In 1978, when I began teaching, paddling students for disciplinary infractions was an accepted form of discipline. Paddling was encouraged in most schools. As an understanding of the far reaching effects of inflicting physical pain on a child for misbehavior grew, educators began questioning its valid use. The residual and unexpected results of paddling gradually became apparent to educators. These effects included the promotion of physical violence, intimidation and bullying as well as psychological damage to students.
In the mid to late 1980s when I heard some schools were outlawing paddling, I thought our profession was on the road to hell. I could not convince myself that children could or would behave in schools if paddling was not in their disciplinary tool box. As the years passed and research on the harmful effects of paddling were documented, the practice met its long overdue end. As a high school principal during the transition years in the 1990s, I clung to the practice as a legally acceptable option, even though I seldom used it. I believed, as many did, that the option of paddling was a deterrent for bad behavior, even if it was not used. How sad!
As public schools discontinued paddling, the buildings did not collapse. Students did not become unteachable, and the world did not end. But, the elimination of paddling did remove an outdated and cruel form of punishment from our public schools. It was a practice whose time had passed.
In Lexington City Schools, we see putting children on the street for making a bad decision in much the same light. In fact, looking through a psychological lens, we believe it might be more damaging to suspend a student. Lexington City Schools’ believes that the disciplinary tool of suspension must be taken out of our toolbox (except for situations involving safety and security) for the sake of our children’s mental health. Which is more damaging to a child, hitting them on the rear with a piece of wood and bruising their buttocks or putting them out of their school and sending the message, “We don’t want you and we don’t care about you?”
Naysayers to this philosophical view will talk about tough love. Tough love should not be about breaking relationships or by separating the student from the people who can help them. Tough love should be about putting people and resources with the student and changing behavior through support and understanding.
Eliminating suspensions except for safety and security reasons isn’t about lowering the bar. It’s about treating students as still forming human beings. If we accept the fact that children are not completely mature through their teen years, then we must accept the fact that many will make mistakes. Yet, by using suspension, we push them through a revolving door and out to the street because, “They should know better.”
When we push students out, we are pushing them into the arms of those who will try their hardest to take these children down a path of illegal or unsavory behavior. Our passion, our will, and our resources should be put into finding ways to administer logical disciplinary consequences, while we support the child and change their behavior. This is why Lexington City Schools invests resources and has amazing and heroic educators at Jacket Academy.
Suspension is a tool whose effective time has passed. The school house will not collapse if we learn to use more humane and rehabilitative means to discipline our children. Naysayers will argue that point, just as I argued to continue paddling 20 years ago. I was wrong then, and we believe they are wrong now.
Rick Kriesky is superintendent of Lexington City Schools.