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Potential lawsuits discourage teachers from punishing kids

Question: Our son’s fifth-grade teacher recently has sent home notes to the effect that our little darling isn’t paying attention and is missing homework assignments. When I asked what in-school consequences he receives, I basically was told that he receives none unless I specifically so request. In other words, unless teachers inform parents of problems (which doesn’t happen reliably), the problems go unpunished.

When I hear of a problem, privileges are taken away for a week or more, and my son knows that if he brings home a report card with a bad grade or behavior report, privileges are removed for the next grading period. Is this appropriate, and what can I do to get the school to do their part?

Answer: To your first question, yes, what you’re doing in response to being notified of problems at school is appropriate. You’re my kind of parent; in fact, all the more so because you have the courage to hold your son accountable in a culture of excuses.

To your second question — what can you do to get the teacher to do her part• — my answer is “probably nothing.” In all too many of America’s public schools, and for a variety of reasons, classroom discipline is a farce. It’s not that teachers don’t want to discipline; it’s that they specifically are prohibited from doing anything effective when a child misbehaves (In this context, I use the term to encompass both academic and behavioral misdeeds).

The problem (this should surprise no one) is lawyers and the law. For one thing, a school can be sued if a child is punished for behavior that later is discovered to be symptomatic of a disorder with which the child supposedly is afflicted. So, if Johnny is punished in November for exposing himself to the class at recess, and the following March a psychologist determines Johnny has childhood bipolar disorder, Johnny’s parents can sue school officials for victimizing Johnny. No, that was not lifted from a Joseph Heller novel; that is the real deal. As a consequence of institutionalized insanity of that sort, one of a principal’s primary responsibilities is to keep the lawyers at bay. So, playing it safe, more and more of America’s public schools are “discipline-free zones.”

Another aspect of the problem is that teachers report problems at great risk to themselves. Fifty years ago, parents were unequivocal in their support of teacher authority. All too many of today’s parents, when they are informed of a problem, rise to their children’s defense. Sadly, all too many of today’s principals, when parents get upset, will not back their teachers.

It’s that “L-word” thing again.

Needless to say, children are no dummies. Even the child with a serious learning disability is quick to figure out that a school’s discipline policy is a sham and that his parents are desperate to believe that he is incapable of dirty deeds (lest they have to deal with the horrifying implication that they are not perfect parents). And ’round and ’round we go.

As your son’s teacher told you, you specifically can empower the school to punish him for not turning in assignments, not paying attention in class, and so on, but that begs the question: What, in the school’s view, constitutes punishment• The teacher might not be permitted, even with your permission, to do anything more draconian than deprive your son of a smiley face sticker at the end of the day. In short, this probably is a losing battle on your part. Just do your duty at home and be thankful you won’t be raising a child 20 years from now. This isn’t going to get better any time soon.


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