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Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority

by Richard Arum

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Reprimand a class comic, restrain a bully, dismiss a student for brazen attire--and you may be facing a lawsuit, costly regardless of the result. This reality for today's teachers and administrators has made the issue of school discipline more difficult than ever before--and public education thus more precarious. This is the troubling message delivered in Judging School Discipline, a powerfully reasoned account of how decades of mostly well-intended litigation have eroded the moral authority of teachers and principals and degraded the quality of American education. Judging School Discipline casts a backward glance at the roots of this dilemma to show how a laudable concern for civil liberties forty years ago has resulted in oppressive abnegation of adult responsibility now. In a rigorous analysis enriched by vivid descriptions of individual cases, the book explores 1,200 cases in which a school's right to control students was contested. Richard Arum and his colleagues also examine several decades of data on schools to show striking and widespread relationships among court leanings, disciplinary practices, and student outcomes; they argue that the threat of lawsuits restrains teachers and administrators from taking control of disorderly and even dangerous situations in ways the public would support.… (more)
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In the book, Judging School Discipline, the author Richard Arum set out to examine the erosion of moral authority in the public school system. He was motivated to look at this topic by a series of events that occurred when he taught in the Oakland School District. The first of several events was the death of a student on school grounds by homicide. The next, and the event that impacted his motivation most, was that a student close to him and also voted most likely to succeed in high school, went on to commit several robberies. One such robbery ended in a murder committed by his accomplice. Although he did not commit the murder, he participated willingly in the robbery leading to the murder. Arum was shocked and dismayed and felt that the school system had failed somehow because it did not educate him that he should not have been involved in this type of activity.

Arum's target audience is identified as a "larger public audience" but he states that the appendix will be of interest primarily to social scientists.

2) Summary of Content

The core content to this book surrounds challenge to authority and legitimacy. The author states two propositions and reflects on research on them. The first proposition is that the moral authority of public schools has been undermined by the institutional environment in which they are situated and the next is moral authority is central to a school's ability to promote academic achievement and socialize youth effectively. Arum talks about the student rights contestation period in which an increase in litigation led to degradation on school authority even though the volume of litigation declined after the initial surge in the 60's and 70's. Arum reviews the court decisions that led to this outcome then reviews the impact that these court decisions had on student discipline in the education system. Arum then takes a look at how these changes have effected academic achievement and socialization among students.

Looking at court decisions, Arum describes a situation that occurred in Columbus, Ohio in 1971in which 150 students were involved in unrest at Central High School. Several of the African-American students that were suspended as the result of this incident contacted the NAACP stating that the suspensions were discriminatory in nature. This case became know as Goss v. Lopez and was heard by the Supreme Court. The decision stated that, although primacy was indicated for schools, the state laws that made education compulsory and free to all students prevented the school from excluding these students from an education. The courts stated that "having chosen to extend the right to an education…Ohio may not withdraw that right on the grounds of misconduct". The decision by the Supreme Court was a six to three decision in favor of the students. The court felt that there were not enough procedural safeguards in place to prevent constitutional rights from being violated therefore finding for the students.

Arum refers to the next time period as the post contestation period, which lasted from 1976-1992. This time period was marked as a pro-school period. Ingraham v. Wright found that could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment that again allowed schools to incorporate corporal punishment as a method of discipline.

Other types of issues that found their way into the courts involved not only misbehavior but also, freedom of expression and speech cases and appearance cases in the late sixties. These were times when political demonstration and protest has at it greatest power and the behaviors involved impacted the behavior of students and of judges.

Arum describes a statement made by John Devine in which he refers to the high school system in New York schools as the "marshmallow" effect. The marshmallow effect is when students pushed a rule and, like a marshmallow, it would be changed. The challenges by school personnel with "zero-tolerance" policies have been ineffective and have failed to address the challenges in high schools. With this conclusion, Arum addresses the question of how to restore moral authority to the educational system. One proposal is to restore moral authority at the societal level since it appears that the behavior challenges cross over to other parts of life, not just into the educational system. Another proposal is to remove or limit some of the due process procedural safeguards that are currently in place to protect students and families. Arum addresses these questions with a final quote by Durkheim that states "has a moral character and moral value only if the penalty is regarded as just by those subjected to it, which implies that the authority which punishes is itself recognized as legitimate".

3) Critique

The information Arum presents in Judging School Discipline provides an overview of the challenges that schools face today, how they arrived at this situation and a brief charge to society as to how to correct the situation. Although the information is interesting and necessary for individuals that need a theoretical base of school law and judicial rulings, the answer to solving this problem is so brief that an individual is limited in their ability to effect change to the system.

Arum provides an entertaining overview of the pendulum-swing that has occurred since the late 1960's and those growing up in this era will have personal experiences that tie directly to the outcomes of these events. This book reaches out to a general audience and appropriate answers the question of how we have arrived at this place during this time but the same audience that wants this answer also wants to know what to do to correct it. The impression left is that the system eventually falls in the hands of the judicial system and will continue until such time that this is corrected.
added by BonnerCollection | editBonner Center, Tangee Pinheiro (Aug 1, 2009)
 
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Reprimand a class comic, restrain a bully, dismiss a student for brazen attire--and you may be facing a lawsuit, costly regardless of the result. This reality for today's teachers and administrators has made the issue of school discipline more difficult than ever before--and public education thus more precarious. This is the troubling message delivered in Judging School Discipline, a powerfully reasoned account of how decades of mostly well-intended litigation have eroded the moral authority of teachers and principals and degraded the quality of American education. Judging School Discipline casts a backward glance at the roots of this dilemma to show how a laudable concern for civil liberties forty years ago has resulted in oppressive abnegation of adult responsibility now. In a rigorous analysis enriched by vivid descriptions of individual cases, the book explores 1,200 cases in which a school's right to control students was contested. Richard Arum and his colleagues also examine several decades of data on schools to show striking and widespread relationships among court leanings, disciplinary practices, and student outcomes; they argue that the threat of lawsuits restrains teachers and administrators from taking control of disorderly and even dangerous situations in ways the public would support.

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