American K-12 schools face a number of challenges in terms of finding and keeping good teachers, funding and even security concerns. It’s been something of an intractable problem for longer than I’d care to remember. But they also face threats from the inside in the form of the students themselves. At the same time, there’s been a backlash against any form of strict discipline in the schools, leading to a recipe for real trouble. We’re seeing yet another example of this out in Des Moines, Iowa, where teachers are now being discouraged from removing disruptive or even violent students from the classroom in the name of social justice. (Des Moines Register)

Alarmed that too many minority students are getting kicked out of class, Des Moines school leaders are changing the district’s use of discipline to sharply reduce suspensions and eliminate expulsions.

Civil rights leaders and some educators applaud the move, noting that black and Hispanic students have been removed from class at far greater rates than white students and saying they’re being hurt academically because of it.

But a rising chorus of parents and teachers complain that Des Moines’ new policy escalates disruptive behavior in classrooms, at times creating unmanageable situations that hurt the learning of other students.

We’re not talking about kids who repeatedly fail to complete their homework assignments or show up late for class here. The parents opposing this move (as well as some of the teachers) are citing incidents of students who, “scream, threaten, shove and hit teachers or other students.” These aren’t examples of students who are “disruptive.” We’re talking about criminal activity, albeit of a low level. And that’s really part of the problem. Proponents of these more lenient policies are talking about the so called “school to prison pipeline” resulting from kids being kicked out of the system. That’s an issue to be concerned with, but if the schools tolerate violent, borderline criminal behavior inside the classroom, isn’t that also grooming the students for a life of additional crime out on the streets after the bell rings?

Unfortunately, anything that takes place at school is only a bandage on a much deeper wound. The behavior children demonstrate in the classroom is a reflection of the attention they receive and the values instilled in them at home. If they are coming to school from an atmosphere of permissiveness or even violence, there’s little the schools can do to fundamentally change that. Our permissive society which promotes “time out” over a good paddling at an early age has led us to this intersection.

But the schools can at least make an effort and there are examples out there of how it works. We’ve seen success stories at the local level of how instituting policies such as mandatory school uniforms and stricter disciplinary codes results in higher academic performance and lower rates of disciplinary problems. It’s true that kicking out the bad apples doesn’t do much to save them from later problems, but as I said, that responsibility primarily falls on the parents or guardians. What about the good kids and the marginal ones who can still be saved and are willing to work hard and graduate? We do them no service by refusing to remove the negative influences which undermine the school’s primary mission.

This may be a lesson that Des Moines is about the learn the hard way. Unfortunately it’s the kids themselves who will pay the price in the end.