When Schools Tolerate Violence, For Money

When Schools Tolerate Violence, For Money

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Ed. Note: School discipline has become a hot topic among educators and policymakers, particularly in California where suspensions, expulsions and other disciplinary practices have been widely employed – there were 700,842 suspensions and 18,648 expulsions at California public schools last year – and widely debated. While some argue that these “zero tolerance” policies affect poor students of color disproportionately and create a “school to prison pipeline,” others say suspensions and expulsions are reasonable and even necessary outcomes for students who exhibit unacceptable behaviors at school. You can read and listen to additional NAM stories about “zero tolerance," here.

If there was ever any doubt about who is running my high school, it was put to rest this week. The students now know punching a teacher will get you a week off while simultaneously making you campus hero on Facebook.

Come to think of it, it might be the best way to get out of a class you don’t like. Having a hard time with your geometry teacher? Bash his face a few times, and when you are quickly allowed to come back to school, you’ll be in another class with another teacher you won’t like.

This has been a problem at my high school for as long as I’ve been here. Students bring knives to school and are on campus the next day. A student throws a desk at a teacher and is back in class the same period. No, I did not make those two examples up.

Or how about last year when a kid tackled a police officer on our campus. Yes, assaulted a man in uniform as his boys cheered him on. That kid was back on campus in less than a week.

Evidently my high school, which is the largest high school in the city, is where the district makes all its money. Each school gets money for how many kids are present each day. My school is what they call a “Butt in Seat” school. Those higher up make sure we have as many butts in seats as possible so that they get as much money as possible. So when we request suspensions and expulsions, the paperwork is thrown right back in our faces, and the students are back at school before you know it.

Because their eyes are focused on the so-called larger picture, our district officials don’t see what such a strategy has on the culture of a school. I’ll tell you what it does to the school in question.

It creates a culture of fear where the students are in charge.

Even before one of my colleagues was recently assaulted by a student, it was a mad-house around here. Of course, working at a low-income public high school, it is what you sign up for. But this year I have been at the point where I can’t even open my classroom door. For real.

The last three times I had my classroom door open during class time, I had to write four referrals—but not for my own students! I am writing referrals for students walking by my doorway and doing things like yelling swear words into my room, expressions too vulgar for me to reprint here.

These kids walk by and see a room full of silent students writing, and they feel they need to make themselves heard. So if my door is open while I’m teaching one of my classes, I alternately have kids throwing things inside, kicking the door, banging on my windows, and screaming profanity. I am truly at the point where I cannot have my door open—ever!

Not that this year is much different from others. This culture of anarchy has been brewing for a long, long time. It comes from the knowledge there are no consequences for bad behavior. I don’t even know what you have to do at my school to get expelled.

Every year I suspend three to four students every other day (when they show up) over the course of the entire year for what must add up to 30 days of school. As a teacher, the only thing I can do is suspend a student from my classroom for two days. There don't seem to be other consequences aside from that.

For example, a student tells me last week, “F**k you… you ugly ass b**h, I hate you, f**k you...” I suspend him from my class for two days, but he isn’t even suspended from school. He still shows up to all his other classes, just not mine. Then two days later he’s back.

That’s how I get to a point where over the course of a year I suspend a kid 30 times. I give him two days, he comes back, two more days, comes right back, two days again, he’s back cursing at me, and so on and so forth. Aside from the two days from me, nothing else ever happens to them.

I think back to when I was in high school. I remember getting suspended for throwing balled up paper at a girl I had a crush on during passing period. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if I called a teacher the things I now get called once a week.

Yet I fear this latest development is going to be the one that breaks our backs.

Needing to fill our limited coffers by cramming our classrooms full of students who couldn’t be expelled even if they wanted to is inexcusable. It is something the faculty has argued bitterly about for as long as I’ve been at this school. But when a teacher is battered, punched three times, and the perpetrator who committed what the rest of the adult world calls a felony comes right back to school, it makes me wonder what kind of insane world I teach in.

Do you want to know why people leave this profession in droves? It is very simple. It is the very reason one of our teachers quit last year after a decade of educating: We don’t feel safe in classrooms.

And why would we? You can literally get sent to the hospital by the kids you teach, and it’s still all good.

And if the adults don’t feel safe, imagine how the students feel.

Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a featured blogger at EducationNews.org, a leading international website for education issues. You can also follow his work on the blogsite, Teach4Real.com