How Tolerating Misbehavior Hurts Students

Students need order — not loosely managed pandemonium — to learn effectively. Without it, pandemic-era learning loss will continue to accelerate.

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A letter from a teacher to the Milwaukee School Board begins with the line: “Coming to work each day has always brought me excitement” but “those feelings are quickly turning to fear; fear of how my colleagues and I will be abused for yet another day.” The letter continues: “Teachers are trying to put out the ‘bigger fires;’ the fights, the furniture being flailed, protecting their students from bodily harm.” Another letter writer tells of being punched by a student who received “no consequences.”

While woke curricula might be turning math classes into mediocre seminars on critical race theory, the intrusion of progressive discipline policies into schools are changing entire buildings into Lord of the Flies. Among other misbehaviors, America’s children are serially vandalizing school property, challenging other students to slap teachers, and engaging in open sexual harassment against adults.

More worryingly, there are few, if any, signs of improvement. Data collected by the Institute of Education Sciences found that, in a survey of 850 school leaders, one in three reported an increase in student violence and fights. Over half reported an increase in classroom disruptions.

While the pandemic likely worsened the problem, this trend toward pandemonium began earlier. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed a dear colleague letter threatening legal action against schools that doled out consequences disproportionately between white and black students.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) reacted accordingly. In place of disciplinary measures, they shifted toward soft-on-consequences approaches such as restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), quickly reducing suspension rates throughout the district.

A similar story played out across the country. In New York City, for example, suspension rates fell by half. The George Floyd riots only accelerated its progression. Leading charter networks such as KIPP and Uncommon implemented further steps before suspensions and eliminated detentions for “minor infractions.” In 2021, the Dallas Independent School District announced that it would eliminate in- and out-of-school suspensions altogether, replacing them with social-emotional “Reset Centers.”

But then reality set in. Although total suspensions declined precipitously in MPS, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty found that the proportion of students who felt unsafe in school increased. Schools where a higher proportion of students felt unsafe reported more disciplinary incidents. In other words, lax disciplinary policies did nothing to reduce racial discrimination, and did nothing to improve school safety. But that didn’t stop one Milwaukee principal from proclaiming that, “We are proud to say that we are making strides in the right direction.”

These policy changes are not without precedent. In the 2012-2013 school year, Philadelphia limited suspensions for non-violent behavior. One academic review found that “serious incidents of student misconduct increased,” student truancy worsened, and academic achievement declined. It’s hard to focus on academics in a chaotic school setting.

Once again, the rest of the country has not fared much better. In New York, chronic absenteeism has reached a mind-boggling 37 percent, while weapons confiscations have increased by 80 percent, including 14 firearms and 325 tasers or stun guns. Dallas cut punishments by 80 percent, but teachers continue to report behavioral concerns, and the “Reset Centers” have done little to reduce racial disparities in student punishment. KIPP employees are complaining about student behavior in an institution in which student misbehavior had been previously unthinkable.

Crime spikes and policing reform dominate headlines and societal debates. All the while, a similar scenario is playing out in America’s public schools with little public awareness or controversy. What’s more, as behavior worsens, soft-on-consequences approaches to discipline like Restorative Justice and PBIS are growing in popularity. These approaches cannot account for all of the worsening trends, but they do represent a fundamental shift to how schools respond to misbehavior that’s likely to only worsen the problem.

Yet another letter to Milwaukee Public Schools told how students know that, “They won’t receive any effective consequences,” and so “more students realize that they can come to school” but they don’t “actually have to follow any rules.” If students are permitted to run roughshod over any adult who gets in their way, statistical reductions in school suspensions are meaningless. If data is to be believed, these few letters in Milwaukee represent the learning conditions — if we could call them that — of countless schools across the country.

Click here to read the full article in the National Review


  1. Responsibility and consequences are two of the most significant words as young people go through the “learning years” from birth to adulthood. Those that do not experience those two words almost always end up having difficulties in dealing with the expectations of adulthood. Of course, when the parents have not learned those two behavior expectations, they cannot teach it to their kids and now there are two, then three and on up generations of non functional people. As things tighten up, and they will, those people are going to be very upset at not being taken care of. Sad to think of the consequences that will bring.

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