FARGO — For some, classrooms connote images of ruler-wielding teachers and perfectly behaved students. When a student was disruptive or acted out, they were usually removed from class and disciplined or suspended.
But school discipline looks different today than it did a decade ago.
Today, school discipline is less black and white. Discipline ranges widely by school and can be more holistic — ranging from meditation to restorative justice — or more authoritarian, including suspensions and direct interventions, depending on the school.
The Fargo School District tries to be consistent in discipline practices across schools, though such practices can vary depending on the situation, according to Superintendent Rupak Gandhi.
"Set policies ensure consistency in discipline for major or minor infractions while allowing school administrators the discretion to assign interventions and or consequences based on the individual circumstance of each infraction," Gandhi said in a statement.
While Fargo and West Fargo school districts provide umbrella guidelines for major and minor infractions, procedures are generally left under the control of each school’s principal, creating a gray area in how discipline is handled.
With behavior issues on the rise, many are calling for changes in discipline strategies.
Not just a Fargo-area issue
Behavior issues and how to deal with them are not just a Fargo-area problem, Fargo School Board President Robin Nelson said. It's a national problem.
Some Fargo-area parents and teachers say the lack of resources has caused a behavior epidemic. Teachers have reported being bitten, spit on, pushed, punched and called derogatory names, and they say schools do not have uniform discipline policies and often return misbehaving students to classrooms.
Parents have raised concerns about schools being underprepared to deal with students with various needs and learning styles. Parents have reported violations of students’ Individual Education Program — the legal document that outlines supports and services for special education students.
Parents have also voiced complaints about schools using restraints and seclusion techniques that isolate or physically restrain students. North Dakota does not permit the use of seclusion and only permits the use of restraint in extreme cases, but only by trained staff.
Fargo and West Fargo school districts recently hired additional staff to address behavior, and received a 75% increase in funding to address mental health and safety concerns. Fargo schools currently employ 77 staff who specifically deal with behavior and mental health. Fargo is also considering a "Level D" school for students with more severe behavioral disorders and disabilities, despite backlash from some parents.
The good ol' days?
Early education emphasized rote learning and discipline through physical force, as schools were widely viewed as preparing students to be better workers. From the early days of public education through the 1980s, corporal punishment was the discipline of choice until mounting research began to show that physical punishments had adverse effects and fell disproportionately on nonwhite students.
Research showed that the use of corporal punishment caused students to become reluctant to learn, and students were more prone to depression, low self-esteem and suicide, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
North Dakota and Minnesota both outlawed corporal punishment in public schools in 1989. Corporal punishment is still legal in public schools in 19 states.
From the schoolhouse to the courthouse
Until the late 1960s, school discipline was rarely challenged. However, as youth rights began to expand, the public began questioning school practices.
Dozens of Supreme Court and appellate court rulings since the 1960s have shaped school policy on freedom of speech, due process and discipline. Overall, these decisions offered contradictory guidance on disciplinary matters.
Ultimately, as students’ legal rights expanded, school discipline became more authoritarian and institutionalized, according to an essay from professors Joshua Dunn and Martin West.
The zero tolerance era
The decline of corporal punishment led to the era of zero tolerance policies — policies aimed at preventing students from bringing weapons to schools.
Under zero tolerance policies, students faced mandatory suspension or were referred to law enforcement, creating the “school-to-prison” pipeline — the process of using police to criminalize and punish youth.
While such policies were meant to target major infractions, large numbers of students were suspended for smaller infractions, like talking back or chewing gum. By the mid-1990s, most school districts enacted zero tolerance policies.
In 2010 alone, over 3 million students were suspended, double the number in the 1970s, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest union of public school teachers.
But research showed suspensions did little to create a more peaceful environment or safer schools. Instead, suspended students were more likely to act out in schools, more likely to drop out of school and more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
“Suspension is the number-one predictor — more than poverty — of whether children will drop out of school,” according to the National Education Association.
In 2014, the Obama administration advised school districts to use alternative methods of discipline. Schools were also warned that they could face federal civil rights action if discipline fell along racial lines.
But despite a national move away from suspensions, suspensions in North Dakota have increased in recent years. In 2016-2017, 2,907 students were suspended or expelled in North Dakota, up from 1,622 in 2013-2014. Minnesota has seen a decrease in suspensions in recent years.
A more diverse classroom
Behavior issues do not necessarily come from students with disabilities, including students with mental or physical impairments, such as autism, emotional disturbances and other health impairments, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
But today’s classrooms are also more likely to have students with disabilities and diverse needs and may require different teaching or communication techniques.
This is because federal law mandates that students with disabilities should be educated in general education classrooms with additional supports as much as possible and that special education classrooms be reserved for only severely disabled students. Most students with a special education diagnosis spend 80% of their time in general education classrooms.
Federal law also sets guidelines for discipline for students with disabilities.
Studies show students with disabilities receive more instructional time, have fewer absences and are more successful after high school when placed in general education classrooms, according to the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. Studies also show nondisabled students perform at the same level when educated alongside disabled students.
There is no longer a "typical" classroom makeup, said Patricia Cummings, director of special education for Fargo Public Schools. In one classroom, a student may need to have text read aloud because they're not reading at grade level while another student may need additional support to stay on task.
The number of students with disabilities across the nation has doubled since 1989, and today, 1 in 6 children and teens have a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Numbers of students with disabilities have grown in Fargo and West Fargo in recent years. In 2014-15, special education students made up 11.7% of the student population in Fargo schools, and by 2017-18 that figure had increased to 13.6%. In West Fargo schools, the percentage of special education students rose from 11.5% in 2014-15 to 12.3% in 2017-18.
Some Fargo-area parents say the schools are inadequately prepared to teach students with diverse needs. Instead, if a child becomes frustrated, some parents say classroom teachers interpret this as hostility and noncompliance and are quick to remove students from the classroom, leading to discipline for students with disabilities.
Nationally, students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended as non-disabled peers, according to the National Education Association.
No more zero tolerance, now what?
Many school districts are still struggling to cement discipline after the move away from zero tolerance, although Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration secretary of education, rescinded the Obama-era advisory.
In some instances, schools are now more likely to employ counselors, social workers, psychologists and deans to address behavioral issues and use behavioral interventions to help students learn to regulate emotions before a suspension is an option.
Last year, Fargo employed 12 “positive behavior interventionists” and 17 “positive behavior technicians,” who meet with students and create behavior strategies with students. Fargo schools also has a student wellness family facilitator program and contracted a board certified behavior analyst, according to district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell.
West Fargo has hired additional support staff to help facilitate student behavior. The district is also using restorative justice, a method that uses conflict resolution instead of suspensions. A small number of Fargo schools have also begun implementing restorative practices, with additional training expected for district administration later in the year.
Fargo Public Schools discipline policy advises using interventions, including using redirection, coaching and mediation, before a student is suspended.
Some parents have said discipline, especially for students with disabilities, often does not follow procedure. Currently, the district is putting together a flowchart to better outline the options teachers and administrators have in various discipline incidences.
Still, many teachers and parents are calling for changes in school discipline.
In a recent survey, 70% of Fargo teachers said they do not feel safe in their classrooms, 76% said there are not consistent discipline procedures in schools, and half said they were hurt on the job.
“We are losing great teachers and will have more difficulty recruiting young teachers unless something is done to protect the students and staff in the schools,” said Mark Kummer, a former teacher at Ben Franklin Middle School.
With behavioral issues on the rise, schools are left to balance students' rights for equal education and students' rights to a safe, distraction-free classroom.