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Improving student discipline

By By Johnny Mack Morrow
Recent surveys of Alabama teachers found that student discipline is one of the most important issues facing education today. It is highlighted by a saying that is repeated around the state.
"The teachers are afraid of the principal. The principal is afraid of the superintendent. The superintendent is afraid of the school board. The school board is afraid of the parents. The parents are afraid of their children. And the children are afraid of nothing."
Much of the "fear" in this saying is driven by the high-stakes testing we now have in education, where test scores matter more than anything else. We need to get back to a time when we valued schools for teaching and learning, not just test scores.
However, the punch line of this saying is what worries teachers more and more. Student discipline has gone downhill and seems to get worse every year.
Ask any teacher and they will tell you that children, especially teenagers, have much less respect and self-control than they did when we were in school. The normal ways of punishing students, like suspensions and detentions, don't seem to have the impact they once did.
What is worse, some parents will side with their children when they get into trouble. That is not how it used to be. When a teacher sent a note home with a student, it was probably the longest bus ride imaginable thinking about what kind of punishment your folks were going to give because of your misbehavior.
Now principals routinely report that some parents get angry with the school when little Johnny or Jane gets in trouble. Students pick up on this. The rise of complaints against teachers can be linked to the idea that some students believe the best way to get out of trouble is to point fingers elsewhere, namely the teacher.
We must help teachers with the growing discipline problem.
One idea is a proposed law that would stop teens with a record of discipline problems from getting their driver's licenses. Driving is a privilege, not a right, and the state has the option of keeping licenses out of the hands of teenagers. Anyone who has been around teenagers knows that getting a license is one of the most important things in life for a teen, and it can be a powerful incentive.
The bill, called Taylor's Law, would set up a point system for students, with each point for discipline problems adding one week to the age at which the student is eligible to apply for a permit or license. For example, a day of in-school suspension is equal to one point. One day of out-of-school suspension is worth four points, and if a student is sent to alternative school it adds 12 points, and expulsion is 40 points. That means a student who was expelled would have to wait close to a year longer before being eligible to drive.
While the particulars and penalties in the law still need to be sorted out, the idea makes sense. We need to give problem students some real world consequences for their misbehavior so that they think twice about being disruptive.
Keeping track of these points shouldn't be that difficult. Student discipline records are already being kept, and the bill would simply add a small section to those records where these license points could be tallied. The Alabama Department of Public Safety could access these records when a teen applies for a license.
State Sen. Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, first introduced this discipline and driver's license legislation a few years ago, and he has expressed high hopes for its passage in the upcoming legislative session next February. He is pre-filing it in hopes to get a head start towards passage. There is a lot of support in the Legislature for this bill. It most likely would have passed last year if it had not been for a stalemate in the Senate.
It is important to note that most parents are doing a good job raising respectful and disciplined children. Problem students make up only a small portion of the overall population in our classrooms. Yet the disruptive influence these kids have on the ability of our teachers to do their job seems to be growing.
Giving real world consequences like delaying or losing the right to drive is one step in the right direction. We also have other means, like alternative schools or even action by the courts, and we are on the constant lookout for other methods teachers and schools can use to improve discipline in the classroom.
Even with all of our efforts, there's never a substitute for strong parenting, and making sure that they teach their children the Golden Rule.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County.