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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

There was a fight at my school last week, a big, ugly fight in the street just after students were dismissed for the day. Some older relatives of the girl who instigated the fight were involved. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds of students, gathered around to watch.

A teacher tried to break it up and was accidentally punched. It ended with one of the girls being handcuffed and taken away by police. She will be expelled from this school and placed in another Oakland, California, public school. The other girls who fought were suspended for five days.

An Iron Fist Is Not the Answer

Teachers are now demanding that this incident be the impetus for enforcing a stricter discipline policy. Several have suggested that students who watch fights be suspended. Generally, the staff agrees that we should suspend students more often and expel the troublemakers more quickly and that we need more security guards patrolling our campus. This is a middle school of fewer than 400 students. There are two full-time security guards on campus. Seventy-five percent of our students are African American.

At my school, kids are most often suspended for fighting or repeatedly getting into trouble. But last year, one of my eighth-grade girls called the vice principal something unprintable; she was suspended and threatened with expulsion. There is, in general, a feeling of "us versus them," particularly in the hallways, where teachers see student behavior as being out of control. The biggest complaints from some staff are that the kids push and run, use profanity, and don't apologize when they bump into an adult.

I understand that some teachers fear for their physical safety. I understand that the teacher who was hit during the fight is very shaken and discouraged. However, the answer to the hostile, negative atmosphere at my school is not a stricter discipline policy and is definitely not more suspensions.

The Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline

There's a ton of research on the negative affect of suspension, particularly on urban male students. The "America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline Report," prepared by the Children's Defense Fund, argues that suspension has a role in the cradle-to-prison-pipeline phenomenon. Below are a few points made in that report that are resonating with me now:

  • Zero-tolerance discipline policies don't improve school achievement or teach a lesson to the offender; they contribute to the "pipeline to prison" by pushing students out of school.
  • School systems are criminalizing school misbehavior, with police officers stationed at schools, arresting students for behavior that used to be handled in the principal's office.
  • America's deeply ingrained philosophy that just getting tough is the way to stop misbehavior rarely works, especially with children. The political pendulum swings from more to less punishment and back again, but the paradigm itself is worn out, and a new one has not taken its place.
  • Despite the image of superpredators and dangerous hallways, most students suspended from school and most juveniles in detention did not commit violent offenses or put the safety of others at risk.

What Is to Be Done?

I have never seen suspension or expulsion work to effectively change a child's behavior. The longer I work in schools, the more suspicious I become of reward-based or fear-based behavior-management systems. I have been thinking a lot about motivation -- intrinsic versus extrinsic. I'm not interested in making kids walk properly; I'm interested in helping them become respectful, conscientious people.

Force Never Heals Pain

My yoga teacher asked her students to direct our breath to areas of our bodies that hurt. "Direct your attention there," she said, "and then just listen to what your body is saying. Don't talk at it; breathe into it. Be gentle. Our bodies don't respond when we try to force them to do things. Force never heals pain. Attention does. Awareness does. Listening does. But not force."

I know that this observation is true. I know that it's true for my body, for my students, for our schools. But how do we listen to them? How do we support them to change their behavior in the hallways for intrinsically motivated reasons?

When I think about the girls who fought, I think that they must have been feeling some great pain, and fear -- consciously or subconsciously. I want to work in a system that has space for kids to be listened to. Do you know of any such places?

How do you think we can hear our kids? How can we bring better attention to their pain and not just push them along toward an end that may include prison? Please share your thoughts.

Comments (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anthony  M Cody's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is a huge problem in our schools. Schools are under tremendous pressure NOT to suspend students, mostly for the very good reasons you cite. However, many schools have not developed effective strategies other than suspension to respond to the violence and defiance that sometimes flares up.

As a result, teachers are put in an impossible bind. We are expected to maintain order and a sharp focus on instruction and achievement, and yet when students arrive and disrupt that environment, we send them to the office and they come right back, as disruptive as ever.

It can help to call parents, early and often, and develop those working relationships. It definitely helps to build strong relationships with students, based on mutual respect. But sometimes these practices are not enough, and the school as an institution needs to step in and provide some support to the individual teacher.

I agree with you that what these students need is intensive support and someone who can help them cope with the issues they are confronting. There were four murders in Oakland just this week -- 34 so far this year. Many of our students are directly affected by this violence, and by the everyday violence of poverty. But our schools have cut back on counseling services. I think our schools need to greatly expand the attention we pay to the emotional well-being of our students. Emotional intelligence has been described as the ability to cope with the challenges we encounter. Unfortunately our schools have been constrained, in part by our culture of testing, which focuses only on academic intelligence. We are seeing the results, and the students and teachers are experiencing a great deal of pain as a result.

Brandon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not disagree with you more. Zero tolerance is exactly what we need. If students follow the "cradle-to-prison-pipeline", it is not the fault of our schools. School is an intellectual sanctuary with rules, policies, and procedures. When a student fails to follow the established policies, they must be punished accordingly. If not, our authority and respectability are dissolved. It is true for me that if I will be disciplined for breaking rules I will not break the rules in fear of being punished. It is true for me, for my students, and our schools. Force may never heal pain, but people remember the pain of the punishment which will prevent them from making the same mistakes. If they do not learn from their mistakes, other students will.

