Illinois Is Trying Out A New School Discipline Law But Will It Make Schools Safer?

Perhaps it is to be expected in our politically polarized country, but opinions about the state of discipline in our public schools fall into two fundamentally irreconcilable camps: There is far too much—or far too little.

Consequently, we live in a nation where lawsuits and federal or state enforcement actions are simultaneously either demanding schools provide a safe learning environment by protecting students, teachers, and staff from verbal and physical assaults—or insisting that rates of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions be dramatically reduced to provide a more equitable and respectful school environment.

It kind of makes your head spin.

Over the past several years the school discipline pendulum has swung fairly abruptly—at least in part due to our national political polarization. A few years ago “zero-tolerance” policies designed to mete out strong consequences was the response of choice in the wake of national concerns about violence and abusive behaviors in our classrooms.

Now, in response to worries about overly aggressive and sometimes unduly harsh school discipline stigmatizing our children, the trend has flipped toward “restorative justice” methods that rely less on punishment and more on talk therapy of sorts to help troubled—and troublesome—students learn how to better monitor their own behavior and make better decisions.

Illinois has now jumped into restorative justice with both feet (although the new law does not actually use that term). The passage of SB 100 (Public Act 99-456) in the state legislature means that, starting with the 2016-17 school year, all K-12 public schools (traditional and charter) in the state will be expected to limit and justify the use of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions, in part because the districts must publicly report this discipline data.

Even before the passage of SB 100, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was moving toward methods of school discipline that relied less on punishment and more on persuasion—with results that thrilled some and worried others. An article in the Chicago Tribune last year highlighted efforts by former schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to correct “an overly punitive, zero-tolerance conduct code that contributed to wide racial disparities in the number of suspensions.” Sounds good so far.

However, classroom teachers quoted in the article expressed great concern about both the implementation and the underlying rationale, one pointing out:

You have to have consequences. If you knew the cops weren’t going to enforce the speed limit, when you got on the Edens Expressway you’d go 100 miles an hour.

This is perhaps an exaggeration, but this new restorative justice classroom management approach is certainly a consequence-lite style that will soon be draped like a blanket over every public school in Illinois.

How can we expect this to all work out for our children? Will appealing “to the better angels of our nature,” as our native son Abraham Lincoln once advised, result in schools that are safer and fairer or not?

I have no doubt that the number of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions in Illinois schools will drop dramatically—because there is really no other option. So we can expect proponents of SB 100 to point proudly to declining discipline actions and declare the law a success because the numbers look good.

However, I expect many in Illinois will doubtless question whether our schools are now safer due to an expansive mandate backed by the full force of law.

The problem is not that in-school suspensions and detentions are completely ineffective as they have their place in the disciplinary ladder; the problem is that with the new law these disciplinary tools will become the de facto ceiling for what can reasonably be done without drawing unwanted attention—and it is likely that handing out too many in-school detentions or suspensions will soon become yet another “cause for concern.”

The intent of the law is good, but I am worried this is going to backfire. Anytime you reduce local discretion while simultaneously inviting the state to micromanage your district or school based on what they see on an Excel spreadsheet, the net effect is destined to be a reluctance to hand out consequences.

There is a reason that most teachers are in favor of more discipline rather than less; they want to be able to teach. Just one student who feels they can mouth off, torment their classmates, or otherwise be disruptive can ruin the educational environment of the entire classroom and distract—or demotivate—the students who really want an education and desperately need their teacher to be able to control the class.

There is an old saying when it comes to classroom discipline: “You spend 90 percent of your time dealing with 10 percent of your students.” The unfortunate truth is that a subset of that 10 percent is going to be unpersuaded by persuasion, and consequences that extend beyond peer juries or counseling will be necessary to convince them to modify their behavior.

If so, how will a reluctance to hand out more severe punishments impact the students who are counting on the adults to be adults and provide a safe and orderly school environment?

Perhaps this will all work out well. I only hope that this “one-size-fits-all” law does not make students, faculty and administrators squirm in discomfort during the next school year.

 Also published on Education Post ( May 24, 2016

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