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Mixed messages on discipline

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Clinton proposed tying federal education aid to, among other things, school discipline programs. If a school can't ensure an atmosphere conducive to learning, the proposal goes, it risks losing federal money.

Sounds good. But let's hope the framers think carefully as they map out exactly what constitutes discipline. Once they do that, they should then kick things off by talking to the adults involved. Maybe this way schools can avoid doling out heavy penalties for relatively small infractions while being puzzlingly unresponsive in cases that involve, for example, bullying and harassment.

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Regardless of whether the impetus comes from Washington or locally, schools should have clear-cut guidelines on infractions - and ones to which they adhere.

For example, what if a first-grader kisses his classmate? Should he be taken out of regular classes? What if a child brings a steak knife to school to cut her chicken? Is suspension in order? What if a student with an otherwise spotless record gets expelled for one night of casual drinking?

Common sense suggests such responses are excessive. But "zero tolerance" programs that allow no judicious latitude dictated these responses.

Meanwhile, other offenses are viewed rather differently. Turn to bullying or harassment, and things get murkier. Such cases, of course, are much harder to define than a steak knife in a lunchbox. But as the age of students increases - and particularly if students have star academic or athletic credentials - punishment is often vague, or behavior is written off as coming-of-age hi-jinks.

The US Supreme Court just heard the case of a then-fifth-grader who sued her school after repeated requests for help in ending harassment by a peer failed. The family eventually went to the police, and that peer pleaded guilty to sexual battery related to one incident. If the court finds that schools are responsible for dealing with student-to-student harassment, it could open the door to many more such lawsuits. But regardless of liability, what's striking is the apparent lack of responsiveness by the school.

How should schools respond in such uncomfortable situations? Too often, they are silent.

Claire Sheff-Kohn, superintendent of Lawrence Township public schools in New Jersey, points out that nailing down charges can be very hard. A key issue in prevention, she says, is open talk about sex education, inappropriate behavior on the part of boys toward girls, the sending of mixed messages.

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But there are problems. Troubled kids can learn quickly that the system can be played. For one thing, schools are prohibited from divulging the reasons they expel kids. Schools may also transfer troubled students without alerting the next school to problems. And there's another issue: guidance from outside school. Ms. Sheff-Kohn held a forum with students in her district about competition and dating and sex. Students wanted more direction from parents, too many of whom gave them latitude they didn't want, Sheff-Kohn said.

Such latitude can lead to negative behavior like harassment. It is adults' responsibility to demand and model civil discourse and respect. They don't have to let talented kids off the hook for poor behavior and unkept commitments, or accept merciless taunting as a rite of passage. A basketball coach in Richmond, Calif., recently benched his team when they fell short of promised academic standards. He pointed kids to the library. And when they returned to the court, the students got a standing ovation.

Amelia Newcomb is the Learning editor. E-mail

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