What’s the Purpose of American Public Schools, Education or Discipline?

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How is it acceptable to have Officer Slam in American public schools? And why is discipline seen as the be-all, end-all in American public education?

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image: cnn.com

(10-29-2015, updated 07-14-2018)  If you had asked me last week what a school resource officer was, I wouldn’t have known, but my guess would have been someone who was somehow involved in directing students to the appropriate resources for whatever they needed, be it the school library, the counselor, a local college, whatever. But no, SROs–School Resource Officers–are police officers who have been placed in American public schools “to keep the students safe”.

School Discipline 20 Years Ago

When I worked at a public high school in the Rio Grande Valley, some twenty years ago by now, I was already taken aback by the inordinate focus on discipline. It seemed to me that the teachers had a very low tolerance for any teenage behavior. At the first bad word uttered by a student he/she was sent straight to the principal’s office. There was usually a line of students sitting on chairs in the hallway, waiting for their turn getting a talking-to instead of an education. Some kids spent more time on those chairs than in the classroom.

When applying for the job of principal, people would fall over themselves in their eagerness to bring up discipline at the earliest possible opportunity, and then they would go on about how “tough” they were on “discipline”. Except that they were about as tough on discipline as they were grammatically competent; discipline had them wrapped around it’s pinky finger. “Discipline” was the magic word in the world of public education, the be-all and end-all solution to every problem.

I was a pretty typical teenager of the seventies in my Dutch high school. And then I went to college, became a librarian and had a pretty good career until I emigrated to the United States. If I had behaved in an American public school the way I did in my Dutch high school, I’d be flipping burgers right now, because I would have spent my formative years on a chair outside the principal’s office for swearing.

Twenty years ago I thought that was absolutely ridiculous. Today people are commenting wistfully that, twenty years ago, you were “just” sent to the principal’s office. Because nowadays the cops are called.

Now, I know there are kids out there with very serious behavioral issues and I will get to that in one of my next posts. Today I want to discuss the way American public schools see their role in the students’ life in general.

Montessori Education and Values

Our two kids spent their youngest years in Montessori schools, which teach all the academics in a hands-on individual way as well as instilling important values from the age of two.

When each child is at work on a small mat on the floor, a student has to do some conscious maneuvering to get from one side of the classroom to the other without stepping on someone’s carefully laid out work. Students learn to respect others’ work time, space and academic abilities and challenges. When a child does not, she is made to sit in the time-out chair for a few minutes. As far as I’ve experienced, these time-out chairs are only present in the primary groups–the classrooms with students from two to five years old. The word ‘discipline’ is not part of the Montessori vocabulary.

In the Montessori classroom, the teacher is a partner in learning, someone who gets down on the floor at the child’s level to show how to do a certain lesson, and who listens and observes to see which part of a process the child doesn’t yet grasp. There is mutual respect between the students and the teachers. Every child has her strengths and weaknesses, but students work at their own pace and I have never seen a child in a Montessori system who hates going to school.

After sixth grade, my kids went to a small private school that had much the same values as regards the relationship between students and between students and teachers. Respect meant, among other things, no gossiping, using respectful language, using direct communication (talking directly to the person you are unhappy about rather than complaining about that person to everyone else), being supportive of one another and accepting everyone for who they are. Of course even in a school that teaches kids not to gossip and to talk respectfully to one another, there will still be the odd student who badmouths another and every now and then you’ll hear a “fuck you”, but not often and sometimes the older students will remind the offender of what they’re doing.

Of course these are small private schools with kids from relatively privileged backgrounds, with parents who themselves had successful school careers. Of course these schools get the best teachers out there, because they are more pleasant to work in than the paralyzing and politicized public school system, so whenever there’s a vacancy, the applications come rolling in and the school can pick the best fit. Of course the Montessori system doesn’t work for students with severe ADHD or other behavioral issues that would disrupt the other students’ work time. Of course private schools can always kick out problem students, and they do.

But I still think public schools can do better.

My Daughter’s Public School

My son graduated high school last year and he’s now in college. My daughter is at a public charter school this year, for reasons that aren’t relevant for this post. She’s in total culture shock. The kids use incredibly crude and abusive language while yelling at one another in the hallways, their gossip on the bus is beyond disgusting, and these things are not addressed.

Why not?

During one of the first weeks of school, a student from a higher grade came into class to talk about math and science tutoring he was offering after school. Several of the kids started yelling and booing, calling him “nerd” and “teacher’s pet” and it took a while for the teacher to restore order. My daughter was horrified. She felt terrible for the boy, who was just offering his help, and she was confirmed in her belief that she’d better say nothing and do nothing, because anything could cause the most vicious verbal attack.

I asked her what the teacher said about it later. Nothing. I asked her a week later if the principal had addressed the class about it. No. So there was no assembly where he talked about respecting one another and how this was a completely unacceptable way to react to an offer to help with math and science from a fellow student? No. Nothing.

Why not?

It seems that American public schools simply don’t feel any responsibility when it comes to teaching students mutual respect and just plain good manners. The kids are often stuffed into large classrooms, where teachers have limited time to teach subjects in a prescribed way that obviously doesn’t work, and respect is a one-way street. It’s a shut-up-and-listen environment where anyone deviating from that rule is disciplined. Public schools don’t raise kids, they discipline them, and the fact that many schools now have their own campus police who get called the moment a student behaves even remotely like a teenager completes the dystopia that can be public school in this country.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Can be, because I know–not all schools have campus cops. My daughter’s school doesn’t. However, many schools in the poorest school districts do; schools with a high African American enrollment do. And this is where racism and the public school system deliver a double whammy. The numbers show schools have completely given up on poor black kids. They are dehumanized and discriminated against and for many, school is just a step on the way to prison. It’s the school to prison pipeline.

Take this girl at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina.  The police arrested her for being a teenager while black. Whatever happens with her, she will now have a criminal record. I don’t know what she thought about school before this incident, but I can only imagine what she thinks of it now. The way the SRO handled her indicates how dehumanized kids are in the school system, and black kids especially.

Oh, and for those of you who feel that the video doesn’t show the whole story? No, it doesn’t. Here’s an interview with one of the students who filmed the incident, in which he describes what led up to it. The girl was not acting out in any way. She just wanted to check her phone for a second and then refused to hand it over or leave because she felt she hadn’t done anything wrong.

This post is Part 2 in the series Officer Slam: Police in School. Here is the next one.

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Officer Slam 2: To Discipline Or To Raise”, 10-29-2015)


  • Kolhatkar, Sonali. “Studies Confirm the Dehumanization of Black Children and the ‘Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline’”. Common Dreams. TruthDig.com,  April 04, 2014.  https://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/04/04/studies-confirm-dehumanization-black-children-and-preschool-prison-pipeline
  • “Student Who Filmed the Spring Valley Assault: ‘I’ve Never Seen Something So Nasty and Sick’”. Atlanta Black Star, October, 29, 2015.  http://atlantablackstar.com/2015/10/29/student-who-filmed-the-spring-valley-assault-ive-never-seen-something-so-nasty-and-sick/

Header image: Ford, Dana, Greg Botelho and Kevin Conlon. “Spring Valley High School officer suspended after violent classroom arrest”. CNN, October 27, 2015. https://www.cnn.com/2015/10/27/us/south-carolina-school-arrest-video/index.html

Series Navigation<< Spring Valley High School Student Violently Arrested by SRO Ben FieldsFans of SRO Ben Fields vs. Lawsuits for Excessive Force and Racial Profiling >>

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