A Note on Discpline by Rob Gulya

Jessie Jackson, a high school girl with an IEP who has a history of being bullied, enters her school in the South Bronx at 8:07, a few minutes late to 1st period (9th grade English class, which begins at 8:00). Still yawning and rubbing sleep from her eyes, Jessie is calm. She makes her way up to the third floor where, as soon as she enters the hallway, a staff member says, out of concern, “Jessie, hurry up and get to 1st period!”

Jessie curtly responds: “I’m going!” The staff member rolls her eyes.

Jessie gets to her 1st period to find that the door has been locked (which is often the case to 1) speak with late students before they enter the classroom and 2) keep disruptive students in the hallway). Jessie sighs and sucks her teeth. Then she bangs on the door.

Teacher: Jessie, take off the headphones.

Jessie complies.

Teacher: Why are you late? 

Jessie: I had to wait for the bus.

Teacher: You were late yesterday, too.

Jessie: I know. Can I just go inside? 

Jessie is getting a little annoyed.

Teacher: Yes, but please do not be late tomorrow. It is important that you are on time.

Jessie comes in and takes her seat, it is now 8:15 and the class is in the middle of reading a novel they started last week. Jessie, who reads at a 5th grade level, opens the book and loudly asks, “What page are we on?” The teacher tells the student they are on page 15. Jessie gives a frustrated sigh and turns to that page.

After a few minutes of reading, the teacher stops and asks students to jot down an answer to a question about the reading in their notebooks. Jessie doesn’t pick up her pen because she doesn’t know how to answer the question. The teacher reprimands her and tells her to look back in the book for the answer.

Throughout the period, Jessie becomes increasingly frustrated as she struggles to understand the text. She asks questions, but few other students do. She cannot answer the exit ticket at the end of class because she doesn’t understand the reading. She writes down an answer but knows it is wrong.

The next period, Jessie goes to Algebra, where she struggles even more academically. Later in the day she has lunch, where a student makes a mean comment about her backpack and where Jessie meets up with her friends, who have just arrived, missing almost all of their morning classes.

Jessie then goes to her History class, where she is almost certain she failed her vocabulary test. Finally she arrives to her 2nd English class (she is repeating English 9 after failing it the previous year), where she is again presented with a text she cannot read.

Boiling over with frustration, Jessie cannot contain herself.

Jessie: Fuck this class. This is dumb.

Teacher: Excuse me? What did you just say?

Jessie: I said this class is dumb!

Teacher: I’m calling a dean; you need to be removed from class.

Dean arrives. She has an exasperate look on her face after dealing, likely, with some of Jessie’s friends.

Dean: Let’s go, Jessie.

Jessie: No, I ain’t going anywhere.

Dean: Jessie, come on, you’re disrupting the class.

Jessie: I said I’m not going.

This goes on for a few minutes. Eventually, an Assistant Principal is called, and she removes Jessie from the classroom. Jessie is suspended for 2 days for insubordination and inappropriate language.


Last week, I came across this really great article written by a member of the Teacher’s Unite, an independent organization run by members of the UFT. There were a couple of things that really stood out to me. Here’s a bullet point list (although I encourage you to check out the whole article):

  • As educators and school leaders grapple with changes in discipline policy in New York City, “safety” is cited as a primary concern of teachers from schools struggling to shift from punitive discipline structures to more restorative ones.
  • We know well that the process of transforming school culture from punitive to restorative takes time, real administrative commitment, and requires students and adults alike to change their outlook on school relationships and discipline structures.
  • The fact is that black students and students with special needs continue to be suspended and arrested at enormously disparate rates, even as the number of punishments has decreased in recent years.
  • There is much evidence that these discrepancies result directly from educator and school police responses to student behavior, more than any real differences in behavior between black students and white students.
  • She discovered that students who were suspended for negative behaviors actually fell into a pattern of repeated suspensions and became increasingly disconnected from the school community.

When you dig into the numbers, the story looks even bleaker:

  • 36.1% of suspensions of students with an IEP (13% of overall population)
  • 53% of suspensions of Black students (26% of student population)
  • 35.8% of suspensions of Latino students (41% of population)

What’s more, suspensions haven’t been shown to have positive effects on student behavior or on school safety, but it has been linked to drop out rates, an increase of repeat suspensions, and incarceration.


Jessie– a black female student with an IEP who is behind and repeating classes– is the most likely student to be subject to suspension. She has been suspended multiple times in her high school career and, unfortunately, is almost sure to drop out. Jessie has, at times, shown a real desire to do well. Two years ago, when she was in self-contained, she passed 3 out of 4 marking periods. Jessie, however, lacks the emotional and social skills to navigate her frustrations and form truly positive relationships in the school building.

As I reread Jessie’s story, what struck me was that no one, in their interactions with Jessie, did something “wrong.” She wasn’t called names or ignored by her teachers. She was told to attend class on time, was held to academic standards, and was removed for cursing out a class and disrupting learning for other students. She was suspended because this isn’t her first offense.

However, clearly Jessie’s social, emotional, and academic needs aren’t being met. Her acting out is a manifestation of a lack of proper coping skills to deal with her frustration, anger, and social isolation. Suspending Jessie isn’t going to close that skill gap. Suspending Jessie isn’t going to teach her to manage her frustration or take responsibility for her actions. Suspending Jessie will, most likely, result in her falling further behind in her classes, developing even more negative relationships with her peers and teachers. Suspending Jessie will lower her self-esteem and increase the likelihood she will feel alienated at school and seek out friendship in others who have been alienated.

Instead, we need a system that invests students in the school community and allows them to see school as a safe space. Maybe this means smaller classes. Maybe it means more counselors. Maybe it means seeking to understand before disciplining. Maybe it means providing a class during the school day that teaches and supports students to close the gap in their social and emotional skills.

What I do know is that this isn’t working for Jessie or a lot of kids like her. If we want to make our schools safer, then suspensions aren’t helping. We need a way of reaching these students that supports rather than alienates them. And we need to train teachers, administrators, deans, and parents to take a different approach to students and discipline.

But, before that, we need to acknowledge the effects of our current discipline system on students like Jessie.


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