An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High-School Suspensions

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The New York Times Magazine on September 7, 2016 by SUSAN DOMINUS

11discipline1-superjumbo-v3When kids get into trouble at school, traditional forms of discipline often lead to more trouble. Is there a more productive way to change behavior?

In December 2013, Colleen Walsh, a social-studies teacher at Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan’s Financial District, called one of the school’s four deans in charge of discipline. She had just had a short, heated dispute in the hallway with a 17-year-old student who had his cellphone out, a violation of school rules. Walsh, then 27, was an energetic teacher, entertaining and assertive, but something about the way she spoke to the young man, who was not her student, infuriated him. A junior who could be exceptionally charming but also combative, he started yelling at Walsh, at which point she contacted a dean in the hope that he could calm him so they could all discuss what had happened.

Leadership is housed in a tall, narrow building originally intended as office space, with revolving doors at the entrance and an echoing lobby. That day in December, the student had already taken the elevator down to the lobby after the confrontation when he encountered the dean, who, misunderstanding Walsh’s intent, imposed a punishment instead. He told the young man, who was on the school’s basketball team, that he could not play in that evening’s game and that he would also be suspended, because this infraction came on the heels of several others. The student (who declined to comment for this article), now even more irate, took the elevator back to the ninth floor. He burst through the door of Walsh’s classroom, where three students had lingered after class, and faced her, yelling, cursing, accusing her of lying, ignoring Walsh’s repeated requests that he leave the room. Friends tried to pull him toward the door, but he broke away, then hurled over one of the classroom’s chair-desks. They finally succeeded in pulling him out of the classroom, at which point a dean arrived.

Some kind of consequence was clearly in order, the deans and the principal, Phil Santos, agreed. The question was: What would it be?

For the past two decades, how to discipline students has been as hotly contested a subject as how to educate them.  READ ON