How The Pandemic Has Altered School Discipline — Perhaps Forever

During the pandemic, the lines between school and student life have blurred, and it can be difficult for teachers to know when to step into a situation via Zoom. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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This story about school discipline was produced as part of an on-going series on school discipline during the pandemic reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Register here for the Hechinger newsletter.
On a Thursday in the fall, a middle school student at Brevard Public Schools in Florida was banned from school. He had torn off another student's face mask and blown it in the face of a colleague. On the same day, six other students across the district were texted for improperly wearing their masks (including one who had also faked with hand sanitizer), while an elementary school student was given three days of “private dining” for violating food safety guidelines. In the meantime, an e-learning student was having trouble filming another student in class without permission.
In many ways, this Thursday symbolized a new age of discipline as several students across the district were enrolled for violations that did not occur the previous school year. Students took off their masks, chatted inappropriately in Zoom, and were unable to socialize. Overall, about 11 percent of the disciplinary incidents detailed from the beginning of the school year in late August through mid-September were related in some way to the coronavirus pandemic and the district's new requirements for in-person and virtual teaching on records, Brevard Public Schools The Hechinger Report / HuffPost.
Relatives: You haven't turned in your distance learning work. Her parents were threatened with courts and fines
School discipline was confusing for teachers across the country during the pandemic. Few have received much guidance from administrators on how to deal with discipline issues encountered in distance learning and in school buildings where education has been reshaped by new health and safety policies. In many districts such as Brevard, which has had a mix of virtual and face-to-face classes this school year, the pandemic appears to have created new challenges for teachers trying to protect themselves and their students.
At the same time, with some school children in some districts, the number of students referred to the justice system by school administrators has fallen, leading attorneys and attorneys to wonder whether schools will persistently reconsider their role in criminalizing student behavior .
However, they also fear that if students do not receive adequate counseling and other support to manage the emotional challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, behavior problems and punitive discipline will increase as more children return to classrooms. "I expect there will be a train wreck if we don't employ all of the children and provide the services, especially mental health services, to any children who may need them," said Dan Losen, director of the Citizens Appeal Center at UCLA civil rights project.
Related: Remote learners feel underserved in districts that are under pressure to reopen in person
In some school districts, it has been a struggle to enforce mask wearing and social distancing, which increased discipline challenges for teachers. (Photo: John Moore / Getty)
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Distance learning has opened up a new world when it comes to school discipline. The boundaries between the school and private life of students are blurred, and teachers have to make tricky calculations of when to intervene in situations observed via Zoom.
At the beginning of this school year, many attorneys and attorneys were concerned about the potential for expulsions and suspensions in distance learning. That does not seem to have materially occurred. However, some high profile cases have explored the way some school districts got justice during the pandemic.
In Colorado, two middle school students were suspended in early September after they both appeared to be playing with toy guns during online class. And in September fourth grader Ka'Mauri Harrison in the Jefferson Parish District, Louisiana, was suspended after a teacher saw a toy BB gun in his bedroom during virtual learning.
After an outcry over his six-day suspension, the state passed law requiring school districts to write new disciplinary guidelines for virtual learning and making it easier for students to appeal for certain criminal offenses. However, the community declined to remove Ka'Mauri's suspension from his file, although in December it reduced the suspension to three days, which the boy had already served.
Rosamund Looney, a first grade teacher in the Jefferson Parish school district, said distance learning has made the task of supporting and disciplining students difficult. Looney has long taken a restorative approach to discipline to encourage positive behavior. In the virtual class, she said that this means being flexible when students haven't turned on their cameras or sign up for class late.
"To me it is unethical to discipline students who are online for circumstances beyond their control, such as noise in their home environment or when they are late," she said.
One of her students kept showing up late during distance learning. Looney reminded the first grader that she had to be in the virtual class by 7:45 a.m. - then found that her student didn't know how to tell the time. "I think we need a lot of grace and shelter," Looney said.
Rosamund Looney, who teaches first grade at Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, said that due to the pressures of pandemic and online learning, we must "provide much grace and shelter." (Photo: Courtesy Photo by Rosamund Looney)
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In San Antonio, Texas, high school history teacher Luke Amphlett said he never insists that students leave their cameras on during virtual class. As the coronavirus has spread and teachers and students alike have experienced trauma, more and more teachers have been lenient to students in distance learning, Amphlett said. "I've seen many educators change their thinking about everything from grading to turning on cameras to discipline, how they reach families and how they envision their own teaching job" , he said.
Meanwhile, lawyers and attorneys are warning that inappropriate suspensions and other disciplines could go unnoticed. Chelsea Helena, an educational attorney with Los Angeles County's Neighborhood Legal Services, said distance learning has provided teachers with the ability to take “shortcuts” in terms of discipline by muting students and turning off their cameras or prohibit their entry into online classes. Such punishments do not need to be reported by the teacher and the school, she noted.
"Exclusive discipline just looks different now," said Helena.
Related: One Way Out of Trouble: How One State Supports Its Teenagers While Another State Punishes Them
When it comes to personal education, educators deal with adhering to and enforcing rules designed to protect them and their students.
