Letter to the Superintendent of Schools

Dear M ________:

I would like to give you my perspective on the situation at Fritz Middle School. [Not the real name.]

Fritz suffers from a combination of a challenging student population, large class sizes, and a lack of effective means for dealing with disruptive students. The resulting chaos stresses and burns out the teachers. Ultimately a very minimal amount of education takes place after all the time and energy spent on discipline.

Many of the students at Fritz come from difficult circumstances: one or both parents may be missing, in the military, or in prison; some speak minimal English; some are from poor families or households where education is not valued; some are from dysfunctional families with problems of neglect, abuse, drugs, gangs, etc. Many have emotional problems that the school is ill-equipped to address. Instead of displaying a child’s natural curiosity and openness, the students often focus their energy on appearing tough and being disruptive. In short, many of the students simply do not want to learn, and their excess energy often ensures that no one else does either. 

All of this, including the low test scores and a certain amount of teacher stress, may be considered normal for a school with this type of student population. However, such schools must have effective disciplinary methods in place to ensure that the disruption of a few does not cheat the remaining students out of a good, or at least mediocre, education.

For many of the disruptive students, Fritz lacks any kind of effective disciplinary lever. These students don’t care if you flunk them, don’t care if you send them to the office, don’t care if you suspend them, and often don’t care if you call their parents. What they do care about is getting the approval of their peers by defying authority and getting away with it.

Gone are the days of spanking, when being sent to the principal’s office meant something. Now teachers can’t even give them a slap on the wrist, and the students know this and flaunt their invulnerability. If the teacher so much as lays a finger on them, they mistakenly say, “You’re not allowed to touch me.”

And yet at Fritz, a student can yell at a teacher, even shove a teacher, and nothing is done, not so much as a suspension. In the real world, shoving a teacher would be considered assault, and a workplace like this would be considered a hostile work environment.

Instead of taking the side of the teachers, Fritz all too often makes it difficult or impossible for the teachers to impose discipline and order in the classrooms. Calling the office is discouraged, and if the teacher does call, often there is no answer. If a student is disruptive, the administration wants the teacher to call the student’s home, right then and there, before sending the child to the office. Never mind that this will disrupt the class for everyone else; never mind that the parents won’t be home in the middle of the day; never mind that the phone system can’t make outside calls to cell phone numbers; etc.

There is a constantly shifting and poorly explained set of procedures for discouraging effective disciplinary methods. The teacher can stop class to write the student a ticket (except that the ticket forms are often unavailable), but the teacher has no way to know whether the student followed through on the task specified by the ticket. It takes three tickets to get the student suspended for a day.

On any given day, one or more students may be wandering around the room, stirring up trouble, throwing things, breaking things, stealing things, refusing to sit down, refusing to go to the office, and yelling in the teacher’s face, and the teacher is supposed to write them a ticket that’s just going to get wadded up and thrown away. Another recommended disciplinary method is to send the child to some other teacher’s class. Anything to keep teachers from sending disruptive kids to the office.

It would be easy to look at Fritz and think that the problem is a student population full of hoodlums and gang-bangers. It’s not quite that simple.

Due to its lack of effective disciplinary methods, Fritz is actually breeding a population of hoodlums and gang-bangers. Fritz is devaluing education in the eyes of the students, by letting them see other students disrespect teachers to their face and get away with it. Fritz is teaching students that they can defy authority and get away with it, thereby gaining the respect of their peers.

When Fritz allows a student to shove a teacher and get away with it, the school is sending exactly the wrong message to that child and every other student in that classroom. Students at this age need strong discipline; they need to learn that their actions have consequences, or they will be headed straight to juvenile hall and, later, prison.

Just as surely as our prisons often serve as Crime Universities where hardened criminals indoctrinate petty criminals in the attitudes and techniques of bigger crimes, schools without discipline are the places where kids learn how much they can get away with.

When Fritz second-guesses their teachers on issues of discipline, the school sends the message that the teacher is weak and the students are strong. This is demoralizing for the teachers and pumps up the disruptive students with a false sense of self-importance and invulnerability.

Teachers have proposed that Fritz have a system like that of other schools, where disruptive students can be sent to a time-out room; the person supervising that room can then call parents without taking time away from teaching. The administration is still “working on it.”

For some reason, the class sizes seem larger at Fritz than at other middle schools in the county. Perhaps our society has determined that students in areas like S______ do not deserve the resources and attention available to students in C_____ or P______ G____. At any rate, the effect is that Fritz students who do want to learn are being denied a good education and the resulting decent chance in life. The principal claims there is no evidence that class size affects test scores, but when there are more than 40 students in a class, kids are often literally running wild, and there is little time for anything other than maintaining order.

I think disciplinary actions need to be taken at Fritz, starting at the top.