“We Have Failed Our Students Under the Guise of Grace”

by James A. Bacon

The breakdown of discipline in some of Virginia’s public schools is so stark that it has penetrated the ideological filters of the The Washington Post news staff. The lede to the WaPo’s article about last night’s Newport News School Board meeting sums up the picture nicely:

Dozens of teachers and parents unleashed fury, fear and frustration on the Newport News school board Tuesday evening, saying systemic problems throughout the district created the climate in which, police said, a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher earlier this month.

Emotions ran so high that in “something of a mass catharsis” citizens called for the superintendent to be fired.

Many said discipline at district schools had deteriorated, resulting in unsafe classrooms, and they noted that the shooting at Richneck Elementary School was the third in the district since fall 2021. Several teachers said they were not supported when facing violence in the classroom or even attacks by students. And speakers repeatedly charged that the district cared more about keeping its official discipline statistics low than properly handling students who act out.

What’s this? Deteriorating discipline? Teachers feeling unsupported by administrators when threatened or attacked by students? Administrators suppressing the violent reality by manipulating statistics? Where-o-where have readers heard that before? Oh, here on Bacon’s Rebellion. Over and over. now it’s not just us saying it. Now it’s The Washington Post.

Colleen Renthrope, a mother of two Newport News students, said her children are forced to attend schools where, in the words, of the Post, “there is no real discipline of students who misbehave.”

Said she: “I personally demand that the tears of all the students scared to go through the day in the system you are charged with protecting will haunt you until you make this right. We demand that our kids and teachers come home safe every day.”

Bacon’s Rebellion has been tracking the disintegration of classroom discipline after the implementation of “social-emotional learning” as a substitute for traditional disciplinary policies. The new approach emphasizes a forgiving, therapeutic approach to troublemakers in lieu of removing them from the classroom. The standard explanation for collapsing discipline blames the impact of school closings during the COVID pandemic. COVID undoubtedly contributed to the problem, but schools are well into their second year of reopening, and major disciplinary problems persist.

Parental outrage at the shooting of teacher Abigail Zwerner by a six-year-old sparked the outrage in Newport News, but criticism led to a broader attack on the school system’s disciplinary policies.

“Metal detectors in every building is [sic] a nice start, but the most effective solution is for staff and teachers to be listened to and supported when they report dangerous behaviors and threats,” said James Graves, president of the Newport News Education Association.

Several speakers said students who act out, disrespect teachers and get into fights suffer no consequences.

“I would like to see that consequences find their way back to Newport News schools,” said Djifa Lee, a second-grade teacher in the district. “We have failed our students under the guise of grace. This grace has turned into enabling.”

Nicole Cooke, a school librarian and districtwide teacher of the year in 2022, said teachers are not respected in Newport News schools. She felt disrespected by the superintendent. “We are not listened to. We feel as though we do not matter.”