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When Disruptive Students Are Coddled, the Whole Class Suffers

Last month, NBC Nightly News aired a segment on the latest classroom-management technique to sweep America’s schools: “room clears”: When a child throws a tantrum that could physically endanger his peers, teachers evacuate all of the other students from the classroom until the troublemaker has vented his rage upon empty desks, tables and chairs. The technique was virtually unheard of five years ago. But 56 percent of surveyed teachers and parents in Oregon now report having experienced a room clear in their or their child’s classroom over the last year.

Surrendering the classroom to a single student: The average reader might well ask why anyone thinks this would be a good idea. Yet the policies that make this approach inevitable have been applauded by a wide range of authorities, from the Southern Poverty Law Center to the Trump-administration’s Department of Education.

The emergence of room clears is a product of several fashionable education-policy trends designed to protect the rights of troubled students, often with little regard for the rights of their classmates. These include the provisions contained in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that special-education students be subject to the “least restrictive environment” possible. When it comes to students who are hard of hearing, dyslexic or developmentally delayed, this policy likely has done a great deal of good. But many schools also label disruptive or violent students as having an “Emotional and Behavioral Disability” (EBD). Rather than provide these students specialized attention in separate settings, schools often funnel them into traditional classrooms.

In a national poll, two thirds of surveyed teachers at high-poverty schools reported that there is a student in their classroom who they believed shouldn’t be there; and 77 percent of surveyed teachers report that a small number of disruptive students cause other students to suffer. Unfortunately, IDEA’s provisions don’t adequately account for the rights and interests of general-education students, and teachers typically have little say over who is in their classroom.

Once they are assigned to a traditional class, EBD students can become virtually untouchable as far as discipline goes. Schools are discouraged by federal policy and activist groups alike from disproportionately disciplining students with disabilities—the effect of which is that principals are required to overlook many otherwise unacceptable transgressions. (Two thirds of teachers say that special-education students are treated more leniently than general-education students for the same offenses.) The worst-behaved students effectively are taught that the rules don’t apply to them in the same way they apply to others. Even when misbehavior edges toward violence, EBD students are becoming physically untouchable.

The rise in room clears is directly related to policy initiatives aimed at stamping out so-called “restraint and seclusion.” In the past, as a student’s misbehavior escalated, a teacher might ask the student to leave the room, put a hand on a student’s shoulder to try to get him to calm down, or—if need be—direct him by the arm away from a tense situation and possibly call security to remove him from the classroom area. But as policymakers take these options off the table, teachers have little recourse but to remove every single other student from the classroom before someone gets hurt.

Teachers report feeling powerless to enforce order and ensure the safety of their students. But their voices are ignored, in part because the same ideology that undergirds these policies also serves to heap the blame for student misbehavior on educators. Statistical disparities in student discipline are taken as a prima facie indicator of institutional racism or ableism. And to the extent that student misbehavior is seen as being a product of trauma, anyone who applies disciplinary measures to the student is accused of exacerbating that trauma.

The Obama administration took aim at traditional discipline, arguing that suspensions “don’t work” and pressuring school districts to opt instead for “restorative justice” or “healing circles.” After two years of enforcing the Obama administration’s war on suspensions, the current Education Secretary, Betty DeVos, finally ended it. Yet Trump-administration appointees continue to enforce other policies that have contributed to the room-clear spike. Earlier this year, in fact, the Department of Education announced a new policy initiative intended to address the “inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion” for students with disabilities.

Indeed, the Trump administration is now taking a page out of the Obama-era playbook: conducting proactive school-district investigations that could lead to the withdrawal of funding in districts where administrators refuse to change policies that federal bureaucrats deem “inappropriate.”

The Department of Education also seems intent on faithfully implementing another misguided special education policy, known as “Equity in IDEA.” Under Barack Obama, Department of Education bureaucrats had become alarmed by aggregate statistics showing that minority students were more likely to be designated as disabled, and that students with disabilities were more likely to be placed in alternative classrooms and more likely to be disciplined. Under the regulations they created to address “significant disproportionality,” school districts whose race-disability ratios exceed a certain threshold were required to demonstrate “progress” toward greater statistical parity, or else see their special education funding forcibly re-allocated to programs intended to accomplish that goal.

