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An overlooked part of fixing school discipline policies: reducing fear

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Last month, I walked into a public high school in the Bronx and could tell right away that something had happened. I had spent four months working as a behavior management coach at the school, and this time the atmosphere felt unusually charged.

I learned that earlier in the week, fights in the hallway had prompted administrators to call the police. The officers swarmed in and used pepper spray to break up the fights. A few minutes later, the bell rang and several hundred students walked into hallways that still stung of pepper spray and rage.

While the students were angry, they were not surprised to see police officers in their school.  “They treat us like animals,” one student told me. “It just seems like everyone is so afraid of us.”

I’ve heard variations on that line in many schools, where administrators have justified and perpetuated harsh discipline systems by viewing children as hooligans who need to be policed in order to protect the school.

The negative effect of harsh discipline on school climate has been the focus of conversations on a national and local level this year. In January, the Obama administration issued guidelines calling for an end to zero-tolerance policies—which impose uniform and swift punishments for disciplinary infractions—in our nation’s schools, citing the disproportionate suspension of young men of color. Just last week, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she wanted to shift school discipline away from punitive policies and toward restorative justice.

These efforts are long overdue, but they are only one part of what needs to happen to reverse the culture of distrust and criminalization of students that has become the modus operandi of many urban schools. Equally important is the way teachers understand misbehavior and interact with their toughest students.

As a former high school administrator in the Bronx, and now as a behavior management coach with the organization Ramapo for Children, I see that behavior issues don’t happen because kids are hooligans. They happen because students are trying to tell us something. Often students don’t have the skills to express themselves, or they hesitate to speak up because they’re put on the defensive from the moment they walk into the building.

Over time, I’ve come to see misbehavior as a form of communication. Sometimes students are telling us that they are hungry or tired. When kids act out, they are telling us that there is an unmet need or a lagging social or emotional skill that they don’t know how to fix.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges these behaviors present for teachers and for other students. Sometimes desks are thrown and students fight. Nearly every day, students use disrespectful language and don’t follow directions.

But blaming students for their behavior, and for struggles of the school as a whole, doesn’t help. Nor does suspending them for minor infractions. Helping students means using strategies like giving them breaks to cool down when they are responding to stressful situations, and letting them explain themselves before we react to their behavior. It means building relationships with students by greeting them individually, acknowledging their strengths, and purposefully reinforcing positive behaviors.

We also have to recognize that the students we’re working with are often put on the defensive from the moment they walk in the door.

Many students in New York City public schools begin their mornings in the same way: mobbed up outside of the building, waiting to go through a scanning machine and be wanded by uniformed safety officers. They are scanned for weapons and cell phones as exhausted administrators and safety officials bark at them to remove their belts, keys, boots, bobby pins and MetroCards while they wait in line.

As an administrator, I used to stand outside the building with my students as they were waiting to go inside. There were always a few moments of calm as they waited for scanning to open, but before long I would hear over the radio that a student was upset over having to remove his boots or hand over his cell phone.  I would be informed that this child needed to be removed from the line before he “gets himself arrested.” With that, our day would begin.

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About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.