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 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.
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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