I grew up in a stereotypically middle class suburb and attended a very large but well-performing public school. I remember elementary school as a nurturing place where the school mascots were our “Character Champions” – a dolphin represented Kindness, an Owl was Knowledge, a Fox was Courage, and an eagle was what each of us strove to be: a valiant citizen who encompassed all three parts. Endless accolades were showered upon any student who earned a talisman for displaying these characteristics before an administrator; a sharp word, by contrast, sent us into a fit of tears. In middle school, I was introduced to my pathway to college as a statement of fact; it was only natural that my parents should choose to involve themselves with the process. In high school, I never once saw a fight break out, never once interacted with a security officer, and could hardly conceptualize that a student might choose to actively disobey a teacher. A commitment to excellence was the norm at my public school, and one’s ability to excel in courses was looked upon with envy and admiration.
In contrast to the experiences of students I have worked with and observed in three schools in Philadelphia and one school in San Juan Capistrano, I realize in retrospect that what I thought of as “norms” could not be further from the reality that these students daily face. During my first week working as a teacher for Breakthrough Collaborative, a 13-year-old student was rushed out of the school because he was foaming at the mouth from an intentional drug overdose. At Wilson, now closed due to drastic budget cuts, I was hard-pressed to find any quiet spot to speak to my mentee, much less read to her; at another school, a thrown eraser narrowly missed my shoulder as students yelled curse words at one another across the room; and one high school in West Philly, I had to pass through two sets of metal detectors to get to the school’s under-equipped library. It is easy for me to see where, for example, the Zero Tolerance Report (2011) by the Youth United for Change (YUC) Organization derives the observation that above academic excellence, many urban schools feel that they must necessarily emphasize discipline. What has developed is a cycle of distrust and disillusionment, where administrators lose authority as a result of their failure to deliver promises, and students who act up are preemptively treated as criminals.
It is easy to see how cursory observations of the problems that persist in these schools could lead one to the conclusion that greater security measures must be made, but it is short-sightedness at its worst to believe that this will result in any sort of positive, sustainable change in school culture. The setting in which I grew up was admittedly very different, but the principle of using harsh discipline as the last resort for behavioral problems is more transferable than it might initially seem. Before being reprimanded and long before being suspended, it was customary in my schools that a series of dialogues took place as the first step in disciplinary action. One first spoke to student leaders, then guidance counselors and if further action was then required, a meeting between students and their parents with the principal was arranged. We were treated with as much tolerance as our school could afford to give without disrupting daily school practices.
If funds were indeed reallocated away from reactionary, amplified security measures that treat students as perpetrators and instead pushed toward preventative, values-changing measures like an investment in counselors, nurses, psychologists, and community-building activities, as the YUC proposes, then trust (the absence of which lies at the very crux of school violence, chronic truancy, and a whole host of other problems) might one day be the norm not only for middle class suburbia, but for urban, “problem” schools too.