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Bullying and Putting School Discipline on the Agenda

by Scott Bittle

Friday, April 9th, 2010

It's no wonder the tragic events in South Hadley, Mass., where a group of high school students has been charged with bullying a 15-year-old to the point of suicide, have resonated across the nation. Any parent any person, really -- would be moved by the needless loss of a young woman.

There's been a lot of debate over what schools, society and parents could or should do about bullying. The point that strikes us, however, is that one of the most consistent themes in our public opinion work in education has been the desire of both parents and teachers for safe, disciplined school environments. It's not that this concern doesn't resonate with policymakers at all, but there's no question that it plays a far smaller role in the debate compared to ideas like merit pay, charter schools, or raising academic standards.

But consider this: fewer than one in five high school teachers we surveyed say their students are civil and respectful to each other. Eight in 10 teachers overall say there are persistent troublemakers in their school who should be removed from regular classrooms. Nearly half complain they've been accused of unfairly disciplining a student. Parents and students voice similar concerns.

On the whole, Public Agenda's research suggests that schools do a better job dealing with the most serious problems, like weapons, drugs and actual violence, than with issues like acting out and disrespect.

Whatever the outcome in South Hadley, these questions of school order and discipline trouble both teachers and parents, and potentially interfere with the learning of thousands of students. And that deserves to be addressed.


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