Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Tune of a Hickory Stick

I started school in 1959 and so most of my formative school years where in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Like most of my classmates, we heard stories from our parents about their school years and the ones about punishment were usually cruel or humiliating.  For example, being forced to stand in a corner with a “dunce cap” on was common in my mother’s school.  My father recalled students being slapped in the face or spanked.  A little ditty composed around 1907 remained popular even through the 1950’s:   
School days, school days.
Dear old golden rule days.
Reading and writing and 'rithmetic.
Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.
The Golden Rule in the song was apparently a ruler and not a formula for promoting the common good. 
I certainly felt grateful that corporal punishment was forbidden in my public school.  Punishments for those of us who committed infractions were usually going to the principal’s office and the dreaded, “We have called your mother.”  Actions requiring punishment (or “discipline” which sounded less punitive) included smoking, skipping class, cheating on school work, and playing tricks on other kids.  The latter was my downfall.  I never smoked and I didn’t cut class because I actually liked learning.  I never cheated although I often allowed other students to cheat off of my spelling tests in return for some of their lunch.  Tricks I played on others included: 
  • Putting tape over the faucet of the bathroom sink, so that when someone turned on the water, it sprayed out all over them;
  • Taking out a desk drawer, then placing a piece of cardboard over the top, and putting it back in upside down and removing the cardboard.  The next person to open it watched all their stuff fall on the floor;
  • Thumbtacks on chairs of particularly obnoxious teachers.
Of course one of the points of a practical joke is not getting caught so I wasn’t reprimanded nearly as often as I deserved. 

Fast forward to today where suspension and expulsion are the commons forms of punishment and “zero tolerance” policies trump common sense in dealing with kids. According to the most recent issue of the PRRAC report, which summarizes a number of studies on punishment, schools with higher rates of suspension have lower ratings in academic quality and quality of school governance, and that disciplinary removal appears to have negative effects on student outcomes, and is a “moderate to strong indicator of dropping out of school.”

Given that today in California alone, 30% of students drop out of high school, with Los Angeles showing a 55% drop out rate, anything that increases the likelihood of someone leaving school should be immediately stopped. 

The racialization of punishment is also abundantly clear from the studies PRRAC summarizes.  White students are far more likely to be punished for offenses that could be objectively observed, such as smoking, whereas African American students are referred more often for “disrespect, excessive noise, threat and loitering—behaviors that would seem to require a more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent.”  (From “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis.”  The full report can be downloaded from   Kids in general make “excessive” noise—that is their job. (Why else would we have the admonition, “Indoor voice, please”?)  They are disrespectful to people who don’t respect them first.  Respect cannot be commanded but must be earned.  Clearly the subtext here is that the African American students are not acting “white” enough.  And how in any kind of society would “excessive noise” at a school be grounds for suspension? 

Of course the larger context for how we “progressed” from hickory sticks to going to the principal’s office to expulsion cannot be separated from the often discussed “school to prison pipeline” that has filled our prisons in the last 30 years with nonviolent offenders.  California built 23 prisons from 1985-2001 (and during that same time frame, only one extension to the University of California.)  A board member of the San Diego Literacy Council told me that California plans how many prisons to build based in part on how many kids flunk third grade.  The general feeling is that if you can’t read very well by third grade, you will probably end up in prison.

Many far more learned people than myself have noted all this and written about it, including recommendations for research and data collection to keep documenting the relationship between excessive discipline, race of those being disciplined, quality of education and likelihood of dropping out of school, and the concomitant policy changes in schools to address and reverse all of this.

My contribution to the debate (besides lifting up this information to people like me who may be unfamiliar with it) is this:  our attitudes towards other people are very much formed in school and we need to build our policies around the idea that each child is a bundle of gifts and talents, wrapped in a fragile personality, and that our job as adults is to develop the talent, channel the gifts into positive expression and appreciate that we all act out in various ways as part of how we grow up.  Zero Tolerance is a tool of repression:  those two words should not appear together ever.  There is no doubt in my mind that I would not get through school today, even as a white person.  I did too many things that sent me to the principal. But it was in the principal’s tongue lashing, then forgiveness, that I learned the most important lesson of community:  nothing I did would cause me to be expelled

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