More discipline a must in the schools

March 18, 2001|By C. Stephen Wallis

TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES like those played out recently in schools across the country involving teen-agers taking the lives of others provides an opportunity to reflect on the role each of us plays in our culture.

It is particularly fitting for school officials in 15,000 public school districts nationwide to examine the degree to which each school provides a culture that is conducive to consistent teaching and learning.

Schools clearly are not at fault for the actions of students who have a host of emotional issues. Such individuals are responsible for their own actions and no justification ever can be given for their exacting such mayhem and grief upon others.

There is, however, an important role schools must play that sends a clear message to everyone that disrespectful behavior is never appropriate and will not go unattended.

Such a message is relevant and important because a familiar refrain among many of the school tragedies involves the perpetrator(s) feeling alienated, bullied, harassed and not particularly popular in the adolescent struggle to be cool.

Where such behavior exists -- some say all too routinely in too many school settings -- schools need to be quick to intervene. Where the interactions of many within the school setting do not revolve around a sense of courtesy, respect and self-restraint, the environment becomes toxic, exacerbating the troubling issues that some bring to school.

Further, such an environment undercuts attempts to address academic achievement or to make meaningful connections with a student body. Competent and hard-working school officials, instructional staff and parents throughout the country continually cite with frustration the degree to which disrespectful, disruptive behavior is nauseatingly tolerated in too many schools, homes and communities.

A number of school districts have zero-tolerance policies regarding the use of weapons and drugs.

They would do well to be equally intolerant of ugly, disparaging remarks to others; the flaunting of school rules and procedures, routine discourtesy or disregard for others; fighting; repeated classroom interruptions and disrespectful behavior to teaching staff -- which teacher unions state frequently nets little, if any, meaningful disciplinary follow-up.

These kinds of behaviors, after all, have a cumulative effect, frequently resulting in further violent behavior by those feeling emboldened to take license with another's dignity. Teachers report that such indifference steals integrity and smothers learning, among the major reasons why up to 50 percent leave the profession within three years of entering the classroom.

It's true that school districts have encouraged students to report threats of violence by peers; indeed, authorities acting on such tips have foiled a number of planned attacks.

Schools must be equally aggressive in making it clear -- no matter the size of the student population -- that every student is unique and valued, that every student can succeed, is expected to behave admirably and should feel free to advise any adult staff member of any concerns.

Schools don't necessarily need formal character education programs to teach right from wrong, and the schools that do not provide this function as an underpinning to curricular and extra-curricular activities perform a disservice to children and the larger society.

Returning courtesy, civility and self-restraint to the school may not preclude the possibility of tragedy visiting the campus. Failing to do so surely invites chaos.

C. Stephen Wallis, a Howard County school administrator, is a co-author of "Making America Safer" (Heritage Foundation, 1998).

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