Push for punishment equality

By Karen Podorefsky

Marlith/Wikimedia Commons
Marlith/Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, the Obama administration’s Education Department and Justice Department changed discipline rules in public schools throughout the United States. The goal of this implementation is to eliminate inequality between white and minority students.

Ben Wolfgang of The Washington Times published an article called “Obama administration guidelines could lead to racial quotas in school discipline” that outlines the issue. The rules are more of a “guidance” that say that school disciplinary policies cannot have a “disparate impact” on one particular group. It is essentially to make sure that punishment for similar circumstances among students of different race is equal because they were being treated differently and unfairly.

Their goal was in response to harsh punishments such as suspension and expulsion. Minority students are being punished more than white students. This was thought to be discriminatory because in some schools, students of color are being punished for things that other students are not being disciplined for. Or, the minority students are more badly behaved, causing them to get in trouble more than the white students. Even though they may deserve the punishment, it puts them in a negative, disparaging light if they are the only ones being disciplined. It seems as though they are being discriminated against.

It is not as easy to fix this problem as one may think. If minority students really do misbehave more in a certain circumstance, then putting discipline into action makes sense. However, then administrators still seem to be in favor of white students because they aren’t punishing them at all, or if they do, it is in a minor way in comparison.

Even if minor punishment is what is deserved, the outlook is skewed and “‘eventually, you’ll have disorder in schools. … They either suspend white students for relatively trivial things or they don’t punish black students for behavior that is really disruptive or even violent,’ said Hans Bader, a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Teachers should not be reinforcing racism because it would translate to students doing so as well. Whether or not students participate in racist slurs or actions, making it seem “OK” would create a parallel between other “isms” of discrimination, such as multiculturalism, classism and ableism. Many students look up to their teachers and look to them as an example. Teachers should be a good example of equality.

To me, it seems prejudice if teachers do punish them and prejudice if they don’t, but for different reasons. So, what is equality? As an aspiring teacher, it is difficult for me to justify taking a side. I believe that all students deserve the same punishment and the rules should be clear to all in order to make sure that there is no discrepancy in punishment due to race, gender, ethnicity, class, disability or any form of minority. That being said, positive reinforcement is just as important.

Operant conditioning, a theory by B.F. Skinner, explains that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. Through this, reinforcers and punishment are used. Reinforces are often more effective because they produce positive results, rather than scaring the subject with a negative outcome. Praising students for positive work would encourage them to continue to do it, but giving out suspensions left and right only causes them to not do whatever action it was in the future out of fear.

Students deserve equal educational opportunities, but it is important that misbehavior doesn’t get in the way of that. In moderation, discipline is important and effective. Students must be aware of respect in schools between their peers, teachers and administrators. If they go beyond the line of respect, action should be in place, but in moderation. It should only be there to keep order.

Karen Podorefsky is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]