School Discipline: Is There a Crisis in Our Schools?

By Fields, Barry A. | Australian Journal of Social Issues, February 2000 | Go to article overview
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School Discipline: Is There a Crisis in Our Schools?


Fields, Barry A., Australian Journal of Social Issues


Along with literacy and numeracy achievement levels, school discipline ranks as one of the major concerns voiced by the public about schools and the school system (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education & Training, 1994; Slee, 1992; Slee, Owens, Flaherty & Laybourne, 1997). These concerns are echoed in frequent and often dramatic media reports of disruptive students, bullying, and violence in classrooms and playgrounds across the country (Carbon, 1993; Fitzclarence & Kenway, 1994; McCraith, 1994; Maslen, 1994; O'Chee, 1998). There is a continuing, and some would say, growing perception that behaviour problems are endemic in schools, that teachers are struggling to maintain order, and that school authorities are unable to guarantee the safety of students (McCarthy, Johnson, Oswald & Lock, 1992).

The Golbal Picture

Concern for discipline is evident in many Western countries and increasingly in Asian countries as well (Spice, 1997). This concern is reinforced by surveys of public opinion, research on the problems faced by teachers in their day to day work, reported levels of teacher stress, and evidence of the growing number of disaffected and alienated youth in society at large. The annual Gallup Poll of community attitudes toward the public schools in the United States has consistently found discipline to be a major concern, in company with drugs, smoking, teenage pregnancy, fighting, and gangs (Gallup, 1998). A similar national survey of teachers found that fifty-eight percent of respondents reported their lessons were regularly disrupted by student misbehaviour (Langdon, 1997).

In Britain, the figures are very similar, with forty-eight percent of nursery school teachers, fifty percent of primary school teachers, and fifty-five percent of secondary school teachers reporting that they spend an inordinate amount of time on matters of order and control (Merrett & Taylor, 1994). In England and Wales, public anxiety about discipline in schools was so great the government felt it necessary to conduct a major inquiry (Department of Education & Science, 1989), and successive British governments have acted to introduce tougher controls to curb school violence and other forms of disruptive behaviour (Whitehead, 1997).

Concern about disruptive and anti-social behaviour in schools is fuelled by media coverage of incidents of gun-carrying students in U.S. schools, and of recent `thrill' and `revenge' shootings by students as young as eleven years; a recent incident in middle class Littleton, Colorado, resulting in the death of fourteen students and a teacher (Weller, 1999). Since 1993, 173 students have been violently killed in schools across America (Jackman & Parnell, 1999). While it is acknowledged that these incidents are atypical, sporadic and largely unpredictable in nature, media reporting has left the public with the strong impression that all is not well in the nation's schools. The U.S. media has chosen to link the shootings of the past several years as a trend, with throw-away lines such as `an-all-too-familiar story', and `another in a recent trend' exacerbating the fears of many parents about the safety of their children at school (Donohue, Schiraldi & Ziedenberg, 1999).

There is a similar feeling of disquiet about student behaviour in Australian schools as evidenced by the findings of the Federal Government's inquiry and report on violence in schools (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education & Training, 1994). The data for Western Australia drawn from the report is indicative of the situation in other states and territories. Over four thousand seven hundred teachers reported having experienced in their career incidences of verbal assault. Over one thousand three hundred teachers had experienced physical violence, and just over six hundred cases of damage to teacher property were reported.

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