Keeping Student Discipline on the Legislative Agenda

Lack of student discipline, inadequate administrative support, and lack of respect are frequently cited as reasons why teachers leave the teaching profession, often as much as low salary and poor working conditions. Too many policymakers yearn for a time that no longer exists and do not understand the reality of what our teachers face daily.

Our classrooms have an abundance of students exhibiting an assortment of disruptive behaviors that take the focus off academics, and in some cases even worse make learning impossible. A teacher might have several of these students misbehaving in the same class. Yes, we need to get students supported in many cases. However, we need to re-establish the foundational support for our educators and schools because they are on the frontlines of student discipline issues.

Education stakeholders can no longer maintain their reticence on the issue of student discipline. We have to speak up and speak out. It is easy for those who are not in classrooms to have a nostalgic sensation about things they do not have to live. However, educators deal with student discipline issues every single day, and it is time we move beyond talk. It is time for the General Assembly and School Boards to finally address it. And I know some legislators will tackle this challenge.  

We can have an endless debate about the root causes of student misbehavior. Researchers generally point out two primary causes: 1) The disintegration of the family. And, 2) The lack of parental involvement and support in and for the schools. Those issues are unlikely to be solved by those in the classroom. These are cultural issues, and society has to work to address them. Acknowledging them is the first step.

Former Secretary of Education William Bennett states: “Clearly many modern-day social pathologies have gotten worse. More importantly, they seem impervious to the government’s attempts to cure them. Although the Great Society and its many social programs have had some good effects, there is a vast body of evidence suggesting that these “remedies” have reached the limits of their success.” Bennett is, and was, correct.

However, Bennett did not stop there. He added: “Our social and civic institutions–families, churches, schools, neighborhoods, and civic associations–have traditionally taken on the responsibility of providing our children with love, order, and discipline–of teaching self-control, compassion, tolerance, civility, honesty, and respect for authority. Government, even at its best, can never be more than an auxiliary in the development of character.”

So why should the Tennessee General Assembly even bother to address student discipline issues? Perhaps because we still believe that in our free society, and that the ultimate responsibility still rests with the people themselves. And we must embrace the optimism Bennett shared, “The good news is that what has been self-inflicted can be self-corrected.”

Just as student discipline has been a critical issue for our educators in the last thirty years, it is time we place this behemoth issue of student discipline on every legislator’s agenda. Thus far this year we have numerous legislators’ step into the fray in an ethereal and calm manner with reasoned legislation.

We are particularly supportive of pending legislation introduced by Representative Charlie Baum and Senator Bill Powers that better defines “qualified immunity.” We are extremely supportive of pending legislation by Representative Scott Cepicky and Senator Joey Hensley that gives greater authority of the teacher over their classroom, establishes procedures following removal of a student from the classroom and establishes placement review committees. Senator Ferrell Haile and Representative William Lamberth have proposed legislation to allow a director of schools, or the director’s designee, to determine whether a suspended or expelled student should be required to attend alternative school or an alternative program, to remove a student from alternative school or an alternative program if the student is not benefiting from the placement, and to determine whether, and how, if applicable, to enforce the suspension or expulsion of a student who transfers into the LEA under suspension or expulsion from another LEA. We urge the passage of all three needed pieces of legislation. This forward-thinking legislation should be supported by all members of the Tennessee General Assembly that want to create an orderly environment where educators are free to teach, without chronic student discipline issues.

We cannot continue to lay the blame for continued societal problems at the feet of public education. It is true, public education has its issues, from design to execution, but every problem faced by society gets manifested in our schools. We need more community support and cohesive education policies statewide that enables educators, schools and districts to address critical issues such as student discipline.

We have heard the desperation in the voices of educators across the state. There is nothing more discouraging than caring, committed teachers who have lost hope. We need consistent, uniform guidance and enforcement of student conduct. Talk to your legislators and share your thoughts and opinions with them on student discipline. In a self-governing society, we must engage in this critical matter. Failure to do so may well mean that in the near future there will be nobody willing to teach our children.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee. Professional Educators of Tennessee is a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

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