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Punitive school discipline does far more harm than good

When it comes to school discipline, we should be interested in what works, because that is what keeps kids in school — learning. From my firsthand experience, the model of punitive “correction” touted by Michael Muldoon in his Sept. 6 letter to the editor (“Too many disciplinary tools have been taken out of teachers’ hands”) not only harms children, as Jessica Lander accurately described in her op-ed “The criminalization of school kids”; it is also ineffective.

When schools rely on disciplinary tools such as suspension, arrest, physical restraint, seclusion, or other punitive measures, students become alienated from their school community, fall behind in class, or enter the juvenile justice system, at great cost to themselves and to society.


The research is also clear about what works: trusting relationships between teachers and students, and a positive school culture in which students are supported to learn. In good schools with skilled educators, student misconduct is considered a teaching opportunity. “Calling the cops,” as Muldoon puts it, only compounds the problem.

Fortunately, Massachusetts has new laws (Chapter 222 and Safe and Supportive Schools) that help schools avoid punitive approaches and develop alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice, peer mediation, and trauma sensitivity. These are solutions that work.

Liza Hirsch
Staff attorney
Massachusetts Advocates for Children

As a former employee of the Peck Full Service Community School in Holyoke, the writer documented disciplinary abuse of children with emotional disabilities at the school, a move that led to several state investigations.