Many schools, particularly overcrowded, public schools in economically disadvantaged regions seem to believe that they function as a holding cell for a generation of future prisoners. The effects of the culture of punishment and consistent involvement of law enforcement officers with minor discipline problems in schools is known to increase criminal activity and the rate of incarceration among young people, often known as the school-to-prison pipeline. However, this type of atmosphere can have other tragic consequences, such as putting children in danger of being abused or of abuse they are experiencing not being recognized.
What is a culture of punishment? A few years ago, I was observing a sixth grade English class in a low-income neighborhood. As a group of children walked into the classroom, the teacher pointed to young boy and handed me a note that stated, “ADHD and not medicated.” About five minutes into the class, this child began talking over the teacher to another child, and was immediately sent to detention. Disregarding the fact that it is entirely inappropriate for a teacher to pin a psychiatric label on a child, this teacher recognized that this boy may have had some difficulty concentrating, through no fault of his own, and yet, a very minor interruption resulted in a disciplinary response. Many such schools also have “zero-tolerance policies” for violence. While, in theory, this is a very important and wonderful idea, it often leads to suspensions and even arrests for not only bullies, but for their victims, if they fight back in self-defense.
The culture of punishment allows school officials to harshly discipline children without questioning the reasoning behind their actions, often creating missed opportunities for detecting cases of abuse. Many discipline problems result from depression, apathy, anger, or a range of other emotional reactions to abuse at home, and instead of immediately punishing or calling the police about a child who is not an active threat to other students, simply saying, “I care about you, I’m concerned, and I’m wondering why you did that?” can create an opportunity for a young person who is in danger to talk about it. Contacting local authorities regarding minor disciplinary infractions results in another terrifying, unintended consequence- the abuse of children in detention facilities. More than 10% of children in juvenile detention facilities report that they have been sexually assaulted while incarcerated- most often, by the adults who are primarily responsible for their safety.
It is important to remember that a child who is defiant, rebellious, or even violent is still a child and not only dealing with the “what” but also the “why” can often create much better end results for children who are labeled as “discipline problems.”
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