David Cohen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I sympathize with you and your school community, Elena. I don't have any answers, but I do know that there are some robust and well-developed models for alternative responses. I'm sure that there are many factors that influence when and where and why these programs work, and I don't know the programs or your context well enough to recommend anything more than looking into options. Here are some results of a search I did on restorative justice. You might also look into various community based mediation programs. [www_independentmail_com]

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you, David! These are great resources. There are so many alternatives to the standard Suspend/Expel practices that are done. Thanks.

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for adding these comments. They make the discussion so much richer. It's an endless maze of problems and potential and complicating factors. Thanks.

Laura Speegle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach fourth grade at the school attended by the children of many of our county's victims and perpetrators of assorted crimes. So often when the news reports any kind of bad news here, from a huge fight in the street, or a shooting, to a house fire or a dog attack, my colleagues and I realize that we know the address, recognize the family, and spend our days trying to take care of these children. It's a rather scary place to drive to, much less grow up.
I would like to commend to you the heroic work done by our Communities In Schools staff. This organization has been operating on our campus for only a few short years, but they have made a tremendous difference. A powerful connection has been created between the resources available in our community and extraordinary needs some of our students bring to school. As a teacher, I always recognized at least some of these needs, but I had no idea how to marshal any help. CIS can do that.
Our neighborhood is still scary, and we still have mean people (and dogs) to contend with each day. But there is a new Girl Scout Troop being organized for girls with incarcerated moms. Backpacks full of supplies were "won" by students who had come to school empty handed on the first day. Kids embarrassed by dirty clothes are discreetly given clean shirts and a little respect.
The last few weeks of any school year on any campus are difficult, and on tough turf it's even harder. Look into the Communities In Schools model for something that has made each and every day better for my fourth graders.

Roxana Marachi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just a quick thank you for your post Elena. I support the same views, echoed as well by the research community that relationship based approaches focusing on school climate, connection, community, and mental health support services will address the issues/problems far more effectively than harsh, punitive, exclusionary practices (which often exacerbate existing issues).

External approaches are quick fixes that do not address the core root of the problems. We need a deep understanding of the psychology of care, respect, and relationships in schools if we are to support healthier climates. David Cohen's response includes excellent websites that I also support and would have posted as well. In response to the "Disagree" post above, there is substantial evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of exclusionary methods as a solution to the problem.

The following are a few additional sources to consider for those interested in these issues:

Skiba, R., Reynolds, C. R., Graham, S., Sheras, P., Conoley, J.C., & Garcia-Vasquez, E. (2006). Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. Report by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. Available online at:

Sullivan, E., & Keeney, E. (2008). Teachers Talk: School Culture, Safety, and Human Rights. C. Albisa and S. Lee, Eds., National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, New York. Report available online at

...And a few websites of organizations working to enhance positive school climates (from within):

Kimberly Richardson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elana - I experienced a situation much like the one you described. I was teaching in Gary, Indiana about 13 years ago. A terrible fight broke out in my classroom between two 8th grade male students. I could not get them to stop, eventually I was able to get in between them and seperate them by grabbing their throats. In doing so, I was struck in the mouth and nose. I had a good relationship with both boys. They did not intend to harm me - they were two young men that had no idea how to handle themselves, except through violence. I was under great pressure by my school to have them expelled and press charges. I refused - it caused some hardship on my part from other staff.

I truly appreciate your insight on this type of situation - the responses that you generated have highlighted what appear to be some truly tangible solutions for educators to work with.

Amity Pope's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


This whole notion of ruling with an iron fist is such backwards thinking, I think. The fact that adults, let alone children, are less likely to respond to someone trying to make them do something, should give a clear picture as to why people don't usually respond positively to be threatened. Now, I do believe students, just like anyone, should know the consequences of their actions, and it's up to them to choose what actions they prefer to get. They do have the right to choose positive consequences or negative consequences.....

Now I teach in an area that where violence occurs regularly. Often times, the administrator does nothing to prevent violent acts from happening and takes very few measures to punish those individuals causing harm to others. It's all so depressing. it's as if, no one cares. A student I teach, found his sister dead on Mother's Day. She was murdered by her ex-boyfriend and police reports state she was run over by a car. My student returned to school a couple of days after burying his sister and no said a thing, as if it didn't even happen. So many violent acts happen within the community and people just go on like business as usual. The children are so numb to violence it's crazy.

A student here could easily pick of a chair and hit someone with it, just because the other person looked at them too long, and feel justified in what they did.

When is enough going to be enough!

Elizabeth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is way too much "us vs them" I agree. I get very tired of teachers taking the behavior in the hallway personally. I will break up arguments and I will stop lude behavior but when the kids are in the hall, it is sort of their time to be kids before sitting down for another hour and a half. That is a long time for 12 year olds to sit still. I chose to have selective hearing. I let things said about me roll off my back and pretend to not hear a lot of conversations. When teya re in my room I do not but the hallway, I am not fighting that battle when I have so much else to do, like make sure the students are safe. I wonder about the principal who got that upset about something a child said about them. I generally laugh, that makes them mad but it diffuses the situation which should be our goal. Our school is about 91% African American and 92% free and reduced lunch but we only have a part time SRO. He very rarely gets caled to fights because we, as a faculty, try to get the word on the street and difuse things before they reach a fight. Most of the time, fights can be avoided by talking and then the kids stay in the classroom, which is where they need to be. Anyway, thats what I think.

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