In My Opinion: Go Directly to Jail?
Go Directly to Jail? How should you handle unruly students? Some administrators are resorting to the courts
Eugene T.W. Sanders, Ph.D.
In its January 4, 2004, edition, The New York Times featured a story about school districts—including Toledo Public Schools—increasing their use of the juvenile justice system to deal with student misbehavior. We asked Toledo's superintendent, Eugene Sanders, to tell why his district is moving in this direction. To respond to Sanders, write to email@example.com.
In a New York Times story, a reporter wrote how certain students in our district, committing a range of seemingly minor offenses, including two junior high school boys caught turning off lights in the girls' bathroom, had been arrested and sent to juvenile court for violating the city's safe school ordinance. It went on to say that in cities and suburbs around the country, schools are increasingly sending students into the juvenile justice system instead of handling adolescent misbehavior in the principal's office.Discipline is always challenging. Because of this issue, one positive outcome for our district has been our heightened dialogue with the police, the courts, our schools, and our parents about how to address serious discipline problems. Everyone recognizes the need for safe school environments, and having these open lines of communication concerning school safety and security is proving beneficial for all involved.
Toledo Public Schools is not in the business of arresting children and sending them to court. Our priority is to provide a safe and productive learning environment for our students, teachers, support staff, and parents and we believe we do that very well.
We have referred a small number of students to the juvenile justice system and, unfortunately, we've had to do so more and more over recent years. However, we've done this only as a last resort. We don't send a student to court just because he turned off a bathroom light. That would be ridiculous and inappropriate. There have to be more serious issues in addition to the "presenting offense."
In Toledo, most students who end up in court have a long history of problems and have violated our safe school policy in a significant way. Their offenses have ranged from making strong verbal threats to having a physical confrontation with a staff member to having a weapon discovered at school. We've tried to help these students with counseling sessions, family interventions, and other measures. They have been sent to court only after we feel we have no other recourse.
As an urban school district, we have always had more comprehensive safety and security than some other districts might have needed prior to Columbine. But today's challenging times find all school districts faced with diminishing resources and expectations that are higher than ever. In the last two years, our district has lost 500 staff members due to budget cuts. Without enough counselors, therapists, social workers, or teachers, students who need a lot of focused attention are getting less of it—and, sadly, sometimes wind up in court.
There are other forces at play, too. Students we send to court usually have major academic and behavioral issues at school, plus family issues at home. Parental involvement—the key ingredient in reinforcing a school's efforts to address student behavior or academic performance—isn't always there to support educators.
In Toledo, we're constantly working to try to improve our relationship with families through parent training, workshops, and one-on-one meetings. We're trying to find creative ways to provide services for our most challenging students. We're also reviewing our disciplinary code to make sure it is firm, fair, and consistent. Our goal is to do everything we can to reduce the number of students who have an exchange with the legal system.
Unfortunately, until we have stronger economies, families that are not dysfunctional, and communities that are focused on moral and ethical issues, we're going to continue to be challenged by children who come to us from this context.
Our primary responsibility is to run an effective and efficient school district, and, in order to do that, we need to take certain actions at times to keep our environment conducive to learning. Faced with a hard choice, the district will do whatever it has to do to keep classrooms safe and free of disruptions so students can learn.