Joanne Jacobs’ December 23rd post, “Self-defense is no defense” struck a chord with me, largely because of the experiences of some family friends last here in Edmond, Oklahoma, last Spring. The middle school age son in the family was having trouble adjusting to his new school, and ran into trouble with some bullies who picked on him regularly. Similar to the situation Joanne described about Rachel Davis in a Tennessee school, this Oklahoma eighth grader was suspended from school for “fighting” even though he was attacked by other students in the cafeteria and had only tried to defend himself against what constituted a gang attack of three on one.

school fight

School policies which punish every student equally involved in a school fighting incident, irrespective of fault, intentions, or actions, are WRONG. I think those policies are designed to be more convenient for school administrators, and local community leaders should rightfully question and contest those policies in light of other legal precedents which exist in our society.

This past summer at NECC, Darren Draper shared a motto with me that one of his instructional technology staff peers keeps on his computer desktop as an important reminder. The motto is in the form of a question:

Are you doing what is convenient or what is right for kids?

Policies which punish a student for being the helpless victim of a violent attack at school equally with the malicious perpetrators of such an attack are WRONG, because they contravene the basic tenets of justice which undergird our entire civil society. Not only are they unfair (unjust) — they also send the wrong message to all parties involved in or aware of altercations like this. Whether it concerns instruction and student learning or issues of school discipline, everyone involved in the educational process inside and outside of schools should focus on what is best for kids, not just what is CONVENIENT.

From the perspective of a school administrator, I can clearly understand why a “no-fault punishment scheme” that that applied to the case of Rachel Davis and our friend’s 8th grade son in Oklahoma were preferable. No-fault insurance is easier and preferable from the perspective of individuals and organizations involved in motor vehicle accidents, since it has as its goal “lowering premium costs by avoiding litigation over the cause of the accident, while providing quick payment for injuries.” In the same way, “no-fault punishment schemes” in school districts which disregard all information about students’ actions and intentions as IRRELEVANT seek to make the process of meting out discipline easier and less “messy” for administrators as well as parents. What school administrator enjoys dealing with an angry parent? No one does. By having a blanket policy that disciplinary actions are handed out irrespective of evidence or facts, school administrators can say what the Edmond Public Schools‘ principal told our friend last year: “I’m sorry, but any student involved in a fighting incident at school is automatically suspended regardless of the circumstances.”

To evaluate the ethics and propriety of this school policy, let’s change the context. I lived in Mexico City for a year, in 1992 to 1993. One of the things people warned me about when I lived in Mexico was traffic violations and car accidents. Unlike the U.S. justice system, which maintains a presumption of innocence until an accused party is proved guilty, I was told Mexican laws are based on the Napoleonic Code which assumes guilt until innocence is proven. According to Mexican attorney Jaime B. Berger Stender’s article “Mexican Legal System Overview” cited in the current WikiPedia entry for “Legal systems of the world:”

Mexican criminal law has several interesting and distinctive features. In Mexico, one is deemed guilty until proven innocent.

This basic difference in the legal systems of Mexico and the United States is HUGE. I am very thankful I live in a country which has a legal system including a presumption of innocence. Note, however, that even though the Mexican system includes a presumption of guilt, there is ostensibly still an opportunity for accused parties to prove their innocence in a court of law utilizing witnesses and available evidence. I say “ostensibly” because having lived in Mexico and learning a fair bit about the realities of the Mexican legal system and politics, it is an understatement to observe that “money goes a long way” in making a difference in the Mexican legal system in many contexts. The prevalence of bribery and corruption in the Mexican legal system is well documented and pervasive, and was certainly a big eye opener to me when I lived there in the early 1990s. Corruption in the legal system, in politics, and in society more generally is NOT limited to countries and contexts outside the United States, however. Corruption is a pervasive evil which unfortunately rears its ugly head in virtually all cultures.

My intended point amidst this discussion of contrasting legal systems is that even though the Mexican legal system differs in a FUNDAMENTAL way from that of the United States on the basis of an assumption of innocence or guilt, as a theoretical system it is SUPERIOR to that found in many if not most of our U.S. schools when it comes to situations like student fighting. As a policy, students ARE NOT PERMITTED to present evidence about their guilt or innocence. A hearing about guilt or innocence is not even conducted, because it is considered irrelevant to the disciplinary action which will be meted out by administrators.

