Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: What've you got?    Marlon Brando - Johnny in “The Wild One” 1953

     Schools are, and have always been, a reflection of our society. The societal issues we face are, like the people of our society, a  wonderfully illogical mix of multiple beliefs and interests, tragic and triumphant circumstances, individually unique backgrounds and talents and seldom prone to universal  solutions.  Over the past few years I have heard - and I’m sure you have too - ideas presented as solutions to violence in schools including changes in gun laws, upgrades to mental health screenings, arming teachers, metal detectors in all schools, armed guards patrolling the entrances and halls, rapid response systems, improved background checks, requiring daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, restoring prayer (it never left, by the way...lawyers just changed who led it),  the installation of cameras and video monitors, anti-gang,anti-violence, anti-bullying, anti-whatever education programs and probably hundreds of other ideas that generally address the symptoms and not the problem itself.
    Here’s one thing I haven’t heard discussed that may in fact be a big part of the problem - compulsory education.  All states have legal requirements for children between certain ages to attend school.  Yes, there’s a choice in whether they attend public schools, private schools, religious schools, alternative schools or home schools, but every kid must be enrolled somewhere.  In Georgia, the age range is between 6 and 16. There are fines and/or penalties for parents that do not comply.  Everyone? So here’s the problem: most kids like school...some kids don’t.  Do they have the ability at 14, 15 or 16 to make a rational decision about whether or not they want to go to college?  No, but they do manage, in some cases, to disrupt their classes to the point that no one learns anything.  Do the rights of kids that want to be there end when their classes are continuously disrupted by one who doesn’t?  Evidently they do. It may be that we are creating our own enemies by forcing those that don’t want to be there to attend, and that the rule of unintended consequences is at work in our schools. At one time requiring all kids to go to school was a great idea.  It may not be so great anymore, especially after the age of 14.
    Some students struggle academically.  They deserve every opportunity - and then some - to remain in class and receive the assistance needed to continue their efforts. It’s not disruptive for a student to ask for extra help or another explanation or revisit a problem or question. In every school, however, there’s a small group of students that don’t want to be there, but they have no recourse. As a general rule the behavioral issues we are talking about here manifest themselves more aggressively and  egregiously as these students get older. Where defiance of authority was once an exceptional occurrence, it now is a fact of daily life for teachers and administrators.  Principals spend their days dealing with the same disruptive disciplinary issues from the same kids over and over again.  Parents are quickly frustrated and become convinced the problem is the school and not their kid. They may have a point, at least partly.  Schools are built on conformity, and not every child today is going to conform. Blame it on the degradation of social mores, the degeneration of the nuclear family, video games, violence on TV, movies or in music, the availability of anything to anybody on the internet, lack of religious training, the ADHD epidemic, the ever-increasing number of students with behavior disorders or anything else you can think of, but blaming doesn’t change the fact that what was once unacceptable behavior in the classroom is now commonplace.    Teachers spend their time and resources dealing with a few that don’t have the desire or inclination to learn anything except how far they have to push before they get suspended again.  What teachers and administrators are seeing are not the problems of daily discipline like talking in class or chewing gum or not doing homework but disruption caused by those that are truly not interested in learning anything we are requiring them to be there to learn and, since they can’t get attention by being the student that always knows the correct answer they get it through misbehavior and disruption and violence. In effect, they dare schools to put them out because they know that sooner or later they will be back.  To what point? In the real world, these kids could have options that would not drain time and resources from the kids that actually do want to be there, but what resources do schools have? Very few, apparently.
    Why, just send them to alternative school you might say.  There again - if the focus is on conformity you are not providing a real choice. Sooner or later, even after an extended suspension, expulsion or time at an alternative school, they return to regular classes and the cycle begins again.  Some kids do learn from their mistakes and go on to achieve academically...but what about those that don’t or, even worse, don’t want to?  How does compulsory attendance help them when their goal is disruption in a continued effort not to be where the law requires them to be?  What if, as we have seen, their goal is no longer participation in the educational process but has developed into an intense hatred of and desire to get even with everyone that even tangentially participated in making them hate what they are required by law to do?  Well, then, just kick them out you might counter.  That requires a legal process that you would have to experience to believe, and even then the local system and state would be required to provide some sort of educational setting for them if they were under the age of 16.  In some cases that age is extended by Federal law to age 21.
    Compulsory attendance laws hide the fact that most kids want to be in school, and would do so without a legal requirement. I would argue that choice is a prime motivator in learning.  Ask any teacher. Most students would not choose to be in a class with someone that spent much of their class time disrupting the learning process for others. Those kids are not, however, given that choice. In these cases, the rights of the majority are, by law, subourned by the rights of the individual to a “free and appropriate public education.”.
    Discipline and punishment in public schools have been limited through the legislative and judicial system because attendance in those schools is compulsory and mandated. The legal requirements are intended to provide safeguards for individuals that make it practically impossible for schools to choose a disciplinary approach that effectively solves disciplinary issues for the kids that want to be somewhere - anywhere - else. Private schools are not subject to these restrictions. I won’t argue that private schools don’t have issues, but generally we do not see the violent behaviors and dangers to others that are appearing with alarming frequency in public schools. If a student’s behavior in private school is detrimental to the learning of other students, they are removed.  Period.  Attendance in those schools is a choice.
    I am not advocating a zero tolerance policy for bad behavior or the death penalty for not having a pencil in class.  I am saying that there are some behaviors or an accumulated history of disruptive or dangerous behaviors should meet limits for participation for students - especially over the age of 14 - in the learning process.
    Perhaps an answer for some of these students would be a vocational alternative after 8th grade. The “everyone has to go to college” nonsense has already consigned to failure many of those less than academically gifted students. Students see and know more than we think they do.  A kid that has been socially promoted to the degree that he has no hope of passing regular classes in high school knows and is aware of his situation.  He really has little or no incentive to put forth any effort on his own educational behalf.  Why not give them a real educational alternative? There is no crime in a vocational alternative to academic achievement. Insisting that every student must go to college ignores differences in the human condition, and follows the same inane logic that says every child deserves an individualized education - so here’s our standardized curriculum and standardized tests to teach it to you.  
    Violence in any form - gangs, thefts, bullying, drugs, fighting, weapons - is a serious issue.  Any improvements to education must begin by addressing that problem before moving on to improving academic performance.  It doesn’t matter how good your teachers or how wonderful your curriculum or what a beautiful building you have if students are worried about their safety in the classroom. If a student doesn’t want to be in school, should your child’s education suffer because the law says they have to be there whether they want to or not?  Do other students’ rights end where an individual’s rights begin?  If we don’t find ways to address this issue then we will soon awake to find that the only ones left in class are those that don’t want to be there.  It would appear that good intentions have once again paved the road to perdition.


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