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New Tennessee law to formalize teachers' roles for discipline in the classroom

File photo: Getty Images.
File photo: Getty Images.
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A new law in Tennessee called the "Teacher's Discipline Act" goes into effect on New Year's Day.

It tries to establish more formal procedures for teachers to discipline and relocate disruptive students in their classrooms.

But it’s dividing teachers and parents, with some saying it focuses too much on discipline, and not enough on what causes behavior problems in the first place.

A recent survey from the Professional Educators of Tennessee showed 22 percent of educators were "unlikely" to remain in public education.

Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed cited student discipline and behavior as "challenging" or "very challenging."

The group says the law will help address this issue by putting "better discipline systems and processes in place," and giving "teachers more voice on the critical issue of student discipline."

"The best teacher in the school cannot teach if they have an unruly classroom," said JC Bowman, director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher's association based in Nashville. "We've got to make sure that we're protecting our teachers and our other students as well."

But on Friday, we spoke with a teacher and a parent who say the law is unnecessary, and fails to address bigger issues related to student behavior and discipline.

Hamilton County teacher Aaron Fowles says this new discipline bill does nothing to address the key issue: disparities in who's getting punished, and how.

"A black student is more than four times as likely to be suspended than a white kid. This bill does nothing to address that disparity," he told us.

Fowles says the legislature should focus more on training teachers and hiring counselors to help keep kids inside the classroom.

"All [the bill] does is give teachers some kind of asinine checklist that they can complete to get a kid kicked out of the classroom," he said. "We should not be evicting children from the classroom, we should be educating them in the classroom, right. And that is where the legislature should be investing its time and energy."

Fowles also says the new law won't even "impact him one bit."

"Hamilton County, specifically, and a lot of other progressive districts across the state, have already got progressive discipline policy plans in place. So this is really unnecessary," he said.

Parent and disability advocate Sara Scott says the bill isn't focusing on what's most important.

"It just seems like a shame that we've shifted, once again, towards punitive measures, rather than looking at the root cause of why a child might be disruptive in school."

Like Fowles, Scott says more investment needs to be made in mental health professionals and looking at whether kids are getting what they need at home.

"It's not that the student lacks discipline, it's that they lack support," she said.

But Bowman, director of Professional Educators of TN, stands by the bill and the importance of formalizing student discipline processes.

"One unruly child or two unruly children can actually create an atmosphere where no children can learn."

He says teachers provided input on the bill, and told him they had issues with discipline processes at their schools.

"One of the things we all agree on is involving parents in the process earlier seems to be a better way of dealing with discipline," he said.

Bowman agreed it's important to complement the discipline law with investment in other supports.

"The first part was to get the discipline act in place. The second part was to get the mental health piece in place. And then the third part is going to be making sure we have the guidance counselor's there to help the students," he said.

We also asked Bowman his response to the concern that the bill doesn't focus on the root cause of behavioral issues:

"While it's true it doesn't get to the root of the problem, unless you address the behavior and you identify the child and get the parents involved, you're not going to get to the root cause."

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Depend on us to keep you posted as this new law takes effect.

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