Why you should care

Because did detention ever teach you anything?

Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve woefully lagged behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.

When OZY’s Sean Culligan, then 16, hurled a water balloon that hit a car passing outside his high school, the effect was not quite what he’d hoped. Caught in the act by a teacher, who viewed the “prank” as a serious misdemeanor, young Culligan was given a one-way ticket to detention for the rest of the week. But his punishment wasn’t to sit in silence or write “I must not throw things at cars” 100 times. Instead, detention involved janitorial work — picking up litter, carrying supplies, even cleaning the bathrooms. That was par for the course at a Catholic school back then.

Too severe? We might not see eye to eye with young Culligan’s tormentors, but something might be said for making detention a bit more … physical. When detention in the majority of schools across the world is spent in silence, reading or writing lines of penance, couldn’t it be made more productive? How about using the time to teach misbehaving children the value of hard work and community service, and respect for the environment and teamwork, rather than trying to bore them into obedience? Whether working alongside the janitor to tidy classrooms or tending to a community garden, schools should ditch detention and replace it with manual labor.

If some form of punishment is necessary, might sweeping floors be preferable to enforced silence?

 

On the face of it, this may seem like a regressive approach to addressing behavioral issues. Indeed, most of the recent scholarship in this area advocates for moving away from punishment “in favor of positive behavior support,” says Sandra Chafouleas, professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut — methods that focus on preventing misbehavior without resorting to punitive measures. But while prevention is certainly key, says George Bear from the University of Delaware School of Education, “I can’t imagine a school that did not have some form of punishment” when those approaches prove inadequate. If some punishment is necessary, wouldn’t sweeping floors be preferable to enforced silence?

According to Professor Russell Skiba, who has testified before Congress on issues of school discipline, “there hasn’t been a whole lot of research on detention,” in part because it can be implemented in so many different ways. Consequently, the success of janitorial work, for instance, would depend on the exact nature of the proposed program, say the experts. So rather than labeling it manual labor, a proposal setting forth a “supervised learning experience,” based on community service and opportunities to discuss how to maintain a clean school environment, will naturally generate greater interest.

To be sure, giving schools the green light to conscript kids to the janitorial frontline could yield positive, healthy results in some cases, while mistakenly encouraging abusive practices in others. As such, this approach, says Chafouleas, should only be carried out by skilled individuals who “understand the nuances” of how excessively punitive punishment can be harmful. It is important, too, that this not be considered a one-size-fits-all policy: For children with “chronic behavior problems,” who would rather be anywhere than stuck in a classroom, says Bear, this supposed punishment could actually be rewarding — and therefore do nothing to discourage the bad behavior.

But for most high schoolers, given a choice between mopping the floor and sitting in the classroom, I suspect the choice is a no-brainer. Even so, traditional detention has its detractors, and, regardless of the form it takes, there’s the issue of disproportionately applied punishment against certain racial groups. “I don’t know if kids were more well-behaved or not” as a result of his school’s harsh detention policies, says Culligan, but one thing’s certain: “It sure made our school look nice.”

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Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.