Education System’s Deficiency in Deterring Disorderliness

There is a form of punishment used in many U.S. public schools.  Most of these schools have their own unique abbreviation/initialism for it, but essentially it can best be described as in-school detention.  Although policies can vary from district to district, the standard procedure by which this form of detention operates is to segregate students who are troublemakers away from the rest of their peers for a designated period of time, usually by placing them in a room with other equally unmanageable youths.  The reasoning underlying this practice is based on the principle of deterrence, where we are aiming to deter further behavioral problems from the troublemaker students, by cutting them off from the rest of the school network.  Moreover, we are aiming to deter any bad influences said students could have on their fellow classmates.  Unlike suspension, in-school detention presumably provides a set of extra motivating factors to correct bad student behavior.

When a student is sent to be disciplined in this way, her/his teachers will often get a note in their office box asking them if they could either send out busy work for some of the students currently “doing time” in in-school detention (they are still in school, after all), or if they could step in to supervise the troublemakers during one of their off periods.  Normally, none of this is mandatory, and unless one of the disciplined students is one of your own, faculty members generally don’t feel much obligation to respond.  The problem a lot of teachers are seeing, however, is that every time they receive the list of names of students placed in in-school detention, they notice a strange anomaly about the rationale behind this deterrence system; namely, that the names on the list are almost always the same.  Which means it’s the exact same students getting repeatedly crammed into this same room, for largely the same reasons they were there a week ago.

Now, I may not be the brightest bloke around, but how does a form of discipline, operating under the rationality of deterring bad behavior in students, keep having to discipline the same exact students for the same exact behavior it’s set up to deter?  At when point does the whole deterring factor actually come into play here?

I understand that something needs to be done about students who act out badly.  I know that undue lenience can lead to the same result as completely ignoring an obvious problem.  But is this form of punishment really any different from ignoring a problem?  If not, than why are the exact same students always the recipients of a punishment whose primary purpose is supposed to be to correct their bad behavior?  At what point can we say that the policies and procedures in practice have failed to fulfill their desired goal, and maybe–just possibly–an alternate route ought to be considered?  Because if the goal is to truly correct bad behavior (instead of just putting troublemakers out of sight, out of mind), what we are doing now in schools is definitely not working.

One suggestion I have been told is that the punishment is not severe enough.  The rationality here being that young people need to be frightened into a certain mode of behavior, and in-school detention is just not frightening enough to mischievous youths.  To individuals who feel this way I would like to–in return–suggest that they first take a look at how well emphasizing severity as a punitive punishment has worked out in the U.S. criminal justice system over the last 40 years in terms of deterring criminal behavior amongst convicted criminals.  Judging by the fact that the reciprocity rate of criminal offenders has suffered no drop whatsoever (while arrests, and re-arrests, have increases exponentially in most metropolitan areas), I would suggest that perhaps we brainstorm a few other ideas first.

Furthermore, speaking as someone who has supervised in-school detention periods before, I can assure you that the students who are sent there aren’t happy or proud about it.  They understand it’s a punishment, and they view it as a punishment, and they feel no pleasure from being there.  What they do feel is anger, which is fine if the goal is to make them feel pissed off for having been caught breaking the rules, but that’s not what these sort of disciplines are claiming as their goal.  The claimed goal of in-school detention is to deter and correct bad behavior.  Getting people angry for the bad things they do can never correct bad and stupid behavior, because anger is a catalyst for more bad and stupid behavior.  When you’re angry you don’t sit back and reflect rationally about your bad judgment.  In fact, in such a state of mind you are much more likely to exercise even more bad judgment.  Besides, short of going back to the olden days of beating bad behaving students with a ruler, I don’t really see what more we could do on the severity scale on account that for the hours they spend in in-school detention we are already treating them like incarcerated criminals.  And make no mistake about it, that is exactly how they feel and it’s doing nothing to remedy whatever is instigating their behavior.

“Okay, Sascha.  How about then you step down from your soapbox, stop being a condescending ‘know-it-all’ blogger, and actually tell us a practical alternative route we can take.”

