Disagreeing with a school discipline practice

Q: I’m an 8th-grade teacher in Massachusetts, and our public school serves an at-risk population. It’s not uncommon for our students to throw chairs or get in fights. We’re trained to use physical restraint as needed, but as a small woman I don’t feel comfortable doing that. Some of the 14-year-olds are twice my size. I usually call for backup support from security, and they’ll often lock kids in an empty room where they can calm down. Sequestering them reminds me of solitary confinement in a prison. The room we use is downright bleak and windowless. I want to work in a safe environment, but isolating young teens seems inhumane. It also hasn’t been an effective deterrent. On the other hand, it removes out-of-control students so everyone else can keep learning. Should I be protesting this practice?    

A: In any work environment, there’ll be times when employees disagree with company policy. It’s an especially loaded topic when children are involved. Your question raises a number of concerns. First, there’s the ethical component in this scenario. Are children harmed when they’re disciplined in this manner? What is your moral responsibility here?

There’s also a legal component. Is the school complying with state regulations? And if you’re complicit in breaking any laws, do you need to worry about getting sued by students’ families? If the school is in fact violating a state statute, how can you protect yourself? I looked up the Massachusetts regulations, and it turns out that seclusion is illegal in your state. The regulation defines seclusion as the “involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” This matches your description of locking students in an empty room, and I can understand why it makes you feel uncomfortable. You might want to consider contacting your union representative or the superintendent’s office to report your school’s approach.

Apart from the ethical and legal considerations, you note that seclusion is a poor deterrent. Is there a way to convey that you believe the policy is both inhumane and ineffective? It might help to offer up alternative behavioral support strategies. For example, time-outs are allowed in Massachusetts. In a time-out, students are separated temporarily and expressly for the purpose of settling down. They can even initiate the time-out themselves. Unlike seclusion, students must be continuously observed by a staff member, and the space must be clean, safe and appropriate for calming. Once the student is back on an even keel, the time-out should end immediately. I suspect that this gentler approach is more in keeping with your personal philosophy.

In general, when something makes you feel uncomfortable, trust your instincts. This is true in any profession but particularly in education. All of the adults in a school must actively safeguard children’s well-being. Don’t ever hesitate to research your state regulations or seek guidance when something feels off. Once you’re armed with information, approach your principal or let your union or central office handle the situation. By bringing attention to an issue that bothers you, you’ll stay true to your morals, protect your students, and maybe avoid a lawsuit. As an added bonus, if the school alters its punitive approach, you might even see a decrease in behavioral problems.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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