Emphasis on punishment isn’t working


To the Editor:

The following letter was sent to MVRHS administration, and was drafted and supported by members of the community, special education parents, and addiction counselors.

In 2016–17 we saw a change in leadership and direction at the high school, and while many welcomed the new leadership, for those parents with students or community members working with students with learning challenges, we saw a sudden and swift change away from guidance, nurse interventions and the teacher/student relationship of problem solving, trust, and well-being, and toward relentless and ineffective discipline.

The immediate results of this system had an extremely adverse effect. Teachers were required to report students to discipline for minor issues which should be part of any professional teacher’s skill set. Effective problem solving between teacher and student is a vital part of a healthy classroom for all children, and moreover helps the teacher understand the disability and diverse nature of learning styles.

What we saw was a complete vacuum of psychological support and special education involvement within the new discipline machine, and a lack of professional understanding in adolescent behavior and especially learning-challenged youth. Instead, a Band-Aid suggestion “to go across the road” (to Community Services) for students who were weighted down with anxiety or depression, and fighting hard against the stigma of difference, was offered, or rapid suspensions for minor infractions. This action resulted in mental health deterioration of some, stressed families who are alienated from the school, and a divided and frustrated community.

We hear it in the supermarkets, the doctor’s office, and dinner tables across the Island, suspension, suspension, fear of going into school, and about students who have given up on their own education.

Vaping is a recognized epidemic now, schools and parents are scrambling with addiction nationwide, and in every single article that recognizes the problem, the conclusion is that suspensions do not work, they exacerbate the problem.

We see the yearly school expenses increase or redirect as taxpayers pour more money into disciplinary positions, hall and bathroom monitors to tackle the vaping problem. And yet, on the Department of Education’s website you have reported a decreased number of students disciplined out of school for 2017–18 from those of 2016–17. We need to examine more data.

NPR reported that according to an agreement just made between Boston Public Schools and Greater Boston Legal Services, the district has pledged to train all staff on the negative effects suspensions have on student learning, and on alternative, “nonexclusionary” approaches to discipline. This agreement was made to intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline at play with high suspension rates, and to recognize that suspension is an ineffective tool, especially with students on an IEP or a 504.

Detention without understanding the disability is punishing a disability.

Restorative justice that remains punitive in nature is ineffective and is not restorative.

The use of the SRO to criminalize and punish teen behavior is ongoing. Pushing our teens into the courts and policing our school from the inside, leaving families with crippling legal bills, emotional stress, and time away from work, shows ill will and diminishes the collaborative approach that is needed to support social and emotional education and well-being. Parents struggling to guide teens with disabilities and mental health issues remain frightened and frustrated, and it leaves students and our small community fractured.

According to a recent opinion piece in The MV Times (“More needed in fight against substance use disorder,” Jan. 23) by Christine Todd, in 2018 we saw four suicide deaths and eight drug-related deaths in our community, up from 2017. Per capita, the Island is second only to the state of West Virginia in apparent drug- and alcohol-related deaths.

In conclusion, the Vineyard community, including parents and members who work in the field of addiction, recovery, and education, are asking you to examine, with honesty and humanity, how we can stop this increased drive and direction to break families and isolate and alienate so many of our young people. With the police chiefs, with parental involvement, and a guideline such as the Think: kids collaborative problem-solving approach, along with psychological and advocate access within the school for all children, we can reduce the environment of crippling stigma and promote positive school culture.

  • We are asking for a commitment from qualified professionals at the school to work with the community, families, students and advocates away from punitive action and toward community supported well-being.
  • We would like disclosure on the number of detentions and suspensions and repeat suspensions that result in lost class time. And we would like an honest evaluation of the negative impact of suspensions on our youth, and families.
  • According to the Department of Education, 60 percent of people in rehabilitation facilities have learning difficulties.

It is our hope we can work together toward education and intervention over suspensions, and walk the path of dignity for all students.

Lara O’Brien
Vineyard Haven


  1. Restorative justice requires a consequence. Restorative justice requires repentance. To this writer, every act of behavioral disorder is a disability. Every child is a victim.Every disobedience is a mental health issue. Every act of punishment is unmerited. If these people were in charge our jails would be empty. On the contrary, more parental discipline and more school expulsion will solve this problem quickly and create an environment in which those who want to behave will thrive.

    • Please cite your sources that back up your claim that more “parental discipline and more school expulsion will solve this problem quickly”.

      • jb– The bible will likely be Andrews defense. It worked really well for me — the nuns beat me during the day, and I got drunk and robbed houses during the night.
        Now I’m a liberal that votes– But you don’t really expect Andrew to come up with anything that would justify his opinion , do you ?
        Guess what happens if you regularly beat a dog ?

    • Andrew– yes, back to the good old days when you could just beat the kids.
      And please tell me how expelling a kid from school is going to help keep her out of jail ?

  2. “the conclusion is that suspensions do not work.”
    Well, they don’t work well for the kids *who get suspended.* But they are great for the other 90-95% of kids, who have the ability to learn and study without the constant disruptions. And the modern studies show that leaving the disruptors in class, or removing the staff’s ability to promptly handle it, causes immense harm to everyone else.

    Think about it: Kid A vapes, sneaks call phone calls during class, acts out, and causes problems. Kid B just wants to learn some biology.

    Folks like you would prioritize Kid A over Kid B. Folks like me recognize that a handful of As can disrupt a whole school full of Bs. You cannot expect the schools to serve as psychiatric couches for students who cannot control their actions in school. And you should not ask us to sacrifice the education of the enormous majority of non-disruptive students just so that you can help a few.

    Frankly I don’t care whether Kid A “can’t help himself” or not: the objective question you need to address does not revolve around intent. Why should Kid A should be allowed to cause such harm to everyone else?

    • There are other options, like providing an in-school suspension. The offending student works directly with a trained professional experienced in adolescent behavior, learning disabilities, substance use disorders, and screening for trauma. Without an accurate, trauma-informed assessment as to why a kid is acting in a self-destructive and disruptive manner, creating an effective intervention can’t happen, and behavior won’t change. Sure, some teenagers are acting out – but many aren’t, and there are effective methods of helping them turn their behavior around, build their resilience and increase their chances for success in adolescence and beyond. Or we could just keep trying to pin the tail on the donkey with our blindfolds on and watch more youth fall through the cracks.

      According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration teens may be impacted by many different traumatic events by the time they enter high school. Episodes of physical or sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, having parents impaired by mental illness or substance abuse, having a parent with long and repeated military deployments, housing and food insecurity, and sudden or violent loss of a parent/caregiver all contribute to the development of traumatic stress in adolescents. The adolescent brain isn’t fully “cooked” yet either, which means they simply don’t have the physical ability to exercise restraint in their reactions like adults do. A child or teen that experiences trauma is at even greater risk because their brain’s normal development is hijacked by their stress response, cultivating ever more maladaptive coping mechanisms instead of learning to build resilience and self-control. This is neuroscience, not “disobedience”. Not every child exposed to trauma will develop behavioral issues, though. A caring, steady, reliable adult in their lives that they can trust seems to be the best intervention.

      Learn more here:

    • But then what to do with Kid A after Kid A is prevented from disrupting the Kid B’s in class?

      Remedial classes (and after school curfews) away from Kid B’s because if we don’t, they’re going to be a rotten Kid A the rest of their lives? Or set their destiny to be yard work and highway maintenance?

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