By Steve Hunley

This week the Knox County Board of Education is expected to vote on the disciplinary policy for our schools. Make no mistake about it, this is a very important issue with potentially far reaching effects.

The board is being pushed to hurry this along by a group of people who claim to represent “the community”, when in reality virtually nobody in Knox County is aware of possible changes to the disciplinary policies. Nor has anybody bothered to explain in detail most of these changes in writing so they can be scrutinized. These same folks are pushing for changes they claim will lessen the possibility of students going to jail in the future. Their particular concern seems to be that students of color are punished more often and more harshly than other students. The opinions inside this group are varied and not united; some argue we should make every effort to reduce the number of suspensions for offenses while others have suggested decriminalizing certain offenses. Many in this group are urging the school system to adopt a policy of so-called “restorative practices.” Some New York schools are utilizing this practice already and students attacking other students, doing drugs or caught stealing are not suspended, but usually sent to “talking circles” where they can discuss their feelings.

As far as I can tell, nobody on the board, nor anyone else knows precisely what effect the “restorative practices” approach will have. Also a uniform discipline code should be a matter of policy, not procedure. While the difference between procedure and policy may sound trifling to you, it makes a huge difference. If it is a board policy, principals and administrators must adhere to it; if they ignore it, they risk being reprimanded or worse. Placing the new rules in procedure allows principals and the school system plenty of wiggle room instead of uniformity that would occur with implementation as policy. Uniformity also negates the notion administrators can punish any set or group of children more harshly than another for the same offense.

The school system has rather casually solicited the opinions of principals, although no one has bothered to ask the opinion of those who are most likely to bear the brunt of any changes in the discipline policies: teachers. It would be a very simple thing for the board to prepare a simple questionnaire and allow teachers to share their concerns. No group in Knox County would have more knowledge about the current state of discipline in our schools today and if it is working, needs improvement or a change to “restorative practices.” This could be done in a way to protect teachers from fear of retaliation. No change in disciplinary policy should be made without consultation from the teachers who would be the most affected.

In those places where “restorative practices” have been put into effect in New York, it has succeeded in dropping the number of suspensions; however, it has not decreased the number of infractions, classroom disruptions or even violence. In Chicago, the teachers’ union has complained the new student discipline code has left teachers scrambling to control unruly children. One teacher was quoted as saying, “It’s basically been a totally lawless few months.” Students who have been guilty of bullying classmates are no longer removed from the classrooms where they continue to sit with their victims, except for the most extraordinary cases. Instances of groping a teacher and bringing hollow point bullets to the classroom resulted in little or no consequences.

Sending the message to our children there are no consequences for bad behavior in life is, ultimately failing them. One can easily make a compelling case it would actually increase the pipeline from the classroom to prison. Law enforcement officers aren’t going to hand out Tootsie Roll lollipops or turn a blind eye for violations of the law.

If this is really about ending discrimination against any class or group of students, the board can address that directly; if it is about having two sets of rules and providing “restorative practices” therapy instead of uniform and equal discipline for students, time will tell. There is a reason Lady Justice wears a blindfold: true justice should be fair and apply to everyone equally.