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Apodaca: Discipline is tough to get right

April 26, 2014|By Patrice Apodaca

If there's one conclusion that's easy to reach in the wake of recent school scandals it's that discipline is the most difficult, controversial, fraught-filled aspect of education. And considering that everything having to do with education is difficult, controversial and fraught-filled, that's saying a lot.

We find parents, teachers, administrators, students and school board members battling among themselves, driven by competing agendas, varying vantage points and feelings of victimization. We hear calls from those who demand stern punishment for miscreant students, just maybe not when it comes to their own kids. Lawyers get involved. Community outrage ensues.

Meanwhile, the policy pendulum swings one way, then the other, from zero tolerance to restorative justice. With each change more training is required to make policies effective — or at least consistent.

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Yes, discipline is a minefield that tests the spines of educators everywhere. I imagine many a school principal starting each day hoping to make it through a packed schedule only to be detoured time and again by the need to deal with a behavior problem. Or a teacher dreading facing a class in which one kid just won't settle down, shut up and stop distracting the other students. You have to wonder sometimes how any learning gets done.

A couple of recent high-profile cases illustrate the explosiveness inherent in the administration of discipline. The Corona del Mar High School cheating scandal prompted one Newport-Mesa Unified administrator to quit in protest over the expulsion of 11 students. And in Santa Monica, school officials backtracked from a decision to place a high school teacher on leave for tussling with a student in class after many outraged parents demanded his reinstatement.

I'm not defending the actions taken in these or other cases. But it is worth acknowledging that school discipline is really hard, and even in the best of circumstances, it tends to suck a lot of the air out of the basic job of educating kids.

To get an idea of the scope of disciplinary issues, consider the data from the California Department of Education's Suspension and Expulsion Report, which states that in the 2012-13 school year, seven expulsions, 965 suspensions and 1,608 "other actions" were administered in Newport-Mesa.

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