Change this context from the schoolhouse to a small, rural community in another country. You have been involved in a traffic accident, and someone in the other car was killed. Not only are you presumed to be guilty of a crime (manslaughter) but you are also NOT afforded an opportunity to present evidence and witnesses which could shed light on your guilt or innocence for this act and outcome. You are sentenced and serve out the terms of your punishment, without legal recourse. This may be YEARS of prison time, even in solitary confinement, without the right to see a lawyer or contest the crime of which you have been convicted without a trial. (Sadly, this also reminds me of the status quo in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.)

Such a situation would justifiably outrage most citizens of the United States as being patently unjust and unacceptable. Yet why do we permit an analogous situation to persist with regard to student discipline in many if not most of our schools?

I think one of the common refrains we hear from defendants of the “status quo” of school discipline systems would be, “These are policies for school, not for the real world outside of schools. School is not the real world.”

This justification is unsatisfactory, however, because schools SHOULD be considered “the real world.” Whenever we justify things in a classroom based on the premise that “we do this in school, because school is not the real world” I think we invite in a host of troubles. The learning activities and assessments in classrooms should more closely resemble those in the world outside “the boundaries of the bell,” and the disciplinary policies governing student and teacher behavior in schools should also resemble those found outside of schools.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for school administrators and school boards? Schools should abandon no-fault punishment schemes, regarding student fighting and other situations, immediately. Students SHOULD be provided with an opportunity to demonstrate or prove their guilt or innocence with respect to an alleged or actual fighting incident. The existence of school surveillance cameras, as were present in the case of Rachel Davis, SHOULD be considered by school officials in determining the appropriate disciplinary course of action to follow with involved students.

The other issue which this situation points to is whether or not public school attendance should be mandatory in the United States in the twenty-first century. Some people might maintain, in response to this situation, that school officials are justified in following rules out of sync with the rest of our civil society (automatic punishment for involvement in a fighting incident, irrespective of the person’s actual role) because schools are unique institutions: Students are REQUIRED to attend. This fundamental difference in the involuntary nature of school attendance might be argued to support the maintenance of the current system of punishments and consequences for student misbehavior.

Other educational leaders, including Gary Stager (“What’s the Difference Between School and Prison?) continue to question some of the fundamental assumptions we make about public schools and the cultural environments which have developed based on those assumptions. One of these basic assumptions is that school attendance should be mandatory. Taken to a negative extreme, schools as institutions can resemble prisons. Jonathan Kozal makes this point persuasively in his book, “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.”

Ultimately, our U.S. school districts and states not only need to abandon no-fault punishment schemes, they also need to abandon the basic mandate that public education is mandatory. A free, equitable public education SHOULD and MUST be provided to every person in the United States irrespective if his/her economic, geographic, or other context. Students and families who would fail to take advantage of free, world-class educational experiences (and undoubtedly there would be some) would be acting against their own self-interests. A decision to NOT pursue an education in the 21st century is self-critiquing, much in the same way that venturing outside in shorts and a t-shirt on a sub-zero, windy day is.

Ultimately, our educational system needs to empower individuals to make “good choices” and reward those who do. I am NOT a supporter of voucher systems, but I AM a supporter of educational charter schools, innovative approaches to learning which maintain high expectations, and rational school disciplinary policies. School disciplinary policies which treat all individuals the same involved in a school fight, irrespective of whether a person was a hapless victim or a malicious perpetrator of physical violence, fail to meet the basic expectations of just treatment we have in U.S. society or reward people for good choices. On a broader level, we need to encourage school leaders to adopt more “real world” expectations for student and teacher behavior by dispensing with the 19th and 20th century requirement for school attendance.

Justice League International

Persisting in the same patterns of behavior and expecting different results defines insanity. To nurture and support the learning potential of all individuals in our society in the 21st century, our schools will need to change some of their basic assumptions and operating procedures. No-fault punishment schemes for school discipline are one area that needs reform NOW.

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  • http://www.practicaltheory.org Chris Lehmann

    Wes,

    I agree that, as an overarching rule, no-fault punishment schemes are a bad idea, and you can be sure that at SLA, the situations you describe would not happen.

    However, there are also times when a) finding the real truth of a situation is impossible… the he-said, she-said stuff is very hard to sort through, b) often times there is a lot of blame to be spread around.

    We had our first fight of the school year last week, and sure enough, as I dug around — including almost a dozen student interviews — I heard several very different versions of the account. I eventually did figure out enough to differentiate punishment, but only a little, and I wasn’t sure, even then, that it was the right call.

