Viral video of a teacher tearing a student’s paper sparks renewed school discipline debate

Tough discipline has been strongly connected with efforts to improve academic performance in poor communities over the past decade — particularly in charter schools, both nationally and in Indianapolis.

But the “no excuses” approach, including more frequent suspensions and expulsions, has drawn criticism that it can be unfair to black and Hispanic kids. Critics say the harsh method is more likely to be deployed in schools that serve mostly poor and minority children.

In the weeks since a viral video exposed what critics described as “no excuses” gone too far, parents and educators across the country have rekindled a debate about how far is too far when it comes to punishing kids. The video features Charlotte Dial, a teacher at New York’s Success Academy charter school, berated a first grade student and tearing her paper. Dial, coincidentally, is a 2009 graduate of Butler University in Indianapolis but studied political science and sociology, not education, as an undergraduate.

Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green, who addressed the discipline debate in her New York Times bestselling book, Building a Better Teacher, today published her take on the issue on Chalkbeat New York. Her view: No excuses might work, but change is needed.

“I think some founding principles of the no-excuses philosophy, principles born in the 1990s that survive in schools today, need fundamental overhaul,” Green wrote. “I also think there is evidence that the same people and institutions who created no-excuses ideas can successfully revise them.”

Tied up in the question of discipline are concerns about racial bias. In Indiana, for example, black children face suspension and expulsion at far higher rates than white students. The gap is one of the worst in the country.

Some schools, including Indianapolis Public Schools, have tried to shift discipline away from severe punishments, toward efforts to better understand the underlying causes of student misbehavior. But when schools limit severe punishments, teachers sometimes worry that they will have fewer tools to manage their classrooms.

Mark Russell, the director of education for the Indianapolis Urban League, thinks the problem is rooted in cultural misunderstanding.

“I think a lot of that still comes down to, are teachers culturally competent?” he said. “You still have 80 percent of teachers who are white, often times in schools that are majority black and Latino.”

Discipline policies that trigger automatic punishments for a variety of offenses are a problem, Russell said.

“Zero tolerance is a stupid policy,” he said. “It doesn’t make room for human frailty. The response is to punish everything, whether it makes sense or not.”

The Indianapolis NAACP did its own survey of suspensions and expulsions in Indianapolis area schools and their results matched the national data — big gaps between the discipline rates for white students compared to their black and Latino peers.

“Folks say the kids of color must be worse in their behavior but that’s not true,” said Carole Craig, the former education committee chairwoman for the Indianapolis NAACP who help conduct the study. “The interpretation of behaviors — like defiance and disrespect — is subjective.”

The NAACP’s study honed in on one particular charter school network — Tindley Accelerated School — that unapologetically advocated tough discipline for its students. The network also ran Arlington High School in Indianapolis as part of a state takeover effort, and tough discipline there also became an issue.

Tindley’s CEO, Marcus Robinson, strongly defended the network’s practice at the time, but has recently resigned. Craig said the NAACP hopes to continue pushing for Tindley and other charters to reconsider policies it believes are too harsh.

The good news, according to Craig, is the NAACP has seen school districts moving away from zero tolerance and no excuses strategies since its 2014 study.

“No excuses discipline, as I see it, is a way to try to control student behavior,” she said. “It cannot be about control. It has to be about everyone owning discipline. It is a way of learning how to exist in a society. You want everyone to learn, to prosper and to benefit.”

Better discipline requires a lot more training for teachers, she said, but it pays off.

“You have to do a lot on the front end or you will end up with these problems on the back end,” Craig said. “But the districts are really trying.”