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National Review
National Review
9 Sep 2023
Daniel Buck

NextImg:Classroom Disciplinary Policies Are Increasingly Backward

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {L} ast week, in Colorado Springs, a student faced removal from school property and a disciplinary meeting for wearing a Gadsden flag patch to class. According to district staff, this flag has a history based in “slavery” and the “slave trade,” and so it was disruptive to the learning environment.

When the student’s parents pressed the staff with basic facts — the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War with inspiration from abolitionist Benjamin Franklin — a staff member replied that they were just “following district policy,” that no student apparel may reference “drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or weapons.”

This latest debacle comes after a spate of recent incidents wherein students faced disciplinary action for free expression. For example, a district in Oshkosh, Wis., opened a sexual-harassment probe after three middle-school students allegedly misgendered their peer. Similarly, two California students faced a five-day suspension for the same offense.

And such incidents are working their way into school policy. Some districts, such as Fairfax County, Va., are incorporating misgendering and deadnaming into their student-conduct guidebooks. Fairfax designates it as a potential level 4 offense (out of 5), warranting up to a five-day suspension.

Ironically, these disciplinary measures in response to expression coincide with the trend of schools pulling away from punitive discipline more generally.

As I have chronicled in this publication, districts across the country are dismantling their behavioral codes. Teachers are sending students to the office for everything from vulgarity to fights, hoping for administrative support, only for the student to be sent back shortly thereafter. In place of detentions, districts offer reset centers where misbehaving students can hang out in beanbag chairs with a snack after they tell a teacher to commit a four-letter word upon themselves.

A common phrase in education circles is that any misbehavior on the part of a student is merely an expression of an unmet need. A student kicking open the door ten minutes into class and screaming, “What’s up b****es?” isn’t adolescent impetuosity or a desire to assert power and control in the classroom; it might be a natural response to cultural conflict in the school, insufficient love at home, or a face-saving measure amidst academic struggle.

The most vociferous defenders suggest that schools should do away with all punishment; just as the most ideological think that we must abolish or at least defund the police. We cannot blame “children for their outbursts,” argued the editor of Scholastic Administrator Magazine. Situations cause misbehavior, so how could we possibly hold them accountable?

Meanwhile, the influential publication Learning for Justice recently declared that curriculum can, in fact, be violence. In particular, the author contends, “Leaving queer history out of the curriculum . . . is violent.”

What happens when a society mixes up expression and violence? Should a teacher face legal consequences if they commit a verbal faux pas or their well-meaning curriculum inartfully covers sensitive topics? What happens when a school no longer punishes and thereby deters physical aggression from students?

Schools are microcosms of the broader culture. The debates in the pages of the New York Times or the halls of Congress play out on the small scale of school boards and district policy. What actions and words are free and which deserve condemnation is a very live question in both arenas.

The debates over school discipline map nearly perfectly onto the controversies over policing in America. During the 2020 George Floyd riots, arguments abounded in left-wing outlets justifying the violence in the streets: It was the natural response to oppression; the destruction of property was acceptable in the face of the destruction of life; it was a justifiable expression of anger. Meanwhile, after Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times suggesting that cities call in the National Guard to quell the violence, Times staffers suggested his article put their lives in danger. Violence in the streets was an op-ed, but Cotton’s op-ed was violence.

But schools are also culture-shapers. Along with family, religion, and popular media, schools are one of the most influential institutions in any child’s life and even society writ large. The messages they inculcate in students become the assumed wisdom of the next generation.

And it’s not just what they explicitly teach. Everything a school does (or doesn’t do) communicates a message and transmits values. What do they hang on the walls? What books display prominently in the library? How much time is allotted to science, civics, or the arts? What behavior is and is not sanctioned? How do staff and students dress? These decisions all communicate to students what is right, good, and just without a teacher ever needing to express an ideological conviction.

What are schools communicating now? Expression is violence, but violence is expression; speech can harm, and so must be sanctioned; the destruction of property or disrespect for authority are reasonable responses; every child’s passing whim, however irrational, deserves indulgence. These are first principles upon which no free society can function.