Linking School Discipline to Character Education

As noted in § 22.1-208.01 of the Code of Virginia, every school board is required to establish a character education program in each of its schools. The legislation gives local boards a great deal of flexibility in implementing the program. However, the purpose of the program is clearly defined in the legislation: it “shall be to instill in students civic virtues and personal character traits so as to improve the learning environment, promote student achievement, reduce disciplinary problems, and develop civic-minded students of high character.”

While the legislation requires students, parents, and the community to be involved in developing each program, the General Assembly included a list of traits which may be taught. These include the following: (i) trustworthiness, including honesty, integrity, reliability, and loyalty; (ii) respect, including the precepts of the Golden Rule, tolerance, and courtesy; (iii) responsibility, including hard work, economic self-reliance, accountability, diligence, perseverance, and self-control; (iv) fairness, including justice, consequences of bad behavior, principles of nondiscrimination, and freedom from prejudice; (v) caring, including kindness, empathy, compassion, consideration, generosity, and charity; and (vi) citizenship, including patriotism, the Pledge of Allegiance, respect for the American flag, concern for the common good, respect for authority and the law, and community-mindedness.” The program must also address the inappropriateness of bullying.

Horace Mann, considered by many to be the Father of American Public Education, advocated for such character traits. He believed that these traits would provide a moral compass based on a philosophy that was compatible with all religions. The General Assembly agreed with Mann since the legislation states that these “core civic values and virtues … are efficacious to civilized society and are common to the diverse social, cultural, and religious groups of the Commonwealth.”

Three very important aspects of leadership include a focus on vision, non-negotiables, and intentionality. Schools must identify a clear, compelling vision that serves as a driving force for reform and continuous improvement. In fact, Breaking Ranks® emphatically states that the greatest obstacle to school reform is the lack of a compelling vision. Such a vision should include developing graduates who exhibit the character traits noted in the legislation. Every school must have a set of non-negotiables or statements that define what the school believes in and lives by. These non-negotiables make up part of what Mann referred to as the moral compass. What better set of non-negotiables that those identified by the General Assembly and based on Virginia’s Bill of Rights? Once a school has a vision and a set of non-negotiables, the entire staff of administrators, faculty, office personnel, custodial personnel, students, and parents must be very intentional about making decisions around the vision and non-negotiables. Schools have to be intentional about those things that are important.

What better way to implement a character education program, already required by law, than to link it to a school’s discipline program. If everyone in a school was intentional about these character traits, discipline might improve. Every discipline issue in a school will link to one or more of the identified character traits. Administrators and teachers would have an avenue to discuss student decisions around these character traits. Of course, there are two philosophies to school discipline: to punish or to change behavior. If a school’s purpose is to change behavior, helping students link their decisions to the defined character traits may become one of those “teachable moments.”

Certainly, the requirement to address bullying can be linked to the character traits. Rather than focusing on the negative actions of the bully, why not ask the bully to share how their behavior connected to the identified character traits. Why not engage students in discussions about their behavior and how those decisions affect character? Is it possible that by re-focusing on positive character traits, students may re-frame their thinking?

In addition, such an emphasis would allow administrators a “door way” to have conversations about cyberbullying which occurs off school grounds. While the courts have been reluctant to allow school administrators to discipline students for “off-grounds speech,” there is no deterrent to having conversations about such speech. Even without disciplining a student, having the student think about his or her behavior in the context of character traits may be helpful. As schools struggle with implementing effective discipline programs and as they seek out discipline programs available commercially, perhaps the answer to a positive discipline program actually lies within Virginia’s character education legislation.

It certainly should be worth discussing, don’t you think?