September 21, 2019

The Magic Circle

Helen Keller (1880-1968)

“The more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge enters the mind of the child.” These are the words of the character of Annie Sullivan in William Gibson’s wonderful play The Miracle Worker. Based on the real-life story of Helen Keller, the play chronicles Ms. Sullivan’s heroic efforts to teach the deaf and blind six-and-half-year-old Helen. Her family has had so much pity for her condition that they have allowed her to do and have whatever she wants. Thus, Helen is little more than an undisciplined animal.

Sullivan is hired to “civilize” her. There is no expectation on the part of the family that Helen will ever be able to understand the world around her or communicate in a meaningful way. If Sullivan can at least “tame” her, they will be happy. But Sullivan believes that Helen can learn and communicate. However, for that to happen, Helen must learn to obey Sullivan. Without that obedience, there is no hope.

With an indomitable will and firm confidence in herself, Sullivan eventually makes the breakthrough, and Helen Keller becomes all that Sullivan expected her to be. But without Sullivan’s “tough love,” Keller would have lived a life of darkness.

There was a time in this country when teachers and administrators realized the absolute necessity of discipline in the classroom. When students broke rules, they received punishments commensurate with the severity of the violation. The purpose was to make the violators better people and to assure that the other students could learn in a safe environment. And such a system worked extremely well. But not anymore.

Now we have something called “restorative practices.” Instead of suspending a student for a major violation, school districts form what I call the “magic circle.” The perpetrator of the misdeed, the victim of his act (if there is one), a certified restorative practice facilitator, and the parents sit in a circle and then discuss the rule violation and see if they can determine how this major violation could have been avoided.

For example, let’s assume that Johnny is mad at Billy. Johnny walks up behind Billy and punches him in the head, severely injuring Billy. If Johnny rejects the idea of the magic circle, then the administration will try to work out a solution short of suspension. But if Johnny agrees to the magic circle, then he, his parents, and the facilitator try to explain why Johnny was wrong, how he could have handled the situation better, and what he can do in the future to avoid another similar violation. The ideal situation would be for Billy and his parents to join the magic circle, resulting in no suspension and Johnny and Billy becoming best buds for the rest of their lives.

But you may be wondering why a school district would go through all this. In the old days, Johnny would have been suspended forthwith with the hope that such a severe penalty would teach Johnny to learn how to behave in a civilized manner. But now the government has gotten involved.

Take the Farmington School District in Michigan. In 2013, the district was placed on a state watch list because it was suspending special education black males at a disproportionate rate. In plain language, the number of special education black males suspended for major school violations did not match the percentage of special education black males in the school population. (It is important to understand that “special education” can include everything from dyslexia to disruptive behavior.)

One would have to be quite naive not to see the racial component in this process. The Farmington School District, located in a predominantly white, upper-middle class community, may not have been officially accused of racial bias, but they certainly understood the message from the state: Reduce the suspension of special education black males or face legal intervention.

An obvious question is, “But what if the black males are really violating school rules at a disproportionate rate?” It doesn’t matter. Suspensions must be reduced–or else.

As for the magic circle, the proof is in the pudding. If the circle provides greater order in the classrooms, thus creating a safer, more productive learning environment for all the students, then it has value. But such an outcome is not part of the calculus. Only the students and the faculty really know if that has become a byproduct of the restorative process. My gut and thirty-six years in a public school tell me it’s not.

The insidious concept of disproportionate representation is not limited to school discipline. It is also applied to the American justice system, where the claim is that minorities are disproportionately represented in prisons. The purpose of the claim is not to achieve some amorphous ideal of equal justice; the purpose is to label the United States as a racist nation and that minorities are not responsible for whatever crimes they commit. If you don’t believe me, find out why the Left often refers to school discipline as the “prison pipeline.” And then read my colleague Vincent Ruggiero’s excellent article, Education’s Failing Grade, on this site. You will be wiser for doing so.

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Written by
Thomas Addis

THOMAS ADDIS is a retired high school teacher and published author, most recently authoring a children's book, A Gift of Light, which is available at Amazon. An M.A. graduate of Oakland University, he is Associate Editor of Catholic Journal. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and cycling.

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