Establishing and maintaining a positive climate for learning poses challenges in many of today’s schools. Six years ago British Education Secretary Ed Balls reacted to an April 2009 report by Sir Alan Steer by announcing a “crackdown” on student discipline in U.K. schools. “Children can’t learn if classes are disrupted by bad behaviour,” said Ed Balls. ”That’s why parents tell me they want tough and fair discipline in every school.”
“More schools will also be encouraged to use traditional methods such as detentions, suspensions, isolation rooms and lunchtime curfews to punish badly behaved pupils,” London’s Daily Telegraph reported. ”They will be told to order pupils to remove caps and confiscate mobile phones. Guidance also calls on schools to punish rowdy behavior, bullying and fighting outside the school gates, including incidents on public transport, to stop poor behavior spilling onto the streets.”
Britain’s crackdown on student discipline marked a significant shift and a break with the prevailing philosophy in most North American school districts. A preventive student management system, Positive Behaviour Intervention Supports (PBIS), developed by George Sugai and Robert Horner at the University of Oregon, held sway throughout the early 2000s. “Punishment, in and of itself,” according to PBIS research, ” generally does not have a long-term benefit for students and creates a false sense of security. Practices that focus on positive and proactive approaches are more consistent with with learning acceptable behaviour in schools.”
The Positive Behaviour Supports model was taught in education schools and integrated into teacher Professional Development programs. Whole school systems, such as the Halifax Regional School Board, adopted the approach, renamed PEBS, and trained a whole cohort of teachers to focus more on providing “carrots” for good behaviour in an attempt to promote “pro-active school-wide prevention and early intervention.” Under the Nova Scotia School Conduct Code, adopted in 2001 and renewed in 2006, developing student discipline practices was left up to teachers and principals. “The climate of each learning community,” the PBIS manual read, “therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is less effective than interventions based upon the needs of each school.”
Public reports of student violence did heighten demands for improved school security. While Ontario had passed a Safe Schools Act in 2000, that clampdown was primarily aimed at bolstering school security by introducing security guards, electronic surveillance, visitor ID tags, and ‘zero tolerance’ for violence rules. Curbing violent acts did lead to the identification of a list of offenses that could trigger expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary sanctions. Most of the safe school measures were explicitly aimed at reducing the incidence of violence in urban, inner-city schools and large regional high schools.
Growing teacher and parent concerns about flagrant student misbehaviour called into question the school-based disciplinary model and spelled trouble for the PBIS student behaviour modification system. Thirty per cent of respondents in a 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey reported feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in and around the province’s 400 public schools. Bullying remained “a persistent issue,” teachers cried out for help in managing “disruptive classroom behaviours,” the disciplinary consequences were not only “unclear” but varied greatly from one school to another.
The Education Review raised the issue of violence in the schools, but the leak of provincial statistics in February 2015 suggested it was more widespread than reported. In 2013-14, principals and school staff reported 4,730 acts of physical violence in a provincial system with less than 120,000 students from P to 12. The President of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Shelley Morse, expressed grave concern and provided a graphic illustration of her life as an elementary vice-principal. ” I’ve been kicked, punched, bitten. Had chairs and desks and rocks thrown at me. I’ve had students spit on me. Have been verbally abusive to me…and (students) destroyed my office….”
Like the United Kingdom and a host of American states, Nova Scotia responded by issuing a much stricter province-wide, top-down School Code of Conduct policy. Announced on August 24, 2015, and implemented this September, all school boards and school principals will be expected to implement the policy designed to maintain “a positive and inclusive school climate.” It sounded, at first glance, like a warmed over version of the old policy and it dropped previous references to maintaining “an orderly and safe learning environment.”
The Nova School School Conduct Code itself ran in a completely different direction, identifying a multitiude of student conduct offenses and spelling out the specific consequences. It was intended as a province-wide crackdown but there were some accommodations made to promote respect for diversity, including gender identity. Students arriving for the first day of school this year were presented with the new 9-page School Code of Conduct and it was part of the normal welcome back routine. Hundreds of teachers trained to implement PEBS were left scrambling to master the new set of school conduct rules imposed, without much parent input, on each and every school.
Do top-down prescriptive Student and School Discipline Codes actually work? What do students learn when they are confronted with a gowing list of “don’t dos” ? Is it possible to implement Positive Behaviour Supports under a regime that embraces deterrent measures that tend to obscure the previously emphasized positive values and behavioural expectations? Is the policy aimed at teaching parents to raise more responsible, respectful kids as much as it’s intended to apply to students?