Education Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Student discipline has been in flux


After I finished school, I didn’t think much about public education until I became a parent. But when my daughter started at Bristol Elementary I realized things have changed a lot since I went to school there.

My daughter started 7th grade at Mt. Abe this year. From building renovations, to schools voting to leave the district, to the recent meeting over safety and policy concerns, school issues have been in the news. Throw COVID-19 in the mix, with social distancing, mask wearing, and adjusting to remote learning, and it is a crazy time to be attending school.

My 73-year-old father’s experiences at schools in Bristol during the ‘50s and ‘60s are almost unrecognizable from my daughter’s. Recently we all sat down and talked about it. While my dad has endless entertaining anecdotes that may make a cameo in future columns, I want to focus on recent concerns for the safety of students and staff in schools.

To me, there are two very different situations that lead to unsafe situations. First is when a child who has cognitive or behavioral differences who should have personalized attention isn’t getting the care they need and becomes unsafe to themselves or others. Second is simply kids being out of control. One needs to be addressed with appropriate staff and resources. The other stems from something fundamentally wrong today with the way parents and society are raising children.

I asked my daughter how often there were disruptive students in the classroom, and how it affected her teachers’ ability to teach and the students’ ability to learn.

“In elementary school the first time something like that happened was in third or fourth grade. The kid was taken out of the classroom by one of the planning room staff. In fifth grade, there were two times when we had to leave the room because the disruptive student was refusing to leave. “Clear the halls” were mostly if someone got sick in the hall, or if someone got hurt. I think the teachers dealt with it really well, doing the necessary things to keep the class safe. But the same could not be said for the students, who mostly couldn’t focus for the rest of the day.”

I also asked my dad what teachers did about disruptive students when he was in school. He said there weren’t any.

“In 7th and 8th grade I had Mrs. Wright as a homeroom teacher. She was a diminutive older lady who often spoke Spanish to us. We’d have an assignment to work on. You could open the top of the desk to get your stuff out, but we would open it up and fool around behind it. The teacher would walk around the room, and she had a ruler. If you weren’t on task, she would hit you with a ruler. There was no fooling around after that.”

Next, I asked my daughter if she’d ever felt unsafe at school.

“I have never personally felt unsafe at school, but I know there are people who just don’t like a certain student and will claim they feel in danger just to make them leave. I think the administration does pretty well with it. Teachers always try to carry on, and pick up where things left off, and there are many counselors and trusted adults at the school to talk to if you need to.”

Reflecting on the “clear the halls” incidents (when students must enter the nearest classroom and stay behind locked doors) and frequent active shooter drills unheard of when I was a student, my daughter said, “I think that these disruptive behaviors happen because students aren’t getting enough support from their family. The school has always had guidance counselors, and I think that is a very good thing, but nothing like this would happen if everyone had a good family support system.”

When my father thought back to if there were ever students who were physically aggressive or destructive, he couldn’t think of any incidents like this happening, ever.

While obviously a small sample, it is interesting to look at how the school experience has changed from my parents’ generation to my child’s. While I’m glad that teachers are no longer rapping students on the knuckles with rulers, I worry about increasing behavioral disruptions and even violent episodes, and I’m not convinced all the advances in public education have been positive.

Claire Corkins grew up and lives in Bristol and studied Human Ecology at College of the Atlantic in Maine. After college she worked abroad teaching English as a second language. She currently works with her father in such various endeavors as painting houses, tiling bathrooms, building porches, and fixing old windows. She hikes, reads, plays ice hockey, travels, and wishes she could wear flip flops all year round.

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