Strange Lessons in School Discipline

Is it possible for an organization whose employees are sane on an individual level to collectively lose its grip on reality and reason?

It must be. How else can we explain modern public school discipline policies?

Consider the case of Alabama 15-year-old Ysatis Jones. Ms. Jones, apparently suffering menstrual cramps, sought relief by taking an ibuprofen tablet at a school water fountain. Unfortunately for Ms. Jones, she was caught in flagrante de-Motrin by a sharp-eyed teacher. As any normal person would not expect, Ysatis Jones was sentenced by the local school board to a 15 day stint in a correctional education facility. Possession of over-the-counter pain medication is a "major drug offense" in Jefferson County schools, and the district is adamantly defending its decision.

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Then there is the act of scholastic treason perpetrated by Thomas Siefert, a junior at Lancaster High School in Ohio. Mr. Siefert had the temerity to satirize Lancaster’s staff on a website created at his own expense and on his own time. For so brazenly exercising his First Amendment right to free speech, Thomas Siefert was expelled through the end of the school year. The district has been threatened with a lawsuit by the ACLU, but as yet shows no sign of backing down.

Here in Michigan, an ACLU lawsuit filed in 2003 was settled out of court last month. The suit was sparked by an incident 13 months ago in which seven white 8th-graders at Bullock Creek Middle School attacked a black 7th-grader, kicked him, and whipped him with a belt, all while shouting "KKK," for Ku Klux Klan. The attackers were suspended but, according to press reports, at least one of them was already back at school and taunting the black student with racial slurs the following week.

Norman Donker, the county prosecutor, told reporters that teachers had overheard the victim and his attackers trash talking each other in the language of street thugs on previous occasions, but that "no one put a stop to it" when it first started.

Though he condemned the beating, Bullock Creek Middle School principal Craig Carmoney said "there are two sides to the story." Two sides to a racist seven-on-one gang beating? What does that even mean? What could the attacker’s side of the story possibly look like that would even begin to mitigate such an outrage? Carmoney didn’t elaborate.

To settle the ACLU lawsuit, Bullock Creek School District agreed to offer its staff "diversity training."

So our table of crime and punishment looks like this:

Unauthorized ingestion of ibuprofen


two weeks in a correctional school

The exercise of constitutionally protected free speech rights



Racially motivated gang physical assault


suspensions (and apparently brief ones at that)

How did American education come to this, and what can we do about it?

The Motrin incident can be traced to the proclivity of government bureaucracies for uniform, blindly-enforced rules. It’s natural avoidance behavior. When public schools deal with students on an individual, case by case basis, they open themselves up to charges of discrimination ("Why was student A treated differently from student B?"). Fear of such charges — and associated lawsuits — has been a driving factor in the imposition of "zero-tolerance" policies. Any student in possession of anything remotely resembling a drug or a weapon, under any circumstances, is treated identically. Though it is hard to call such a policy discriminatory, it is also hard to call it sane.

A parent-driven education market presents a different set of incentives for schools. Private schools must maintain the safety and order of their classrooms but also ensure that the students and families they serve are satisfied. Meting out Draconian, inappropriate punishments would not be conducive to the school’s continued existence.

The quandary faced by Thomas Siefert’s school is also a symptom of the public school monopoly. As an arm of government, public schools are bound by the First Amendment and do not have the right to expel students for ridiculing them (though it seems that Lancaster’s principal is less than fully familiar with the Bill of Rights).

In an education market context, the situation would be far different. If Siefert attended a private school and his principal felt that the satirical website was unacceptably disrespectful, the principal could request that Siefert take it down and apologize or face permanent expulsion. In response, Siefert, too, would have choices. If he had simply created the site for his own boyish amusement, but in fact was happy with his school, he would likely take down the site rather than be forced to leave. If, on the other hand, he strongly felt that the school’s staff was incompetent, he could have requested that his parents transfer him to a different, better school. In a market, schooling is a mutually voluntary undertaking between the family and the school, and neither party is compelled associate with the other against his or her wishes.

As for the thuggish behavior of the seven Bullock Creek Middle School students, the apparently lenient punishment it elicited, and the trash talking that had been allowed to precede it, ask yourself: How many parents would choose to send their children to such a school if a wide range of alternatives existed at little or no extra cost?

A free and vigorous education marketplace cannot come too soon.


Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based research and educational institute. He is the author books, monographs, and studies, including Market Education: The Unknown History; With Clear Eyes, Sincere Hearts and Open Minds: A Second Look at Public Education in America; and Forging Consensus.