Share story

I brought a knife to school, and when a kid named Raymond jumped me on the playground, I pulled it out.

I was in first grade; he was a couple years older and seemed like a giant to me, but bringing a knife to school was stupid, and I was punished for it. That happened in the early 1960s. If it had happened today I’d be on a track to a very different life, likely including some prison time. What I did was serious, but today students are sometimes launched on that downward path by much less egregious behavior.

Most of the time, what we need is corrective education, not dumb discipline.

Schools across the country have gone so far in their embrace of punishment to deal with behavior issues that it’s common to speak of a school-to-prison pipeline, especially in the treatment of black and Latino children.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Seattle, which was already under federal scrutiny because of its Police Department, now has its schools under investigation. The statistics here have been talked about for years, and now the U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether Seattle Public Schools discriminates against black students in particular.

Black students in Seattle schools are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students. Latino and American Indian students are also disciplined at high rates.

There are two very simplistic explanations. More kids from those groups are just bad. Or, teachers and administrators are just racist. But like most things, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

There are reasons why there may be more students from those groups who don’t fit the behavior patterns expected in classrooms designed for students with a specific socialization. Household or neighborhood environment, hunger, illness or stress can be factors. Boys are often more energetic than most teachers like.

And there is a great deal of evidence that people make judgments about others based on biases they aren’t aware of.

The same behavior can be judged differently depending on how we feel about the person being judged. And because of common biases, truly misbehaving students aren’t the only ones who get caught up in the net.

There are systemic problems too, including rules that support reliance on punishment as a means of classroom management.

The statistics in Seattle are not the only ones that show higher discipline rates for minority students.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released a survey of 72,000 schools which found that while black students made up 18 percent of the school population in the year studied, 2009-2010, they comprised 35 percent of those suspended one time and 46 percent of those suspended more than once. Black students represented 39 percent of all expulsions.

Schools nationally began to rely more heavily on discipline at the same time the war on drugs ramped up and zero-tolerance policies became contagious. Both have had poor results.

What happens to a student who is suspended or expelled?

Sometimes he or she winds up unsupervised at home or on the streets, which can lead to a range of mostly bad outcomes. Studies have shown that suspended students fall behind in their school work and are more likely to repeat a grade, and with repeated discipline, to drop out.

Whatever the federal investigation of Seattle schools finds, there is an obvious need for improvement, and I’m taking Superintendent José Banda’s response to the investigation as a good sign. Banda acknowledged the problem and welcomed the scrutiny.

The problem is fixable with changes in rules and expectations and oversight — and with proper training.

Educators need effective strategies for maintaining safety and an atmosphere conducive to education.

Excessive use of discipline doesn’t help, but turning misbehavior into teaching opportunities can improve conditions for students and educators. The ability to interpret behavior more accurately (sullen or depressed, energetic or out of control) can also be a valuable tool.

And because sometimes preparation for school, academically or socially, is an issue, more access to high-quality early education and child care has to be a state priority.

The longer problems go on, the more difficult they will be to address.

There is plenty for the rest of us to do to support children, families and teachers; at the same time it’s reasonable to expect a smarter approach to discipline from an education institution.

My principal took the knife and talked with me about his high expectations and disappointment.

I’m sure he also talked with me about other ways of dealing with situations like that. Later, he gave the knife to my very angry mother, who never let me have it back.

Raymond and I could have both used some modern counseling, but we did make it.

I was lucky, but we shouldn’t depend on luck to get people through life, and we shouldn’t create more obstacles for them either.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or Twitter @jerrylarge

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.