles on how to deal with students who acted inappropriately. The term “inappropriately,” however, has changed over the decades. What was common inappropriateness 60 years ago–acts such as talking out-of-turn, throwing paper wads, chewing gum and attempting to look up girls skirts–has evolved into bringing weapons and drugs to school, sexual assault, checking out porn during class, cursing out teachers and gang confrontations.

So what is the latest trend in student discipline? The term is Restorative Discipline, although some schools have dropped the term discipline and replaced it with justice. According to The Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue, “Restorative Discipline is a whole-school relational approach to building school climate, and addressing student behavior that fosters belonging over exclusion, social engagement over control, and meaningful accountability over punishment. Its practices replace fear, uncertainty and punishment as motivators, with belonging, connectedness and the willingness to change because people matter to each other.” The curriculum focuses on safe spaces, conflict circles and mutual respect. Much of what Restorative Discipline is, is simply repackaged materials that have been used in a host of other approaches meant to do away with punitive disciplinary responses.

Of course, the IRJRD certainly likes to blow their own horn on their web site. Granted, the words “belonging and connectedness” sound great to an educational mind that has evolved into believing that somehow accountability, discipline and punishment are synonyms for cruelty. But what do the schools and teachers think of Restorative Justice?

As reported out of Urbana, Illinois in a school safety newsletter, “The Urbana school district is in crisis over its implementation of new discipline policies centered on restorative justice. Six months after unveiling the policy parents, students and staff members are asking for solutions to problems of increased fighting and discipline issues. Teachers are beginning to leave the district.”

May I suggest a policy statement, the same that many of us still living grew up with. That would sound something like, “If you choose to create chaos in this school, no matter what your race, creed, religion, age or gender, you will be held accountable. You will be disciplined, and if you don’t like it, too bad.”

I can assure you, the kids will eventually catch on. And you will still get that respect you so desire, especially from the kids who walk into school looking over their shoulders, wanting to learn.