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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”