    In the end, blanket policies on discipline and punishment in schools are rarely a good ideas. Case-by-case decision-making is messy, and it can lead to some pretty acrimonious moments when folks question the particulars of various cases, but it’s still what’s right.

    Thanks for the post!

    – Chris

  • http://www.yumyumcafe.blogspot.com/ lilalia

    Very interesting and informative article. It is possible to understand how such policies have arisen in your school systems. Though it also points out, rightly in my opinion, why such policies are intrinsically wrong. What advice or strategy did the parents of the middle school bullying victim pursue over the long run?

  • http://mr-ps-blog.blogspot.com/index.html Steve Poling

    Wes,

    Your post comes off sounding very simplistic and out of touch. I am not trying to be overly critical, but have you ever dealt with these types of fighting situations as an administrator? It is very, very difficult to determine who is “innocent” and who is the “instigator”. I have dealt with many, many of these situations and it is always difficult. Policies which punish all punching or fighting are not made for the convenience of administrators. My job is not about convenience but about keeping all students safe. These policies are made to protect all students from all fighting. There is no such thing as a “good fight”. Students are afforded due process when disciplined and have every opportunity to present their side of the situation. Ultimately, the administrator is responsible for trying to make sense of the situation and give consequences accordingly. We need to keep fighting and all violence out of our schools.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Steve: I appreciate your comment, insights and questions. I understand and agree that administrators have responsibility for the safety of all students, and their job is extremely challenging. I have only dealt with student fighting issues as a classroom teacher, as a teacher-aide working in a high school, supervising in-school suspension, and as a student myself– not as a campus or district administrator, and not yet as a parent facing school bullies who have attacked my own children. Please don’t worry about coming across as “overly critical,” I am glad to have you share a different perspective and a different view. When we are challenged about what we think and believe, I think we are often encouraged to think more deeply about ideas and consider them from different viewpoints. This is a good thing, and reflects that this conversation (and hopefully others) is not taking place in an echo chamber.

    I DO recognize that the role of administrators is VERY difficult, I’m not discounting that. I don’t think the difficulty of attempting to determine fault in a situation involving fighting should justify a policy where the fault or blame in a fighting situation is NEVER considered, however. Most of the fighting situations I’ve been involved with personally do involve blame on both sides. The case involving Tennessee student Rachel Davis which I referenced and linked, however, as well as the case involving our family friend’s son, both were VERY one-sided attacks where each victim was punished for defending themselves, and were literally expected to:

    curl up on the ground into a fetal position and hope that someone else goes running for help…

    This latter quotation is from a post by Darren, and I would commend the comment thread on that post to anyone following this conversation. (JoAnn Jacobs linked to that post in hers.) There are multiple issues here, including:
    - Do students have a right to self-defense? (most state laws hold that people do, but schools with these no-tolerance/no-fault disipline policies deny that right)
    - Bullies are a pervasive problem and exist in all communities. Why do schools and school leaders often fail to effectually deal with bullies, and why do policies like this which do not discourage bullying persist?
    - Should litigation against individual bullies or school administrators who fail to protect students from physical violence be the only perceived remedy for situations involving physical attacks on students?

    I stand by my original point that, particularly when a student is attacked by others and did not instigate the fight, AND the student attempted to “walk away” to avoid the fight, it is ridiculous and contrary to the basic tenets of justice in our society to both deny the person the opportunity to prove their guilt or innocence, and deny that they have a right to self-defense.

    I also agree with the commenter in that post by Darren that smaller schools are a practical way to address the problems of bullying and school violence.

    In sum, I understand your response to this thread to be, “It’s hard to determine blame in a fight, so it’s OK for administrators to avoid that messy difficulty by just punishing everyone equally irrespective of their actions or role.” Again, change the context from the schoolhouse to a foreign country, and you are the accused. Would you accept a sitation where the local authorities said, “It’s too difficult for us to determine blame or guilt, so we just deny everyone the right to a hearing or trial and put them in jail if they are accused of something?” I don’t think you would. We shouldn’t accept this situation in our schools either.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    lilalia: The parents in Edmond we know “sucked it up” and didn’t contest the ruling beyond meeting with the assistant principal. Short of filing a lawsuit against the administrator personally for failing to protect their son, I’m not sure what else they could do. I think parents and students should have more options in situations like this besides filing lawsuits.