By the time Donald Trump took office, it had become clear that the Department of Education’s concerns were unfounded: Researchers had determined that after controlling for misbehavior, students with disabilities were no more or less likely to be disciplined than their general-education peers. What’s more, minority students were actually substantially under-represented in special education compared to similarly situated white students. So the primary effects of “Equity in IDEA” will be to deny minority students special-education services, pressure schools to keep EBD students in traditional classrooms, and inhibit teachers from disciplining them. (The Trump administration temporarily delayed implementation pending review, but the delay got struck down by a court challenge, and the Trump administration recently dropped its appeal.)

There isn’t yet any comprehensive national data about the use of room clears. The statistic cited above—that 56 percent of teachers and parents of students in Oregon reported a room clear in the past year—represents one of the few data points we have. Oregon was one of the more aggressive states in pushing an anti-traditional discipline agenda, pressuring schools to reduce suspensions, and discouraging methods associated with seclusion and restraint. Now, the same pressures that the deep-blue Oregon legislature imposed on its schools are being imposed by the Department of Education on schools across America.

The close of last month’s NBC Nightly News segment provides a taste of what’s to come: The teacher who spoke to reporters retired after being stabbed by a student without consequence; not a single expert NBC News spoke to questioned the policies that created the status quo; and a school-district bureaucrat cited the chaos as evidence that schools need more taxpayer funding.

With Washington holding the purse strings and pushing these misguided policies on local school districts, parents’ and teachers’ complaints to school-board members seem likely to fall on deaf ears. Parents with the financial means to pay for private education will increasingly evacuate their students from public schools altogether. Meanwhile, less advantaged students, like their teachers, will have no choice but to continue their education in an environment where a single agitated student has the power to seize control of any classroom he pleases.


Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the recent report Safe and Orderly Schools: Updated Guidance on School Discipline. Follow him on Twitter @MaxEden99.

Featured Illustration by Olivier Ballou



  1. The answer is never less discipline, but rather more discipline, clearly articulated from the outset. This doesn’t mean daft zero tolerance policies, based on some archaic notion of the effectiveness of overly punitive systems. It means a contract signed by both kids and parents, giving clear expectations of standards of behaviour and homework. It means an induction that is at least a day long, so that they can see exactly what is expected from observing older class mates. It means swift intervention and isolation to detention, in which they can either work or stare at a wall, and will have there phone confiscated if they attempt to use it. In an ideal world the school would be able to block their access to social media as punishment (although on this last point, it would be far better if they had no access at all).

    These small, sharp, minor interventions prevent the major breeches of discipline- like reporting minor incidents on building site, to reduce the chances of injury or death. Because the result of not taking this common sense approach is clear. The best one can hope for, is to turn the school-to-prison pipeline into a superhighway. At worst, it can lead to a spiralling escalation of out of control behaviour ending in death. In London, the exclusions that inevitably follow from lax policy has resulted in the shocking statistic that being placed in a pupil referral unit increases your likelihood of being involved in a knife crime incident, one way or another, by a factor of roughly 200.

    Because Conservatives who achieve power, more often than not come from a reformed liberal background, Western societies have developed an unhealthy liberal bias when it comes to children. They need authority and clear expectation of behaviour, in order to thrive and be happy. If they lose even 10 minutes an hour to disruption, then you lose the equivalent of two years of education, by the time they leave secondary education. In the urge to protect children, we are actually harming them and effectively treating them worse than dogs. Because as any responsible dog owner will tell you, dogs are far happier when they have a strong and authoritative pack leader…

  2. In a national poll, two thirds of surveyed teachers at high-poverty schools reported that there is a student in their classroom who they believed shouldn’t be there …

    At some point the school system should decide when it is appropriate to give up on a child. That is, remove the child from the system and abandon him to his and his parents’ own private devices, or the street.

    Some children need to be left behind, for the sake of the other children.

