Refuting Kersten, Onion style

My friend Kathy Kersten wrote the devastating column featured in the Star Tribune this past Sunday on disorder in the St. Paul public schools following from the directives of the Obama administration. Kathy’s column was published as “The school safety debate: Mollycoddle no more.” I drew attention to Kathy’s column in “Kersten’s discipline.” Paul reviewed the column at length in “The war on standards in Twin Cities schools.”

Yesterday the Star Tribune published a sort of self-refuting, parodic counterpoint to Kathy’s column by Annie Mogush Mason and Jillian Peterson. Mason is lecturer and coordinator of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota; Peterson is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. It is telling that the Star Tribune presents no school official speaking up in response to her column. The Mason/Peterson column suggests why. Judging by their column, response requires that we enter the Onion Zone. For example:

As Katherine Kersten pointed out (“Mollycoddle no more,” March 20), circumstances in some of our schools are indeed disturbing. Nobody should feel scared at school. However, addressing violent behavior in a vacuum is shortsighted.

Children do not become violent simply because a consequence at school was not strong enough. We have to consider the circumstances that lead to violent behavior, and the many ways in which society and its institutions are implicated. By taking this approach, the St. Paul Public Schools have chosen a long-range perspective toward school discipline that positions us for a safer and healthier future for all.

When children act out at school, they are communicating something about their conditions. Communicating about our basic needs is an incredible human capability. We understand this in infants, and we learn to interpret their cries so we can give them what they need. Older children still need deep relationships with adults who can interpret their more subtle cries. So, when children go to drastic lengths to show their discontent, we have to look carefully at their conditions, while we find humane ways for them to learn from their mistakes.

The root causes of what some call antisocial or maladaptive behavior in young people are complicated and multifaceted. Centuries of inequities have led to the fact that students of color and other marginalized students disproportionately face unjust circumstances. These include early-childhood trauma, exposure to violence, substance abuse, and lack of access to mental health services. Identifying any one of these as a root cause of a child’s behavior doesn’t work.

For example, the argument that single parenting causes antisocial behavior fails to acknowledge that living in poverty is actually the more powerful variable. We would better serve individual children and society as a whole if we focused our efforts on combating poverty instead of condemning individuals who have landed in impoverished conditions. Complex problems require complex solutions.

Additionally, it is important to acknowledge the role of adult behavior and attitudes in how we make distinctions among different children’s behavior. Specifically, educational research has demonstrated the exorbitant disproportionality in responses to black boys’ behavior compared with behavior of children from other racial and gender categories. Black boys tend to receive more restrictive punishments and are more likely to be labeled as “troublemakers” than other students exhibiting the same behaviors.

Regardless of what the child is being punished for, detention and suspension do not work. They don’t change behavior; they make it worse. Psychology studies have shown the profound impact of labeling children as deviant or abnormal on future antisocial behavior. Criminal justice studies have shown that a threat of punishment has little influence on impulsive violence and that sending children to jail increases the likelihood that they will reoffend. School policies that push marginalized children into the criminal justice system often start them down a path that they do not escape (i.e., the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline).

If this kind of inadvertent parody amuses you, there is more here.