  • http://mr-ps-blog.blogspot.com/ Steve Poling

    Wes,
    Thanks for your reply. I agree with you that we always have to look at situation, like a fight, from every possible viewpoint. We need to protect kids from bullies and we need to preserve students’ due process rights. We also need to keep fighting out of schools. An attack is different from my viewpoint and the instigator should be punished. You didn’t sum up my response accurately but that is ok. Hopefully, you will see my point that fighting is difficult to deal with and a policy is designed to protect all students. I agree that administrators should go to great lengths to dig through the messiness. Lastly, administrators and families should get the police involved so that law enforcement can help remedy violent situations in schools and protect the innocent.

  • Margaret

    Check out the gangstalking sites, about bullying, one is http://www.StopOrganizedStalking.org where it tells how the police and firemen are in on it and we know they are cuz we are being bullied by cops and firemen as well as many others, such as doctors, nurses, politicians, landlords, etc. Look into this yourselves, you will see. It says they try to get their victims to commit suicide and they got my son to commit suicide. I hope they are happy now.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Margaret: I briefly checked out the site, unfortunately 3 of the first 4 links I tried on the site did not work. The link for “bullying” videos on the BBC did work, but of course those videos run the gamut in terms of topics. I do not find it surprising at all that there is a coordinated effort to oppose and stop illegal activities by gangs in the United States. Drug trafficking as well as other illegal activities, in which some gang members engage, should be opposed and stopped by law enforcement, in my view. If we didn’t have police officers to enforce our laws we would live in a state of anarchy, and that would not suit any of our interests well.

    I am very sorry to learn about your son and his suicide. I cannot imagine how much that hurts. I have three children of my own and cannot bear the thought of losing one of them.

    I certainly will keep you in my thoughts and prayers. I know there are MANY people struggling with issues related to gang pressures, gang violence, police violence, illegal drug trafficking, and other issues right where I live in Oklahoma. I hope that if people can work to provide better educational opportunities for EVERYONE, more folks caught in difficult situations can see a way out and take it. There are not any easy answers to these challenges, from what I’ve seen.

    I hope no one is happy to know that your son is dead and committed suicide. The loss of any child of God is a tragedy, and something we should all mourn. I pray you will find peace and comfort among loving members of your family and community in this difficult time.

  • http://mindoh.wordpress.com Amy Strecker

    Gosh this is a tough issue. As a teacher I’ve seen all sides of it, including being hit in the head with an unabridged Oxford dictionary in the process of breaking up a fight. It’s hard for administrators, who often haven’t witnessed the fight, to make those judgment calls, and I know as a teacher witness I’ve gone in to advocate for the punishments I thought were appropriate for the fights I witnessed. I appreciate schools trying to send the message that no fighting is alright, but I’ve also seen students who were truly victims of bullying and violence finally stick up for themselves, only to receive suspension and criminal charges. There’s no perfect answer, but the issues of fair treatment during the disciple process is one of the things that attracted me to the company I now work for (www.mindoh.com), because ALL students are given the same, fair opportunity to share their story in the disciple process. I know this doesn’t come as condolences to those who have already been victims of bullying, but we’ve got to change the way we are meeting kids needs in the disciple process to change the direction bullies and their victims are headed.

  • http://www.g4classes.com/learningforward Kent Chesnut

    Wes,
    Did you follow Gary Stager’s link about schools that consider cell phone use or possession as a crime? The link is http://www.theledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070429/NEWS/704290430/1039.

    Near the bottom of the article, the head of the school resource officers for Sarasota County gave the following as a better way for students to protect themselves (than carrying cell phones to call parents / police)…

    “But given the problems with cell phones in school, he said students would benefit more by “survivor instincts” training, such as how to rush a shooter.”

    Rushing the Shooter 1 – I believe that’s right after Algebra II.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Kent: Thanks for sharing that link– no, I hadn’t seen that. Good grief. Lt. Mike Pelfrey’s suggestion that all kids should know how to “rush a shooter” is ridiculous. It’s too bad the article’s author (Anna Scott) didn’t suggest or point to some teachers or schools actually using cell phones for learning. This article reflects just how far we have to go to transform some of our schools from war zones between cell phone wielding young people and coercive adults. I wish there were easy answers here, but of course there are not. I think a fundamentally coercive school culture is one of the root problems, however. We are not going to legislate away kids making bad choices with cell phones. I agree with Rep. Carl Domino’s comment in the article, “All these kids have cell phones. I think trying to ban them would be like putting your finger in the dike.” If school officials supported constructive ways for students to use their cell phones, I wonder how much of these destructive choices could be redirected in more constructive ways? Constructive cell phone use needs to be part of this conversation. The conversation is much larger than just cell phone policies, of course.

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