OPINION: “Failure to follow directives” should not be a JCPS disciplinary offense


Patrick Smalley

If you’ve ever read the JCPS Code of Acceptable Behavior and Discipline in its entirety, it probably isn’t because you did so voluntarily. The code is 44 pages long, and it’s jam packed with rules and regulations. But the vaguest of them all is “Behavior Violation Number Three,” which states that “failure to follow rules or directives” can result in disciplinary action. In other words, “obey authority without regards to its rightfulness or wrongfulness.”

A multitude of issues arise when an institution includes a clause in its rules that affords it the right to punish someone simply for disobeying authority. The “failure to follow directives” clause is elastic enough to give teachers virtually unrestricted control over students, and this is abused about as often as you might expect. According to its 2013 Envision Equity Scorecard, JCPS punishes black kids disproportionately to white kids, and the majority of these referrals are masked by the incredibly unspecific “failure to follow directives” justification. 43% of JCPS’ black population has been suspended by middle school, with “failure to follow directives” listed as the second most common reason for their suspension. The best way to cut down on disciplinary indiscretion and correct status quo discrimination is to eliminate the clause, which allows racism and inequity to manifest themselves. The scorecard also reports that as much as 55% of the student population perceived “inconsistent application of school discipline.” If a disciplinary action is legitimately justified, then the teacher or administrator should have no problem citing an actual rule that the student has violated, rather than simply invoking the “you failed to submit to my authority” cop-out.

By giving teachers and administrators the ability to write students up for no other justification other than “failure to follow directives,” JCPS effectively makes the school an authoritarian institution in which students are herded from place to place like livestock, constantly subject to the will of their school. While proponents for the clause may argue that it helps give teachers flexibility in discipline, that’s exactly what we want to avoid. If students are punished, it should be because they broke a rule of which they were previously aware.

The catch-all clause can be seen as a sort of twisted insubordination rule written into JCPS’ disciplinary code similar to that used by many companies. Corporations justify these regulations as a stipulation in the social contract between laborer and employer. The employee signs away his or her ability to act independently in exchange for the salary of a corporation. The saving grace of this notion is that workers are not forced to submit themselves to these rules–they can terminate the social contract when they choose to terminate employment at the company. No such redeeming quality exists for the same rule applied to public education, which is compulsory in Jefferson County Public Schools and required by law.

Students spend seven hours of their lives every day in class, and they spend many more on homework and school-sanctioned extracurriculars. Schools have expanded their scope into the home lives of students as well, monitoring them on social media and generally becoming more ubiquitous, far-reaching institutions. It’s best for all parties involved when teachers emphasise their roles as educators, not disciplinarians–increasing the independence and freedom of students as autonomous agents while simultaneously allowing teachers to focus on positive educational roles, rather than overbearing and negative authoritarian ones. The shift in policy also helps eliminate refuge for discrimination and adds clarity and specificity to the disciplinary process. This is not a call for less stringent discipline per se, it is a call for transparency that will promote both order and equity for all students.