Fair enough, hypothetical reader (who somehow always seems to know just what to say to keep the plot of my posts moving along smoothly).  You don’t correct bad behavior by ignoring it, and you don’t correct it by emphasizing the severity of punishment above all else either.  In my experience what works best is a combination of swiftness and discretion.  If a student breaks the rules in place in a classroom, it makes no sense to me to send her/him to the principle’s office, who will then send her/him to another office, who will then place her/him in a segregated classroom for about a week, where s/he will sit isolated from the rest of the school, without a word of explanation from anyone as to why s/he shouldn’t be behaving the way s/he did (aside from the patronizing, “Because it’s against school policy”).  But this is exactly what so many educators do.  Instead of dealing with the problem swiftly and directly, they pass the responsibility of assigning concrete consequences on to someone else; i.e. out of sight, out of mind.

In my experience, the best chance for actual long-term behavioral correction comes by confronting the student about their behavior, on your own terms, and explaining the consequences that will result from this behavior immediately following its occurrence, without constantly shipping her/him through some asinine administrative roundabout.  If the offense is committed in my classroom, it is my responsibility to deal with it, because individual cases of misbehavior require individual consequences.  And I promise you, when consequences are customized to each breach in conduct committed by each individual student, it leaves a much more lasting impression on the mischievous youth than a generalized decree ordained by some top-level administrator who doesn’t even know the student’s name, let alone the circumstances surrounding her/his behavioral issues.

Please don’t misunderstand what I mean by “confronting the student” as some sort of public declaration against her/him in front of class.  Consequences to bad behavior have to be swift, but they are also most effective when discloses in private.  When someone publicly confronts you about your behavior (even when you know that you’re in the wrong), you are much less receptive to the message than you would be if the person made the effort to avoid humiliating you in front of your peer group.  I don’t care how your intuition tells you to approach it, the plain fact is that discreteness in these situations works because it gives the teenager–whose full reasoning faculties are still developing–the thing s/he craves most:  the courtesy of being spoken to like an adult, instead of being repeatedly scolded like a child.

I know someone reading this is probably dismissing me as just too soft on those disorderly “little assholes”.  If you’re one of these readers let me ask you, what do you think is more likely to happen when a teacher publicly calls out a student for behaving like the “little asshole” s/he most probably is?  Do you think that the student will rationally consider the consequences of their misbehavior, and thereby learn the value of civil conduct?  Or is the student going to feel that s/he has to go on the defensive and save face in front of her/his friends by stubbornly locking horns with the teacher?  All of this is dependent on what results you’re aiming for.  I’m aiming to actually correct delinquent behavior; if you’re aiming to simply piss off “little assholes” and “give ‘em what they’ve got comin’” have fun engaging in your pissing match with an adolescent, just remember only one of you is expected to be the adult in the situation.

The reason I care about this issues is that I’m concerned that the policies and procedures we have in place to deal with misbehavior in the educational system parallel too closely with the practices prevalent within the criminal justice system.  Educators are entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing minds that are still maturing.  As the adults in the room–the sole individual with the experience and developed cognitive faculties to exercise the restraint and judgement necessary to deal with a volatile situation–the consequences of how disorderly conduct is treated and corrected has to fall on our shoulder, whether we like it to or not.  But I don’t see how we all can live up to this duty, how we can mend well-adjusted adults as a society, if we keep placing disorderly students into ineffective programs and policies that are firstly failing to address the underlying issues causing bad behavior, and secondly failing to correct said behavior.  I care about this because there is a decent chance that today’s delinquents will be tomorrow’s felons–and if we condition them at a young age that social institutions have no means or interest in dealing with them as thinking persons, there is little reason for them to be.

Justice vs. Vengeance

People hate criminals, and I don’t mean that in a broad idealistic sense.  I mean that, in real life, people genuinely despise criminals.  I had to qualify the last sentence with in real life, as I’m well aware how much we love to cheer on the bad guys in movies, but whenever there is an actual trial going on, we still tend to side against the guy/gal being prosecuted; often for good reasons.  We simply can’t help but voice our desire to see justice against the perpetrator/s, so that we as a society can be assured about the efficiency of our judiciary system is keeping us safe.  (When I say “we,” I am not trying to be rhetorical or play up some kind of subtle “ignorance of the masses” shtick,  since I have no hesitations about including myself in the aforementioned group of people.)

