As Katherine Kersten pointed out (“Mollycoddle no more,” March 20), circumstances in some of our schools are indeed disturbing. Nobody should feel scared at school. However, addressing violent behavior in a vacuum is shortsighted.
Children do not become violent simply because a consequence at school was not strong enough. We have to consider the circumstances that lead to violent behavior, and the many ways in which society and its institutions are implicated. By taking this approach, the St. Paul Public Schools have chosen a long-range perspective toward school discipline that positions us for a safer and healthier future for all.
When children act out at school, they are communicating something about their conditions. Communicating about our basic needs is an incredible human capability. We understand this in infants, and we learn to interpret their cries so we can give them what they need. Older children still need deep relationships with adults who can interpret their more subtle cries. So, when children go to drastic lengths to show their discontent, we have to look carefully at their conditions, while we find humane ways for them to learn from their mistakes.
The root causes of what some call antisocial or maladaptive behavior in young people are complicated and multifaceted. Centuries of inequities have led to the fact that students of color and other marginalized students disproportionately face unjust circumstances. These include early-childhood trauma, exposure to violence, substance abuse, and lack of access to mental health services. Identifying any one of these as a root cause of a child’s behavior doesn’t work.
For example, the argument that single parenting causes antisocial behavior fails to acknowledge that living in poverty is actually the more powerful variable. We would better serve individual children and society as a whole if we focused our efforts on combating poverty instead of condemning individuals who have landed in impoverished conditions. Complex problems require complex solutions.
Additionally, it is important to acknowledge the role of adult behavior and attitudes in how we make distinctions among different children’s behavior. Specifically, educational research has demonstrated the exorbitant disproportionality in responses to black boys’ behavior compared with behavior of children from other racial and gender categories. Black boys tend to receive more restrictive punishments and are more likely to be labeled as “troublemakers” than other students exhibiting the same behaviors.
Regardless of what the child is being punished for, detention and suspension do not work. They don’t change behavior; they make it worse. Psychology studies have shown the profound impact of labeling children as deviant or abnormal on future antisocial behavior. Criminal justice studies have shown that a threat of punishment has little influence on impulsive violence and that sending children to jail increases the likelihood that they will reoffend. School policies that push marginalized children into the criminal justice system often start them down a path that they do not escape (i.e., the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline).
Education has started to respond with policies designed to reduce the use of detention and suspension as disciplinary mechanisms and by addressing the many consequences of a predominantly white and female teaching force working with increasingly diverse communities. This shift of perspective requires taking a complex view of the contexts of these children’s lives, and the conditions to which they are responding.
Public schools around the country are offering innovative and restorative approaches to addressing the roots of violent behavior, but responding to complex problems with appropriately complex solutions takes time. The good news is that young people are capable of change — in fact, all children are capable of greatness — when their conditions support it. Access to resources, care and coping skills during childhood can have a remarkable impact on resilience in adulthood.
If we can imagine a present where children can learn from their mistakes and build healthy relationships with the adults who are there to support them, then we can start to imagine a future where nobody ever has to feel afraid at school and all children have the opportunity to learn.
Annie Mogush Mason is a lecturer and coordinator of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota. Jillian Peterson is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University and an alumna of St. Paul Central High School.