The Abolition of School Discipline

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You don’t quickly forget the sound of a child gagging as another child clutches him in a chokehold. As a middle-school teacher, I turned the corner in the hallway one day and found a child with his arms wrapped around the neck of a refugee student — a population that was frequently the target of bullying. The perpetrator had instigated several incidents before, and he was involved in several more thereafter.

At another school where I taught, we had fights at least weekly. On one occasion, as students spilled into my classroom, a boy asked me why we had so many. He said he was embarrassed to attend the school.

Such stories are not outliers. According to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, misbehavior, office referrals, and violence spiked this past year in schools and districts across the country. The Washington Post has found a similar pattern. Individual districts reported a marked rise in such behavior. In my own conversations, teachers said their behavior rosters were the only evidence they needed of worsening conduct; some told me their schools hit referral records by mid-year.

Theories regarding causes of this increase are legion: social media, months of online schooling, riots in the streets, larger societal trends of family and institutional breakdown, and plenty more. Assigning portions of blame would hardly be constructive, but it is crucial to focus on one clear driver of the problem — the trend away from punitive discipline in schools — because it is of recent vintage and within school officials’ control.

Alternatives to standard, punitive discipline, while glittering ideals in the abstract, are a resounding failure in practice. It’s a story that parallels the rise and fall of “broken windows” policing in society more generally — an analogue through which we can understand the causes and consequences of the abolition of school discipline.


In the 1980s, the Atlantic ran a famous essay titled “Broken Windows” by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, which outlined a new form of policing. The article was based on a 1969 experiment by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who parked two cars — one in an affluent neighborhood and one in a poor neighborhood — and observed what happened. Residents in the former neighborhood ignored the first car, while residents of the latter quickly vandalized the second one.

Not content with this simple experiment, Zimbardo did something unorthodox: He smashed the window of the car in the affluent neighborhood. Lo and behold, passersby soon vandalized this formerly untouched car. Zimbardo’s conclusion was simple: Broken windows, untidy streets, and a general sense of disorder signal to everyone in the vicinity that this is the kind of place where no one cares enough to enforce the rules. Low-level disorder thus fosters further chaos and criminality.

As violent crime spiked in the 1980s, broken-windows policing — inspired by Zimbardo’s experiment — became a popular response. Police spent as much energy shooing along loiterers, keeping an eye on bus stops, and listening for small quarrels between shop owners and customers as they did targeting violent criminals. Cities from New York to Los Angeles implemented the tactic.

The following decade witnessed dramatic drops in crime across the board: Aggravated assault and larceny fell 24% and 23%, respectively, while homicides, rapes, robberies, and burglaries each plummeted around 40%. In New York City, crime dropped at twice the rate of the national average. Though the claim is not without controversy, there is evidence that the broken-windows strategy contributed to these declines……


Continue reading this article at National Affairs.


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