Discipline in Schools? Who Needs Discipline in Schools?

New discipline-free zone?

by James A. Bacon

Speaking of legislation that never made it out of committee in the past but now could be unleashed upon Virginia (see previous post), there’s HB 256, a bill that would modify the state statute on disorderly conduct so that it does not apply on school property or in school buses.

This bill, introduced by Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and passed by the House in a 61-to-37 vote, continues the trend of undermining the ability of public schools to maintain discipline. Undoubtedly the bill’s backers can cite anecdotal examples in which disorderly conduct represented overkill. Perhaps school districts need to review such cases and adopt policies to prevent abuses. But that’s no reason to categorically deprive schools of a disciplinary option for preventing violence.

Let’s remind ourselves of the definition of “disorderly conduct”:

A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he:

engages in conduct having a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, such conduct is directed; …

Willfully or while intoxicated, whether willfully or not, and whether such intoxication results from self-administered alcohol or other drug of whatever nature, disrupts the operation of any school or any activity conducted or sponsored by any school, if the disruption (i) prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of the operation or activity or (ii) has a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, the disruption is directed.

Without deleting any of the previous language, the bill would add this:

The provisions of this section shall not apply to any student at any elementary or secondary school if the disorderly conduct occurred on school property, on a school bus, or at any activity conducted or sponsored by any school.

So, the revised disorderly conduct law would forbid behavior potentially leading to violence at schools except…. at schools.

What folly is this?

It’s already state policy to discourage truancy, to prevent dropouts, and to make kids who otherwise have no interest in attending class park their bodies in school whether they learn anything or not. It’s a safe bet that kids who have low interest in participating in class — possibly because they have fallen so far behind academically that they don’t understand anything — are more likely to get frustrated, get resentful, and get disruptive. Now this bill would compound the problem by making it impossible to charge them, in extreme cases, with disorderly conduct.

Question #1: What’s the alternative? Restorative justice? If a kid gets rowdy and violent at school, are teachers and counselors supposed to appeal to his reason and empathy for other students? Really?

Question #2: How will troubled students respond when they realize there are no sanctions? If they want to rumble with a classmate, will they conclude, quite logically, that the place to do it is at school?

Here’s the likely progression:

  1. Schools lose options for dealing with severe disciplinary behavior
  2. Severe disciplinary behavior gets worse. (The metrics may not get worse because school administrators are incentivized to repress undesirable data, but the actual behavior itself gets worse.)
  3. Disrupted classrooms interfere with teaching of other students.
  4. Other students suffer declines in standardized test scores.
  5. The impact is most evident in schools with larger minority populations.
  6. Progressives blame racism.