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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: School discipline guidelines miss big picture

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Published:   |   Updated: January 9, 2014 at 11:42 AM

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The Obama administration unveiled a list of non-binding guidelines Wednesday for public schools to follow when disciplining students. The new suggestions apply to everyone, of course, but they are really aimed at how minority students are disciplined.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

No one will argue with that, although I’m wondering what could possibly go wrong if the federal government tries to set the distinction between a “routine” problem and one that earned a student the right to remain silent.

In most cases, if the student had remained silent to begin with, no discipline would have been necessary.

Civil rights groups have complained for years that minority students are treated as criminals too often, increasing the odds they’ll wind up in prison as adults. The Associated Press reported that black students without disabilities are three times more likely than whites to be expelled or suspended.

Those numbers point to a serious issue and bringing them to the public’s attention is worthwhile, but until you examine individual cases it’s impossible to say suspensions or expulsions weren’t justified.

It’s just not something that can be easily explained.

Here is what I do know, and this is definitely not a black-white issue: The students causing the problems often are disinterested, brazen, disrespectful and feel like the rules apply to someone else, if they are aware of the rules at all.

And where do you think they get that attitude?

Teachers and administrators tell hundreds of stories about feeling the wrath of screaming parents demanding to know how DARE their child be punished just because he or she cussed at a teacher. Or if the student fails a test, it couldn’t be because he didn’t study or do his homework. It has to be the teacher’s fault.

With that kind of role model, how is a student supposed to learn respect?

What’s the government’s response to that — I mean, besides punishing teachers and schools for failing to score high enough on standardized tests?

Politicians in Washington and Tallahassee treat teachers like chew toys to score election points, and it has been going on forever.

How else does one explain the goofy parent-trigger bill cooked up last year in Tallahassee? It would have allowed parents of failing schools to, in essence, take over and turn it into a charter school. Thankfully, that died in the Legislature — for now, anyway.

What I would really like is for some of these leaders to embed themselves in a school.

Not for a photo-op.

Not for a ribbon-cutting or stump speech.

Go inside the classrooms and staff meetings for a semester. Check with teachers who are still working at 10 p.m., grading papers and developing lesson plans. See what goes on first hand.

Be there when a student physically threatens a teacher. See what it’s like to try and reach someone with a rotten home life, and that someone is taking their problems out on you because that’s all they know.

Do that first, then we’ll see how you vote the next time one of your colleagues wants to cut the education budget. And we’ll see what discipline problems you still say are routine.

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