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Is There a Right Kind of School Discipline?

December 7, 2015

Over the past decade, particularly the last few years, the trend in school discipline has been toward restorative justice—which emphasizesauthentic dialogue, mutual understanding, and communal responsibility—and away from “zero tolerance,” which critics argue discriminates against nonwhite students and exacerbates the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In many cases, these progressive tactics are effective in improving campus culture and boosting achievement. But in some cases, as the circumstances in L.A. suggest, they come with unintended consequences.

Upon reading that story in the Times , I reflected on military-sponsored schools like Grizzly Youth Academy, which take a completely inverse approach to classroom structure and discipline. Boys and girls are separated. Students ask permission to speak. They all dress the same. Police officers are replaced by sergeants, who control almost every aspect of the schools’ operation. As an English teacher who has taught 1984 for a decade, I cringed when I first observed this seemingly dystopian educational environment—and at first, it may sound like the last place teens with disciplinary problems would want to attend. Yet Grizzly’s students voluntarily enroll. In fact, there’s a waiting list, and after 22 weeks of classes, many of them don’t want to leave….

And it seems to work. A three-year study conducted by the nonpartisan think tank MDRC showed significant statistical success in the program; participants are more likely than their control group counterparts to have obtained a high-school diploma, to have earned college credits, and to be working….

Grizzly is expensive to run, costing the state roughly $18,000 per student—and just as LAUSD teachers are balking at widespread systems of restorative justice, taxpayers may not be ready to pay for a significant expansion of programs the one offered here. But perhaps they should reconsider: A San Luis Obispo civil grand jury in 2011 reported that the national programs have saved taxpayers well over $100 million by decreasing correctional, educational, and federal-assistance costs, while increasing community service and the tax-revenue base. The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, likewise found that the National Guard program’s nationwide results in $2.66 in social benefits for every dollar expended.


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