Viral video of a teacher tearing a student’s paper sparks renewed school discipline debate

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Detroit's new school board is gearing up to fight state-mandated school closings

Tough discipline has been strongly connected with efforts to improve academic performance in poor communities over the past decade — particularly in charter schools, both nationally and in Indianapolis.

But the “no excuses” approach, including more frequent suspensions and expulsions, has drawn criticism that it can be unfair to black and Hispanic kids. Critics say the harsh method is more likely to be deployed in schools that serve mostly poor and minority children.

In the weeks since a viral video exposed what critics described as “no excuses” gone too far, parents and educators across the country have rekindled a debate about how far is too far when it comes to punishing kids. The video features Charlotte Dial, a teacher at New York’s Success Academy charter school, berated a first grade student and tearing her paper. Dial, coincidentally, is a 2009 graduate of Butler University in Indianapolis but studied political science and sociology, not education, as an undergraduate.

Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green, who addressed the discipline debate in her New York Times bestselling book, Building a Better Teacher, today published her take on the issue on Chalkbeat New York. Her view: No excuses might work, but change is needed.

“I think some founding principles of the no-excuses philosophy, principles born in the 1990s that survive in schools today, need fundamental overhaul,” Green wrote. “I also think there is evidence that the same people and institutions who created no-excuses ideas can successfully revise them.”

Tied up in the question of discipline are concerns about racial bias. In Indiana, for example, black children face suspension and expulsion at far higher rates than white students. The gap is one of the worst in the country.

Some schools, including Indianapolis Public Schools, have tried to shift discipline away from severe punishments, toward efforts to better understand the underlying causes of student misbehavior. But when schools limit severe punishments, teachers sometimes worry that they will have fewer tools to manage their classrooms.

Mark Russell, the director of education for the Indianapolis Urban League, thinks the problem is rooted in cultural misunderstanding.

“I think a lot of that still comes down to, are teachers culturally competent?” he said. “You still have 80 percent of teachers who are white, often times in schools that are majority black and Latino.”

Discipline policies that trigger automatic punishments for a variety of offenses are a problem, Russell said.

“Zero tolerance is a stupid policy,” he said. “It doesn’t make room for human frailty. The response is to punish everything, whether it makes sense or not.”

The Indianapolis NAACP did its own survey of suspensions and expulsions in Indianapolis area schools and their results matched the national data — big gaps between the discipline rates for white students compared to their black and Latino peers.

“Folks say the kids of color must be worse in their behavior but that’s not true,” said Carole Craig, the former education committee chairwoman for the Indianapolis NAACP who help conduct the study. “The interpretation of behaviors — like defiance and disrespect — is subjective.”

The NAACP’s study honed in on one particular charter school network — Tindley Accelerated School — that unapologetically advocated tough discipline for its students. The network also ran Arlington High School in Indianapolis as part of a state takeover effort, and tough discipline there also became an issue.

Tindley’s CEO, Marcus Robinson, strongly defended the network’s practice at the time, but has recently resigned. Craig said the NAACP hopes to continue pushing for Tindley and other charters to reconsider policies it believes are too harsh.

The good news, according to Craig, is the NAACP has seen school districts moving away from zero tolerance and no excuses strategies since its 2014 study.

“No excuses discipline, as I see it, is a way to try to control student behavior,” she said. “It cannot be about control. It has to be about everyone owning discipline. It is a way of learning how to exist in a society. You want everyone to learn, to prosper and to benefit.”

Better discipline requires a lot more training for teachers, she said, but it pays off.

“You have to do a lot on the front end or you will end up with these problems on the back end,” Craig said. “But the districts are really trying.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.