Rule out violence in class

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Martin Titchmarsh sees how American schools impose order.

Rule 39. The Possession of a Weapon. The possession of a knife, dirk, brass knuckle, martial arts implement, razor, ice pick, BB gun, pellet gun, pump gun, stun gun, black jack, unauthorised tool, sword, spear in a cane, club billie, sap or any other instrument that is specifically designed, made or adapted, or is capable of inflicting physical injury to another person, is prohibited at school, or at any school related activity. Expulsion shall be for a full calendar year as required by law.

British teachers reading this may believe that the only reason any child would wish to bring an ice pick to school is to participate in a history class re-enactment of Trotsky's assassination, but this is America.

This school rule, reminiscent of an entry from Roget's Thesaurus, is taken from the "Secondary Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook" in a school district in a small southern state. It has a 100 pages. By contrast, the Alcatraz State Penitentiary Revised Regulations for Inmates (1956) has 19.

The political system of America is built around a written constitution and a Bill of Rights. American parents are litigious and pupils' rights are detailed in the school handbook, with each misdemeanour legally defined and the tariff punishment set out. There are 36 codified offences which include academic dishonesty (cheating in tests), abusive language, forgery, the use of facsimile weapons, using smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco), incitement to riot and unlawful assembly.

With typical American fondness for quaint English (a country where the "Give Way" sign is "Yield") offences also include "tardiness" to class and "skipping school". The student conduct code then divides the offences into "category one" (minor and dealt with by the school with the parent), "category two" (more serious offences involving violence, theft and sexual misconduct) and "category three" offences (involving arson, assaults on staff, possession of firearms and use of explosives.) During my visit to America I began to look for any unusual offences included in school rules books. The offence of skate-boarding in school corridors has just been dropped in California. However I particularly liked one school district which feels it necessary to define in its rule preventing possession of firearms: "missiles" and "any rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces."

In many schools when a student violates the rules, teachers complete a carbonised discipline sheet. The top copy goes to the parent, the teacher keeps the middle and the bottom one is returned to the school office. A typical sheet enables the teacher to tick the offence from a list and the action taken. More serious, or idiosyncratic offences, can be added in writing. An administrator then codes the offence and enters it into a student data base which allows the school to monitor behaviour and discipline by individual student, gender, race and age. Principals can also monitor those teachers who use excessive referrals and those who do it rarely.

When a rule infringement is being discussed with a student, a senior member of staff can scroll up a child's record and have instant access to previous misdemeanours. In some schools senior staff have "posts-its", or coloured tabs, fixed onto the tops of the pages of their rule books. With a nifty piece of keyboarding and a flick of a page they have the information required to make their disciplinary decision. Suspension is used often. In the first nine weeks of a recent school year in one small school district with only five senior high schools, 676 student aged 8 to 18 were suspended or expelled.

America is a violent, weapon-carrying society with an expanding gap between the affluent and the poor. The social problems of deprived areas spill into the schools. In this same school district there were 21 cases in nine weeks where students were suspended or expelled for possession or the use of weapons, including four for possession of a firearm. There is a national public and professional concern regarding student behaviour. Principals, quite rightly, see the preservation of good order as one of their main priorities.

The staff I met were immensely friendly, hard-working, kind and committed to their students. The best of their comprehensive schools would rival the best of ours. Some American schools, however, seem to be in a self created bind as the emphasis has shifted from an academic focus to discipline as an end in itself, rather than as a necessary condition for effective teaching and learning.

In these schools, there seems to be a preoccupation with rule enforcement. The use of tariff punishments, too, seems to have led in some schools to a diminishing role for the classroom teacher and an over-reliance on referral to senior staff. Then, in turn, senior staff often seem to over-emphasise the use of the tariff rather than using flexible and individually applied sanctions.

It is easy to be critical as an outsider from a less violent society. who does not have to cope with these problems to make critical comments. But in my visit I saw poverty in the cities and the countryside which surpasses belief. Having seen the living conditions of some families in Mississippi, I now understand the expression "dirt poor".

Last year in San Francisco, a city of 700,000 people, 187 juveniles were charged with murder or attempted murder. One suspects that for many American schools, despite the immense committment of staff, things will only get worse.

Martin Titchmarsh is headteacher of the Nobel School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire. He visited America under the auspices of the Winston Churchill Trust

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