One Friday this past semester, Charlottesville High School classes were canceled for the day. The reason for this break was not a national holiday, nor a rather early and fortuitous snow day. Instead, the teachers, who have dedicated their lives to educating the future generation, did not feel comfortable showing up to school. Since the pandemic, and particularly this school year, there has been a rise in rule-breaking and violence among students at CHS. It was this trend of violence and a lack of support in addressing behavioral issues which prompted the superintendent to close the high school which constitutes an unprecedented step. When a rising lack of discipline in CHS becomes so evident, many see a form of stricter punishment as necessary to inculcate discipline back into the minds of students.
This discipline issue is not unique to Charlottesville, although CHS represents an extreme example. The increase in student disregard for school rules since the COVID-19 pandemic, from disrespecting teachers to full-on fights, has led school districts from Nevada to Kentucky to reintroduce harsher disciplinary responses. While these harsher responses are seen as punitive by some, they are a necessary response to a new epidemic — a lack of student respect for rules. In order to repair this broken system, schools should re-emphasize in-school suspension systems that simultaneously discipline students while also devoting themselves to the education of all.
Nationally, there has been some criticism of a harsher consequentialist approach like ISS, wherein rule-breaking students are separated from the class at large but not from the school premises. Detractors note that racial disparities are often prevalent in the implementation of punishments such as ISS. Moreover, these same critics rightfully assert that when it comes to schooling, dedication should not be for just hard-working students, but for everyone. They suggest instead a restorative justice approach to school problems in which the emphasis lies in an overall cooperative, constructive approach to conflict resolution rather than formal punishment like suspensions. In this vein, infractions will often be handled through discussions with the student on their misbehavior. Indeed, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation of this kind of approach in schools was on the rise across the country.
However, it is increasingly clear that fully-fledged restorative justice is not the answer in a time of rising violence. Nevertheless, this does not mean that these proponents are flat-out wrong. In order for education to become the universal stepping stone of upward mobility that most idealize it to be, it must help all students dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge — not just those for whom it is easy to do. This does not mean removing ISS for rule-breaking students, but rather reforming the content and objectives behind these suspensions. Discipline should not be for discipline’s sake, but rather as a way of inspiring the same respect for schooling that other students have.
When it comes to the productivity of a school, a small group of misbehaving students can often set the tone for the rest. ISS would protect the majority of rule-following students from having their learning regularly disrupted with violent events. In Virginia, harsher disciplinary punishments were previously sidelined to boost graduation rates. Refocusing around a less extreme but still punitive form of ISS would improve the educational environment for this vast majority of focused students.
Not only will ISS permit better focus among dedicated students, it also has the potential to encourage this mindset among disengaged students. Rather than a form of juvenile solitary, school administrators should use ISS to connect with these disengaged students — utilizing academic help and emphasizing teacher-role models. Just as role models like youth leaders or church leaders can help some in disadvantaged communities, so too can role model teachers. Dedicating time to working with students during ISS can only aid in reducing violence in school.
By using ISS for more individualized assistance, teachers and administrators may connect with students who have become distanced from the principles of schooling. Rule-breaking behavior is not an act without cause. Acting out is a symptom of larger problems that often have their roots at home. ISS should be used to help bolster a student in recognition of these issues — it should be rehabilitative not purely punitive. This attitude would help prevent the vitriol faced by teachers and inspire confidence in our students and educational system.
Education can, and should, be the silver bullet in our society. But when classes can not carry on because of fights, when teachers do not feel safe to teach and inspire, then schools fail to live up to the promises they make to children and citizens. Solutions cannot solely be a half-baked idealism, nor a retributive-inspired punishment. Utilizing ISS in a way that inspires dedication can allow us to ensure that hard-working students get the education they deserve and that those who are struggling receive the assistance they need. Employing empathetic ISS will also ensure we provide teachers with the security necessary to do their important jobs safely. With this pathway toward discipline, schools can ensure that the next time high schoolers wake up to find their classes canceled, it is to go enjoy sledding and snowball fighting instead.
Wylie Brunman is an opinion columnist who writes about politics for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the author alone.