  3. The tyranny of the minority.

  4. I work at a public school in a Vermont city with more than it’s share of bad luck, and yes - we do utilize the clear the classroom technique, as one of MANY deescalation tools, and only after other tools have failed. It should be part of an entire system of deescalation and relationship building or repair. As an example, if we need to clear the classroom for a student throwing desks, that is delivered as a “package” of responses including an in-school suspension to make up academic assignments and discuss relationship repair work, a parent call, and a restorative justice circle with the classroom. The boy who threw the desk needs to hear his peers say aloud, “When you threw the chair I got scared.” “It’s hard to be your friend when you do that.” I have seen it work wonders in decreasing the duration and intensity of dangerous behaviors…With some students…

    That being said, there needs to be a back-up when the best attempts at deescalation and relationship repair efforts do not work. I love the idea of giving every student an opportunity to improve on a social/emotional scale, but some students have experienced so much adversity that a typical public school setting simply does not work for them.

    TLDR: Always make a effortful attempt at deescalation and relationship building or repair, and have a back up plan ready (alternative setting) when it is unsuccessful. Relying too much on relationship repair after the emotional/physical damage is already done will turn the decent parents and community members against the school.

  5. A student who throws desks should never be allowed into a classroom with other students. A boy who throws desks needs to be removed to where he can do no harm. And the rest of the classroom should never have to deal with him.

    There, fixed.

  6. What we’ve got here is the classic deviance defined down. It is the degradation of civil society.

    So what happens when the same student starts shouting ‘Nigger!’ or Faggot! while disrupting the class? I think I know.

  7. You should take a look at the results achieved by the Michaela Community School in London. They take kids from poor, multi-ethnic, inner city, often single parent backgrounds and high crime neighbourhoods, taken by lottery, and achieve some of the highest results in the country. Locals have remarked that they are incredibly polite and always give their seat up on a bus. They routinely walk or cycle past gangs on their way to school.

    By contrast, older, white, middle-class, twentysomethings from far more fortunate circumstances, get drunk at weekends and end up punching police officers.

  8. The courts block every single attempt to roll back leftist insanity. Of course an ideology based on grievance is interested in cultivating dysfunctional youths, we should expect no different, but the deeper problem is the misuse of the judicial branch to impose leftist hegemony. That is what is preventing this problem and many others from being solved.

  9. With respect, it is part of the deeper problem. In the US, the justices of the Supreme Court fail to control and discipline the lower Federal courts which routinely defy them, with no consequence.

    Much the way teachers fail to control their students.

  10. A student who throws desks should never be allowed into a classroom with other students.

    I know how they’ll fix it! Desks (and chairs) will be securely pinned to the ground.

    I used to think of the school-to-prison pipelines as a strange piece of authoritarianism randomly encroaching American society, but by now I’m pretty sure I see how it came into being. You cannot be a functional school if you have nowhere to kick students out to. And while prisons are hardly the right place for most of the students in question, it’s probably the one place that volunteered to take them, due to perverse financial incentives.

    Germany has/had the Hauptschulen (the lowest rung of mid-to-high-school education); the Soviet Union had the PTUs. You don’t have to pretend students learned much in them, because that is not the point. The point is to let the students in the other schools learn.

    I’m confused at why DeVos is not fighting for these issues more strongly, given her so far very reasonable politics. Is the rest of the DoE so full of Obama holdovers? This looks like a case where some skills from The Apprentice could be put to good use.

  11. I’m intrigued by the fact that back when I went to school here in Oz the 70s, we didn’t have such problems. First of all there was an expected standard of behaviour amongst the whole community which required children to obey adults in general. Secondly, corporal punishment was a great deterrent, because it meant that the teacher and not the pupil was in charge. Thirdly, and most importantly of all, we had streaming so that the no-hopers went off to schools that catered for the less academically inclined. This meant that the bright children could learn together. Even better it meant that children from poor backgrounds who had brains got to mix with fellow pupils from richer families. It also fostered a lot of school pride. Such schools could match the rich private schools for academic results if not for social cachet.
    Now we seem to have become child-centred to such an extent that true discipline must be eschewed in favour of intense coddling of the sort you mention. If little Johnny was disciplined by strong male role models from the age of 5 he would not end up a littleuncontrollable thug by the time he was in his teens. We have to make him live up to a community standard, not bend that statndard to fit him

