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How should we deal with disruptive students in schools?

Parents: Get with it. Teachers: Use it as a teachable moment. Students: Wise up before it is too late

Last Friday about 100 students at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina walked out of class briefly to show support for Ben Fields, a school resource officer, after he was fired because of his actions caught on video showing him throwing an uncooperative black female student across the floor.

The students walked out of classes and gathered in the atrium to express their views on the firing of Fields. Some in the crowd — which included both black and white students — wore T-shirts reading "Free Fields" or "#BringBackFields."

Spring Valley High Principal Jeff Temoney sent a letter to parents afterward saying that the students were back in class within 10 minutes and that class continued in a "safe and productive manner." "I addressed the students to let them know that we understood their need to make their voices heard," Temoney wrote. "Then I reminded them that Spring Valley High is all about the business of teaching and learning, so it's time to go back to class."

It seems like the Principal handled the situation well but the real question is was Ben Fields’ actions justified? The footage of the original incident sparked a national debate on the officer's actions. In the original confrontation two Monday’s ago, Fields can be heard telling the student to get up. A few moments later, he grabbed the student as she was in her seat, which caused the girl and the chair to flip over onto the floor. Fields was then seen dragging the girl for several feet and restraining her on the ground.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Fields had the right to put his hands on the student, but that when he threw the girl across the room that is when he violated resource officer training because they are taught to deescalate such situations.

The bigger question is what can a school do about a disruptive student? California is moving in the wrong direction. [No surprise there as the trend has been to make excuses for uncivil behavior for the sake of political correctness – thank you Jerry Brown].

California has become the first state in the nation to prohibit schools from suspending or expelling students who engage in “willful defiance” behavior. One reason for the passage of Assembly Bill 420, according to the sponsors, is that it has been disproportionately used statewide to discipline African-American students and, in some districts, Latino students. In 2012-13, African-Americans made up about 6 percent of total enrollment, but 19 percent of suspensions for defiance. Other minorities also may be more susceptible to suspension or expulsion for behavior such as talking back to teachers, fooling around in class, talking to other students at inappropriate times, and other disruptive behaviors that make it difficult to provide a learning environment in K-12.

There is no doubt that students must be treated equal in the application of the law and any deviation from this standard is unacceptable. The issue for me is the new law provides no alternatives to suspension or expulsion for willful defiance. While I agree in some cases the punishment may exceed the crime, school kids still have to learn ethical values such as respect, responsibility for one’s actions, and a work ethic. Disruptive behaviors fly in the face of developing these values. Furthermore, it makes the job of a teacher more difficult at a time when attention span is a big issue, especially for kids at younger ages, and the lack of clear cut standards for willful defiance behavior means the implementation of the law can vary quite a bit from one school district to another. Moreover, students are supposed to be learning lifetime skills and willful defiance is not one of them.

I believe the best way to treat willful defiance is by first calling a meeting with the parents to discuss the improper behaviors. This should be used as a teachable moment both for the student and parents, the latter of whom who might take it for granted that their kid is a model for good behavior. The parents may very well need a wake-up call as much as the kid does. After all, discipline begins in the home and should not be left solely to the school. Disruptive behavior should also be discussed in class in a general way and linked to ethical behavior.

I recommend that the first offense should lead to a warning that goes on the kids’ record. Thereafter, the school should periodically communicate with the parents about the “progress” of their kid. The second offense should lead to suspension. A continued pattern of disruptive behavior, even after appropriate steps have been taken to change those behaviors, should lead to expulsion.

In commenting about the need for the new law, California Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who wrote the legislation, claims one of the reasons for the disproportionate effects of willful defiance on these students is that teachers and administrators lack cultural competence. “We see disproportionate levels of discipline for LGBT-identifying kids, disabled kids, as well as African American kids and Latino kids,” he said. “I think it has to do with expectations that teachers and administrators have about behavioral norms. In many instances, students may have different expectations of behavioral norms.” Does that mean teachers should adopt those expectations rather than what they think, as educators, is right versus wrong?

Obviously, any discriminatory application of the willful defiance provision is wrong. Ethics requires fair treatment for all groups based on the same standard of behavior and equal application of the law. However, I do take exception to the remark that teachers and administrators have different expectations of behavioral norms than students and, therefore, the willful defiance provision is somehow flawed. This is ethical relativism at its worst. We [should] have a set of values based on what is right and what is wrong behavior. If we can’t even agree on those values, then we’ve already lost the battle and we wind up with a society where anyone can do whatever they want as long as it conforms to one’s personal expectations.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 5, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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