School systems have a major problem when it comes to accommodating chronically disruptive students. One or two such pupils can rob an entire class of opportunities to learn. Almost every teacher has had experience with a defiant child or teenager who makes extraordinary demands on his time. This is not the chatterbox, “class clown,” or the child who requires constant prodding to complete projects or turn in homework. At their worst, these students commit crimes in the classroom—thefts, assault, and vandalism. They usurp time, attention, and resources that should be expended on their classmates. They do not respond to ordinary disciplinary measures or to extraordinary efforts to engage academic subjects. Administrators do not always support the teachers who have to instruct these recalcitrant individuals. One teacher told me that administrators would tell the faculty, “If a student is misbehaving in your classroom, there’s something you’re doing wrong.” She said that, with such an attitude, administrators would “just let the troubled kids stay at school and terrorize the others.”

Suspending children with severe behavior problems leaves them unsupervised at home or on the streets, since parents usually work. If they are placed in so-called “alternative schools” with others like themselves, they continue to be disruptive. All too often, such schools are dumping grounds for students who do not get along in mainstream classrooms.

It is a crime to allow these students to remain in regular classrooms and interfere with motivated students who want to learn. It is a terrible disservice to children who are conscientious and well-behaved for them to come to school each day terrified that they will be bullied, shaken down for lunch money, or threatened in other ways. For a minority of these trouble-causing students, referral for mental health services may be helpful. Most likely, these kids will reject whatever help counselors offer. From their point of view, the problem lies not within themselves but with others. 

Early in 2014, Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, stated that zero tolerance policies which lead to student suspensions “disrupt the learning process” and contribute to a “school to prison pipeline.” Mr. Holder said that such measures have an adverse effect on young people “increasing their likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”  Might it not be that the cause and effect are reversed? It isn’t the policies that disrupt the learning process but rather it is the students who cause the disruption necessitating the policies. Nor is it the policies that result in young people ending up in detention. Perhaps errors have been made in applying severe sanctions to minor misconduct. However, when crimes are committed on school grounds, administrators need to take legal action.

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