We Cannot Use Old Methods to Produce New Results in Schools

A high school student has a few drinks on Simchat Torah. Another student is vaping in the school bathroom. The students were already on probation for other unrelated incidents. The information about these activities reaches the school. What is a principal to do?

Schools pride themselves on standards for admission, codes of conduct and disciplinary methods. The pressure to have “zero tolerance” for non-academic violations has become the mantra. Punishing students for violating school policy has created unprecedented challenges. Punitive measures are not being made callously, but rather the disciplinary system in place no longer works for the student, the school or our community.

At the same time that schools are grappling with teenagers exposed to greater societal challenges, demand for “seats” in day schools exceeds supply. In the past few years promiscuity, substance abuse, smoking, vaping, cheating, sexting, pornography, just to name a few, are no longer shock factors on TV. Many of our kids witness these behaviors first hand.

Not too long ago, the average Modern Orthodox household had two to three children. The numbers have doubled today, and in more yeshivish communities they have tripled! Many parents are overwhelmed with personal and professional responsibilities. Parents have become overly confident regarding their children’s behavior. There is less and less parent-child time. There is a false sense of security that our children live in a “community cocoon” that is morally safe. Until there is a stronger and more consistent effort for parents to “take back” parenting, the schools stand alone in setting a standard for, and providing critical moral guidance of, our children.

It is way overdue that appropriate resources are invested in understanding the extent of the problem. The community, and that includes all our institutions, must begin to recognize and accept some responsibility for what is going on. A commitment on the part of us all to make tough decisions is critical to effect change. And parents need to participate together with their children to understand why a “code of moral conduct” applies not only to their children—and this may be difficult—but to themselves as well.

Students enter high school relatively sheltered and leave exposed to more outside influences than anyone cares to admit. How then is a school supposed to function? There have been codes of conduct in place since schools were established. The problem is clearly much bigger than a school can handle alone. Rules and the consequences of violating them should only be a means to an end. Stronger punishments as the primary means of deterrence rarely, if ever, work, especially with teenagers.

One of my favorite quotes is the definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I believe that to suspend and expel a child from a school may be insane, but what is the alternative? How can our schools deter our children from misbehaving, exact a punishment that is effective and, in the event the school feels it must “exit” the child, insure the punishment and its consequences are deserved?

The first step is honesty. We can no longer delude ourselves to think that inappropriate, non-frum behavior only happens to someone else’s child. A crystal-clear assessment of how morally “out of the box” our children are, is desperately needed. We need to know how our kids are developing throughout high school. A mandatory anonymous “morality survey” at the beginning and end of each academic year, is overdue. Religious, social, moral and behavioral questions will help us better understand the extent of the problem. This information undoubtedly would assist in directing the proper resources to preventive rather than reactive measures.

Schools are entitled to their own unique admissions and behavioral standards. This is completely appropriate and by no means should anyone beside the school dictate when to punish a child that misbehaves. However, the proliferation of in-school and out-of-school misbehavior continues to grow. Either in perception or reality, these punitive methods have been ineffective in deterring the tide of poor decisions made by our youth.

The second recommendation, therefore, is a bit more challenging. However, just as with any problem that is not resolved with enough preventive measures, the next level must be stronger and more potent. A child that violates school policies is often warned or counseled by the school. In most cases this is sufficient and appropriate. But what happens if the behavior is so bad that suspension or probation is warranted?

Said or unsaid, probation usually means that a child may be close to “one more strike and you’re out.” How did the child, despite presumed counseling, still end up in trouble? More often than not it is because the parents were unwilling or unable to effectively parent to the standards of the school.

It is long overdue that instead of suspending the child, schools may need to “suspend” the parents. Furthermore, how effective is giving a child a “day off” for misbehaving? What if, instead of the child missing school, a parent had to miss work and spend the day in school? Perhaps a child having to sit in class with his or her parent would be enough of an embarrassment to be an effective deterrent. Perhaps facilitating a parent-child dialogue with professional intervention is needed. Granted there could be challenges with enforcement but how much more effective is the potential benefit than the challenge? We need to make every effort to create a system that holds all the parts of the problem to be part of the solution.

Finally, we must address the challenges associated with student expulsion. Despite all efforts, a school’s administration may feel expulsion is appropriate. When a school decides to expel a child, the impact on all involved is horrible. Once the deed is done and a child is expelled, it is virtually impossible to undo the consequences.

In halacha and in our judiciary system exacting an appropriate punishment is a very important process. The potential consequences of a child being “lost” and going off the derech are much higher outside the school system than inside. An independent “judicial” review should exist to confirm that expulsion is warranted. Every effort should be made to keep a child from being “excommunicated.” A “Beit Din” set-up of qualified professionals to exclusively deal with this would ensure beyond a reasonable doubt that the “punishment fits the crime.”

Schools are expected to “do the right thing” but sometimes the pressure to do it quickly creates obvious difficulties. The “Beit Din” may be better suited to determine if a child is “hopeless” and/or a legitimate danger to others. Standards for who should be given a second chance in another school could be more easily resolved. If it is determined that a yeshiva day school is not an immediate option, the parents would be counseled and guided to seek appropriate alternatives. Schools may object, but would this not reduce the community pressure on the school by having an independent validation?

We simply cannot expect to deal with these growing challenges in the same way and expect different results. It is way overdue that a more transparent dialogue, a stronger parent/school partnership and a more comprehensive effort be made to prevent this growing tide of unacceptable moral behavior. Before a child is expelled and becomes “somebody else’s problem” we must exhaust all means possible to ensure that the decision was appropriate. Your kids, my kids and the community’s kids are all “at risk.” Let us work together to properly address these growing problems in a thoughtful and just way.

By Etan Mirwis