At Brevard, most of the Covid Discipline violations in the records made available to Hechinger / HuffPost involved students wearing masks incorrectly, which is treated as a dress code violation. In October, the school board extended its mandate for students and staff to wear masks at school despite the setback from some parents.
Russell Bruhn, chief strategic communications officer at Brevard Public Schools, said teachers hadn't complained to the district about having to monitor for coronavirus violations. He added that the district had worked closely with the teachers' union to listen to concerns about keeping schools open. "The safety of teachers, staff and students is the main concern," said Bruhn.
Teachers in other places say it was difficult to ensure compliance with wearing a mask. Tamara Cupit, who teaches ninth grade civics in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, said getting adults to follow protocols about wearing masks had been just as difficult for state governor John Bel Edwards, and that this was also a challenge for children in their school. "We have to keep telling students to pull up their mask, wear their mask and disinfect their hands," she said.
But if a child doesn't openly defy a teacher, students typically aren't punished for failing to comply with wearing masks, she said.
Even so, battles over masks have flared up in other contexts. Diane Smith Howard, executive juvenile and criminal justice attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, said her group has come across cases where schools exclude children from face-to-face tuition if they have disabilities that prevent them from wearing masks. It is an inappropriate and potentially illegal punishment, she said. The federal law on education and disability requires schools to meet a number of conditions before they can remove children with disabilities from the same environment as their non-disabled peers, and schools do not appear to meet these requirements.
"The law is very clear," said Smith Howard. "You cannot study a child remotely because they cannot wear a mask." She added, "I see it as an excuse to remove children who they wanted to remove anyway."
For some teachers, the pandemic has also made it more difficult to support students and encourage positive behavior. Looney at Jefferson Parish said that due to health guidelines and the challenges of teaching in-person and virtual learners at the same time, she has to spend her days in front of the classroom and cannot circulate the way she used to. This limits their ability to have private one-on-one interviews with students to try to redirect their behavior or to praise them when they are okay. "Morning meetings" were also held, where students gather in a circle and practice social and emotional skills. This is a challenge and there is insufficient time in the day to prioritize these skills.
Such recovery practices often involve negotiating with students, Looney said, but "there are a lot of non-negotiable things going on in the classrooms right now." Students must sit at their desks all day without a break, wear masks, and stay away from each other.
Brian Westlake, a high school social science teacher in Gwinnett County, Georgia, also said the pandemic resulted in restorative discipline being disrupted.
If we don't staff and provide the services, especially the mental health services, to any children who may need them, there will be a train wreck.
Dan Losen, Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA's Civil Rights Project
His district tends to punish student discipline, he said. Looking to try a different strategy, Westlake helped set up a juvenile court at his school in the fall of 2019, giving students the opportunity to take the lead in resolving minor violations. Then the pandemic struck and with so many new logistical challenges and demands on teachers' time, the court had to be put on hold.
Westlake, who teaches both personal students and distant learners from his classroom, said schools have long confused students' emotional needs with behavioral problems. He hopes the coronavirus crisis will create greater awareness of the shortcomings of this approach. More and more parents are now talking about their children's mental health issues, and administrators may recognize the urgent need to invest in advice and other support. "It's an opportunity to see that what we used to see as discipline issues was often about needs not being addressed," he said.
Westlake said that while he was not aware of any official updated disciplinary guidelines in his district during the pandemic, his school principal and head of state made statements to grant "grace" to students during this time.
The pandemic has now been accompanied by an accelerating movement to reduce strict discipline and police presence in schools. Some states have taken steps in recent years to limit police involvement in routine school discipline. The police assassination of George Floyd this spring sparked a new wave of activism calling for the termination of school district contracts with law enforcement agencies.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, some school districts, particularly those that have gone completely virtual, have surprisingly seen significant drops in police involvement and student arrests. For example, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida recorded 81 incidents between mid-March and November 2018 that resulted in student arrests. In the same period in 2019, there were 114. Last year when the school district was out of the way, it was just five, according to The Hechinger Report / HuffPost.
However, Lose of UCLA cautions against drawing any conclusions from such data. "It's a bit artificial to say that the recommendations are no longer valid, just like saying that the school closings are no longer available," he said. "If you don't do personal training, you're not going to kick children out."
However, attorneys and attorneys are also optimistic that this moment could accelerate efforts to prevent students from being jailed for school-related activities. Michael Waller, executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit, said schools severely punish children for vaguely defined violations such as "disruptive" or "defiant" behavior. At school, he said, children are criminalized for activities that would not be considered criminal in another setting.
"Schools have a choice of whether to participate in the school-prison pipeline," he said.
Amphlett, the teacher in San Antonio, said educators so far have focused more on promoting the emotional well-being of students than on disciplining them.
"The pandemic is really shaking the very foundations of people," he said. "I think if we can make sure that not every educator gives up because we are so abandoned with Covid, the result will - hopefully - be really positive."
Rebecca Klein contributed to the coverage.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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