With the aim of giving Tennessee teachers more control of their classrooms, a bill aimed at removing chronically disruptive students passed the legislature and is now on its way to Governor Bill Lee’s desk for his signature. The Tennessee House voted 81-15 in favor, then was followed by the Senate’s 25-8 in favor vote. The bill, which it’s expected that Lee will sign, will first go back to the House for a minor change to the language of the measure, then head over to Lee’s desk.
Although the measure passed by large numbers, there were those who objected to the measure stating that such disciplinary actions will ignore deeper problems. The Teacher’s Discipline Act, when signed into law, will allow teachers to petition to remove students who are repeat disruptors in class. The Professional Educators of Tennessee have backed this act as they claim that out-of-control student behavior has driven numerous teachers out of the teaching game.
This new measure comes at a time when teachers are readying themselves for a possible gauntlet of social and emotional issues they may face from students as a result of the ongoing COVID pandemic. The expectation is that classroom disruptions will be higher than previously seen. The intent is to give teachers a little more classroom say-so.
Opponents of the new bill agree that it is well-intentioned, but their argument is that its passing could take the state backward. Over the past number of years, instead of leaning on a stricter agenda when dealing with unruly children, the state has fully embraced a restorative disciplinary approach. This approach is typically a three-tiered one that focuses on prevention, intervention, and reintegration.
Instead of removing disruptive students from the classroom, restorative discipline is first a pre-emptive effort between children and teachers. Together they create a classroom respect agreement. If issues arise after that, then comes the intervention portion which is actually mediation. There, a student is allowed to come forward, address their part in the issue, and be given the opportunity to make it right.
The third part then allows the child to be reintegrated back into the classroom. The main reason for the use of this restorative approach is that it allows schools to take into account negative childhood experiences that play a big part in their poor classroom behavior. Teachers claim this approach has been positive in many classrooms, but it’s strongly opposed by many.
“When a teacher faces a disciplinary issue like this, removing the unruly student from the classroom isn’t the problem,” concluded Senator Page Walley via Chalkbeat. “The problem is getting that student the help they need so they can be reinstated into the classroom and achieve academically and behaviorally.” Walley was one of two Senate Republicans who voted against the Teacher’s Discipline Act.
Walley was very pointed on the fact that the focus should be on the bigger issue, which in her estimation is the lack of funding schools get to support students’ mental health and well-being. Walley is the former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and a psychologist, says that the state does not provide enough money to school districts for them to hire enough school-based social workers, nurses, or counselors that are nationally recommended.
Although it was recognized that Walley was correct concerning the lack of money the state provides, the argument in question was that Tennessee needed to give teachers more authority to manage their classrooms. The bill will help in that regard. Sen. Joey Hensely co-sponsored the bill alongside Re. Scott Cepicky and said this bill will ultimately help all students.
The Teacher’s Discipline Act is actually a proposal or referral process that will allow teachers to remove disruptive students from class. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all where a teacher can remove a student at their discretion. The proposal has six steps that must be followed before a student can be removed. Among the six steps are: Teachers need to document the actions they have taken to address the student’s unruly behavior, the teacher must also speak with the student’s parent or guardian, and the teacher must also get the school counselor involved.
If all these steps have been concluded without any change in behavior, then the school principal can then take action based on the student code of conduct or the school district’s discipline policies. These could include placing the student in another classroom or giving the student an in-school suspension. It could also lead to a referral to an alternative education program for the student.
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Conversely, the teacher’s petition could be denied. Then, finding support to help the teacher would be considered. “It provides for a formalized response that pays attention to the student’s rights, provides opportunities for counseling to find out what the cause of that disruption is, and it also backs up the teacher,” said Sen. Ken Yager, a former teacher who voted in favor of the Act.
Other concerns that were raised centered on Black and disabled students whom some feel would be the center of the discipline. They based their concerns on the decades of research that shows how schools discipline students more who are Black or have special needs. “At a time when students in our country are encountering both a reckoning with racial injustice and a pandemic that has caused massive instructional loss and trauma, it is disturbing to see Tennessee lawmakers focus on legislation that would punish students rather than devote resources to addressing their social and emotional needs,” said Wendy Tucker, senior policy director for the Center for Learner Equity.
Presently, federal law prevents schools from removing students with disabilities from classrooms. What some advocacy groups are concerned with are those students who have yet to be identified as having a disability. But the goal, as stated by the Professional Educators of Tennessee leader JC Bowman, is to give teachers more support. The Act is designed to allow for a more objective and methodical way to allow for a more conducive learning environment. They want to let teachers teach so students can better learn.
“We hope it’s going to be a rare occurrence that a child is removed from a classroom,” Bowman said to Chalkbeat. “But we live in a civil society, and rules matter. If we don’t have consequences for continued bad behavior, we’ll have more bad behavior.”