Cracking down on disruptive students isn’t as easy as it sounds

by Christopher Paslay


According to a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Education Interrupted, 12/29/08), “The district must do more to quickly remove troublemakers by expediting expulsion hearings and meting out strict discipline.”


This article was written in response to the 1,048 “serious” disciplinary incidents reported in the Philadelphia School District in the first two months of the current school year.  


The sentiments expressed in this Inquirer editorial seem to be echoed by many of Philadelphia’s citizens: The need for the District to crack down on disruptive students. 


As a teacher who’s worked inside Philadelphia’s school system for 12 years (and not a member of the media or a man-on-the-street looking in from the outside), I’ve always been bothered by the accusatory tone of statements like these.  It’s almost as if these people are saying, Our city’s schools could be safe if only the District would get its lazy butt in gear and start disciplining students.


This makes me think of the line in the film Superman III when villain Robert Vaughn says to Richard Pryor, “I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one simple thing.”


There are over 167,000 students in the Philadelphia School District.  Too many of these children come from households and neighborhoods where education is not a high priority.  Too many come from environments that teach them to solve their problems by using physical force—punching, kicking, slapping, choking, stabbing, shooting.  Their mothers do it, their brothers do it, so why shouldn’t they?


Then you have drug addiction, teen pregnancy, gangs, mental heath issues, the hip-hop culture, and a technologically driven society that panders to the lowest common denominator—a society that teaches our young people to live their lives according to two principles: The path of least resistance; and instant gratification.  


Public schools are not like private schools.  There are laws in place to keep children in the classroom.  You could expedite the expulsion process as the Inquirer suggests, but throwing kids out isn’t as simple as it sounds.  Besides all the red tape of due process, you have issues with special needs students. If a child is learning disabled (if they have an Individualized Education Plan), it is nearly impossible to remove him or her from the classroom without facing a lawsuit; unfortunately, too many of the District’s “serious” discipline incidents come from emotionally disturbed students with special needs.  


Then you have the No Child Left Behind Legislation, which penalizes schools for having too many reported discipline issues (the incentive with NCLB, if you haven’t figured it out, is NOT to report or expel, so your school can make Adequate Yearly Progress and you can keep your job).


In addition, in the United States we have something called the Compulsory Education Law.  This basically means it is the state’s job to educate the citizens.  In PA, kids must remain in school until they are 16, even if they don’t want to be there, even if they’re parents don’t give a hoot about education.  If you remove them from the classroom, you must provide them with an alternative education.  And alternative schools cost millions of dollars to build.  Plus, they have a stigma, which is the real reason why they don’t get built. 


If the District expelled every single student who ruined another child’s education, if 440 North Broad got serious and tossed-out all the gang-bangers, drug dealers, bullies, gun-toting thugs, and every other kid who had absolutely no respect for authority, his peers or even himself, then the city would have a big problem on their hands.  What would they do?  Get to work building a dozen new disciplinary style schools to house and educate these wayward students?  Where would the money come from? 


Plus, you’d have a backlash from parents and without a doubt, the African American community.  There would be cries of institutional racism when our city’s alternative schools were suddenly filled with mostly black and minority students (the majority of the District’s “serious” incidents involve black and Latino children). 


Expediting and implementing the expulsion process isn’t as easy as it sounds.  It is literally the District’s job to “baby-sit” the city’s children until they are at least 16, which is why not a single student has been expelled in over four years; this also explains why unruly students are transferred from school-to-school. 


When you cut through all the smoke-and-mirrors, not many people (outside of schools and the District itself) care about education.  Parents don’t; the community doesn’t; our consumer-driven society doesn’t; and neither do too many of our city’s young people. 


Expelling students is not a viable solution to the District’s discipline problem.  The system can only work if everyone—from parents to the District to the community itself—pulls their own weight and instills in young people the value of respecting their peers and getting an education.