  12. Once, when our daughter was five years old, she tried to arrange tantrums. You know how that happens. The child rolls on the floor and screams. Twice the wife was forced to wait. For the third time, the wife spanked our daughter. All necessary precautions have been taken (she spanked her with a newspaper, loud but not painful, especially because the daughter was dressed in winter clothes :slightly_smiling_face:).
    The problem was solved immediately and forever.
    I say this for a simple reason. I don’t care about pedagogy. A five-year-old child needs a punishment appropriate to his age. Such a punishment has a positive effect on him, while tricks or long conversations only traumatize his personality.

  13. The activists of which you speak have a very hard time acknowledging that children have personal agency, can be very wicked, and can also accept personal responsibility. I spent 15 years tangentially involved in education research and my wife is an educator. It’s astonishing to come across anyone in these circles who understands 2 fundamental things about kids: 1) children can, and often do, commit premeditated acts of aggression for no other reason than to get a rise out of someone, and 2) all children can sense what the expectations are in any given environment and will accommodate themselves accordingly. If the bar is set low, most kids will respond by being lazy and/or disruptive. If the bar is set high, they respond by upping their game a bit.

    The larger problem is, it seems, most people in education feel that it’s always something/someone else’s fault if a kid misbehaves. They blame poverty, racism, ADHD, meds, lack of meds, lack of school funding, bad parents, bad schools, bad neighborhoods. Hardly ever once have I heard it mentioned, “Hey, the damn kid has some culpability here too, you know!” Stating that self-evident point in some company will make you lower than a racist.

  14. I teach a self-contained classroom in a high poverty district. It’s a disaster as the pressure for fewer and fewer consequences increase. This year, they removed In School Suspension. The state pressures districts to heavily reduce suspensions, and since the school cannot, the school does what it’s in its power to do: ignore behavior. Thus, in the last five years, the behavior has been plummeting as more and more students get swept up in the violent/threatening/off task behavior. “What you permit, you promote,” is a popular educational saying. When you permit violent or threatening behavior to go unpunished, or have very minimal consequences, you promote it. In my opinion, the people in favor of such things have zero real world experience and have zero idea what we go through. Sometimes we see training videos about how to handle a disruptive student and it’s comically simple, like a student walks in five minutes late.

    For people who don’t know what we face: It’s not a tiny minority of students, and the disruptions are not minor. They include: fighting and throwing things in the middle of class, insane levels of cursing, often sexual, bullying other students, refusal to work. One year I was sent to the hospital three times. I have extremely good classroom management - which is why I’m placed there - but it’s a very difficult position and more akin to social work than teaching.

    I’ve never heard of clearing the classroom because of one student, but that strikes me as a Looking Glass solution, stopping the education of an entire class because of one student. It also presumes the level of disruption is very low and the disrupters are rare. In my case, it would be impossible even if I wanted to–getting all the kids out in the hallway and expecting them all to behave and be quiet is delusional.

    My class is a dumping ground for students no one wants. Self contained is supposed to be for cognitive and learning disabilities. Instead, fully half are severely emotionally disturbed, either through poor neonatal and post natal care; very poor home environments (abuse and neglect); and occasionally biology. Add to that the inner city environment in which you never know if you’ll be shot, and in which you know someone who has been shot, and you have a toxic mix.

    Yet there are always at least 50% of the kids who want to learn and whose behavior can be managed. By focusing only on the kids who behave poorly and essentially rewarding them with extra attention for misbehaving (what many of them crave) you encourage the poor behavior and ignore the good behavior, and harm the educational outcomes of all.

    My own proposal has been to have charter schools for kids with severe behaviors - as opposed to the current method of the reverse, taking the best kids with the highest level of parental involvement. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, our system is insane. If we have special charters for such students, maybe we can help them better by doing an entirely differently approach.

    At the very least, the other students would feel safe enough to actually learn.

  15. Dcl, thank you, for all that you do. I totally agree that we need more charter schools that target students with severe social/emotional challenges. I want to provide those students with high empathy and high expectations in the most safe and structured environment possible.

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