In the western world, prisons are meant to be institutions of punishment and rehabilitation; a place where those who step outside the law can be safely secluded from the general population, making sure they don’t cause any further harm to the public, and a place where the dangerous behavior of criminals can be corrected so that they can reenter public life as law abiding citizens (it must also be kept in mind that much of this is dependent on the nature and circumstances of the crime one was prosecuted for).  However, I have to admit, that when I hear that a criminal has received a sentence for a crime, I’m not concerned about any of the above; what I care about is satisfying my own indirect sense of vengeance against the offender–and from what I can gather, the prison system (at least in the U.S., but I suspect other places too) is regulated in such a way as to feed this thirst for punishment I (and much of the public) have towards those who fail to follow the strict laws we choose to abide by on a daily basis.

Friedrich  Nietzsche once wrote on judicial punishment that “It does not cleanse the criminal, it is no atonement; on the contrary, it pollutes worse than the crime does” (Nietzsche, The Dawn, section 236).  It is no secret that convicts often leave prison with a better understanding of criminal networks than they had on entering it.  We know this, and we largely don’t care.  We seem to be satisfied enough with the initial sense of indignation we experienced at removing the felon from public eye, hence any further commitment that might be required of us to reintegrate the person back into the greater sphere of society is lost on us.  The desire for rehabilitation has been all but removed from the correctional program, because what we truly care about is revenge on those who have dared to put us–and our communities–in harms way, not their eventual return to our fold; in fact, as far as we’re concerned, they are social lepers.

We deride any notion of being soft on criminal offenders, because our judicial process must send a clear message to others who might be inclined to commit a felony.  After all, the argument goes, what’s to discourage potential criminals unless they understand the great misery that will befall on them if they decide to step outside the law.  But I see a major fault in reasoning here.  It is true that many of us are discouraged from committing crimes because we fear the consequences that might result from our illegal actions; however, it is also true that many of the very people who do commit crimes are just as informed of the possible repercussions as the rest of us who don’t.  Granted, most (if not all) of them don’t expect to get caught, thus it can be argued that the real threat of punishment becomes important only as a result of backward-looking reasoning.  But the same could also be said for the rest of us, who don’t dare to step out of the arm of the law.

For those of us who live in metropolitan areas, the jail cells are largely occupied by individuals who are repeat offenders, completely aware of the grim reality that awaits convicted criminals.  A natural response we might have to this is to conclude that the judiciary is not harsh enough; which, while understandable, ignores the fact that in the U.S., states that still implement the death penalty (the harshest consequence that can be administered to convicted criminals), do not average out a lower crime rate than states that have done away with corporeal punishment.  Therefore, it is disingenuous to conclude a correlation between the severity of judicial punishment and criminal deterrence (this, of course, applies mainly to the judicial system of democratic countries, because the nature of the system still offers some level of protection from judiciary abuse).

To be perfectly honest, every argument I can come up with as to why I feel this instinctive need for vengeance against criminals can be safely attributed to post hoc reasoning on my part.  For years I thought the source of this fallacy to be the result of a misguided superiority complex, by which I subconsciously placed my social worth above that of the lowly convicts.  But, upon further reflection, I’m becoming convinced that the opposite might be true; I want vengeance against the criminal because he has made been feel inferior.  He has made me feel restrained by the system, which he has so casually ignored; for this I want his ill-earned freedom stripped from him.  Consciously, I’m calling for the criminal to be taught the virtue of being humane, yet, subconsciously, I want the criminal to be dehumanized to reassure me about the safety of the rest of human society.  Thus, without even wanting to, I’m making the entire notion of justice a measly vendetta to satisfy my own trivial personal impulses.

Perhaps, I’m being overly melodramatic, and reading to deep into things, thereby creating problems that don’t exists outside my vibrant imagination; I’m fully open to this possibility.  But if I’m even partly right about our tendency to place more importance on our need for vengeance, rather than fair and unbiased justice, is it proper of us to simply rationalize it away as irrelevant–instead of at least acknowledging it head on?