School discipline and the courts

A case the U.S. Supreme Court may handle this week raises troubling questions — but they are not limited to those many in the media and the courts are addressing.

Reporters have focused on the case because it is one new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch dealt with while he was a lower-court judge a few years ago.

In 2011, a seventh-grader at a school in New Mexico decided it would be fun to disrupt his classroom by faking burping sounds. The boy, then 13, refused to stop, so his teacher sent him out into the hall.

From there, the lad began leaning into the classroom and continuing his “burps.” At that point, the teacher used her school radio to ask for help with the student. A police officer assigned to the school took the boy to the office — then arrested him for interfering with the education process. He was handcuffed and taken to a juvenile detention center. He was picked up, presumably by one of his parents, an hour later.

His mother sued school officials and police.

After the case made it to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, it was ruled, in a 2-1 decision, that the officer was immune because he had violated no laws. Gorsuch dissented. Now, the case has gone to the Supreme Court.

How Gorsuch will rule now, possibly based on new arguments, has been the subject of speculation. So, too, is the effect the case will have on discipline in schools.

But as Gorsuch hinted in his earlier dissent, something else is in question. It is whether our modern society and laws have made it impossible for educators to maintain order in their classrooms without resorting to the police.

“If a seventh-grader starts trading fake burps for laughs in gym class, what’s a teacher to do? Order extra laps? Detention? A trip to the principal’s office? Maybe. But then again, maybe that’s too old school,” Gorsuch wrote in his dissent. “Maybe today, you call a police officer. And maybe today, the officer decides that instead of just escorting the now compliant 13-year-old to the principal’s office, an arrest would be a better idea.”

It does appear, as Gorsuch seemed to believe, that arresting the boy was going too far. Similar concerns can be raised about several school discipline situations that have been in the news during recent years.

But do teachers lack the support they once had to enforce discipline? Are parents unwilling to discipline their own children, or worse yet, complaining when teachers try to enforce discipline? Or are some teachers simply leaning on the police because they lack the skills to handle disruptive students on their own?

And what, in either case, should education officials and the public need to do about it? How Gorsuch and the high court’s other eight justices feel about that may be instructive.


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