2000-09-30 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach It’s the Discipline, Stupid!

School Scope by Howard Schwach
It’s the Discipline, Stupid!

Discipline has become the major issue in education. Parents in large numbers pull their kids from public schools not because those schools fail to teach, but because the parents perceive the individual public schools as "dangerous."

All it takes if for one gifted student to be attacked by one special education student and the exodus is on. If you do not believe that, speak to the people who have been around MS 180 for a couple of years – if there are still any of them left.

I know a number of people right here in Rockaway who placed their kids in parochial schools to "keep them safe," and then decided to put them back in the public schools or home schooled them because they realized that both the teachers and the education in parochial schools were inferior to that of the public schools. You can argue that point with me all you want, but it is true. The public school curriculum is better and the public school teachers are better.

What is also true is that the parochial schools do better with discipline (they simply throw out kids who are disruptive – something the public schools cannot do) and they do better with "character education."

If you are a parent looking for the best education for your student, try the public schools. If you are more interested in religious education or in a "settled" school with little diversity, then the parochial school is just your style. Far be it from me to tell a parent how to bring up a child, but I still believe that your child will grow up to be a more active and world wise adult if he or she goes to a public school.

What is also true is that discipline is critical. There are those who think that discipline will come if the students are motivated correctly. I am not one who believes that. Discipline is intrinsic, not extrinsic. If it does not come from within, it does not come at all. Without discipline, learning cannot take place.

In most of the schools that I have been in over my 28 years in the system, it is a fact that no more than 10 percent of the kids cause 90 percent of the disruptions. That is why the new school safety law is so important to both teachers and parents.

While the law leaves a lot to be desired (epecial ed kids are still exempt), it is a start towards ridding the schools of those students who constantly disrupt the education of others, and Audrey Pheffer and Pauline Cummings should be congratulated for finally voting in favor of the new law (I also want to thank Pheffer’s executive assistant, Jo Ann Shapiro, for supplying me with a copy of the new law).

The strength in the law is twofold: It makes an assault on a teacher a "Class D Felony." That is up from misdemeanor. In the past, a teacher had to go to the hospital in order for an assault to be deemed a felony. Now, any assault on a teacher is a felony. To my mind, that is the most important part of the law because teachers had no protection from students who attacked them at will and often received no punishment outside of a short suspension (if the student was a special ed student and did not use a weapon, then no punishment was meted out for an assault on a teacher).

The second strength is that, for the first time, the law defines a "violent student," and a "disruptive student."

A violent student is one who does any of the following:

  • Commits an act of violence against a teacher, administrator or other school personnel;
  • Commits an act of violence against another student;
  • Possesses a gun, knife, explosive, or incendiary bomb or other dangerous instrument capable of causing physical injury or death;
  • Displays what appears to be a gun, knife, explosive or incendiary bomb or other dangerous instrument capable of causing death or physical injury;
  • Threatens to use any instrument that that appears capable of causing physical injury or death;
  • Knowingly and intentionally damages or destroys personal property of a teacher, administrator, other school district employee or any person lawfully upon school property;
  • Knowingly and intentionally damages or destroys school district property.

What does that mean? It will have to shake out some and some decisions will have to be made. If a student intentionally damages his or her textbook (school property), does that make that student a "violent student?" If a student brings a toy gun to school and that gun looks real, is he or she a "violent student" because he or she "displays what appears to be a gun?"

The definition of a "disruptive student" is far simpler and it is apparent from the outset that being a "violent student" is worse than being a "disruptive student" under the new law.

The "disruptive student" is defined as a student who:

  • Is substantially disruptive of the educational process;
  • Substantially interferes with the teacher’s authority over the classroom.

It is up to the school district (in this case, New York City) to decide what that all means and what the punishment for each of the above. The fact is, we already have a code of conduct that addresses all of those issues and it is more honored in the breach than principals and district office administrators enforce it. Will they enforce the new code when it is written. The bottom line is that there are now penalties for ignoring the code of conduct while there were none in the past.

The law mandates that the principal suspend any student who is "insubordinate or disorderly or violent or disruptive, or whose conduct otherwise endangers the safety, morals, health or welfare of others."

There is no mention of how many times a student can be suspended for these things (the current rule is three times in a year) and it is important to note that special ed kids are exempt, not because our legislators wanted it so, but because Federal law requires it.

There is another new rule that should prove interesting. Beginning in November of 2001, teachers will have the right to remove disruptive students from their classrooms (subject to a principal’s review).

The law says, "Any teacher shall have the power and authority to remove a disruptive pupil (as defined above, if you can believe that) for such teacher’s classroom consistent with discipline measures contained in the code of conduct."

What happens to a student removed by a teacher?

The school has to make other provisions to "insure that the student receives continued educational programs and activities."

The principal of the school has to review the case. If the principal finds that the "students continued presence in the classroom does not present an ongoing threat of disruption to the academic process," then he or she can put the student back in the original class. If not, the principal has to find an alternative setting within the school or within the district.

Can the principal unilaterally put the student back in the class in the face of evidence that he or she will continue to be disruptive? Who knows, but I don’t think so.

It is interesting to note that the principal can designate a "school district administrator" to make that decision in his or her stead. That is interesting and I think that the district might order principals to "designate" one person at the DO to handle all of these teacher-driven suspensions.

Those are the most interesting parts of the new law. There are others.

It mandates "violence reduction" seminars for all teachers. It mandates the inclusion of a "civility, citizenship and character education curriculum" (That, I have to see. The last time this was mandated, we got "Mandy has Two Fathers"). It also allows parents to come to a school and ask that their children be placed with another teacher. That has always been the case, however and it is no large change from the past.

Will the new law have a big effect on the schools and on how they are perceived by parents?

It is far too early to tell. Let’s see some of the rulings on the law, how disruptive kids are handled, what happens the first time a teacher "suspends" a student from a classroom.

That will tell, and I only hope that the rulings will go the way of common sense rather than the way of political correctness.

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