Young Children’s Views on Equal Treatment and Due Process in Schools’ Disciplinary Procedures
The study explored how children of lower primary school grades in Israel perceive the right to due process in schools’ disciplinary procedures. It focused on the following questions:
- Which characteristics of the right to due process can be identified in children’s descriptions of their school’s disciplinary procedures?
- Whether and how do children justify due process that is based on a formalistic approach (i.e., meting out uniform punishments in similar cases, in accordance with a closed system of procedural and substantial rules)?
- Whether and how do children criticize due process that is based on a formalistic approach?
In recent years, the Israeli Ministry of Education published regulations that set punitive guidelines for each disciplinary category. In view of the prevalence of similar punitive school policies in other countries (see e.g., Geldenhuys & Doubell, 2011; Kupchik, 2010; Taylor, 2013), our study has broad relevance.
The theoretical framework of the study rests on two threads of literature. The first examines the right to due process in school, which incorporates both procedural aspects of disciplinary procedures and substantial aspects, relating to the content of the disciplinary decisions (Black, 2014; Brown, 2009). The implementation of the right to due process in school discipline produces several points of tension and challenges. First, due process is required when school discipline is based on punitive approaches. Such approaches have been criticized for being ineffective, for discriminating against minority and disempowered children, and for undermining educational processes (e.g., Brown, 2009; Kinsler, 2011; Skiba et al., 2011). Second, due process in school implies complex tensions between two different kinds of fairness: a formalistic fairness that is embedded in uniform responses to similar disciplinary incidents and a substantial fairness that entails granting attention to the unique circumstances of each case and each child (Brown, 2009; Fries & DeMitchell, 2007). Teachers struggle to find adequate balance between these tensions (Fries & DeMitchell, 2007). Third, due process in school may lead to an excessive use of the human rights discourse by individual children who may undermine the rights of other children enrolled in their school (Meyer & Bratge, 2011). It should be noted that similar challenges and tensions are presented in studies exploring the developing alternatives to formalistic approaches to criminal punishments (e.g., Stolle, Wexler, & Winick, 2010).
The second thread of literature that constructs the theoretical framework of the study includes studies that have examined children’s perceptions of school discipline (Free, 2014; Geldenhuys & Doubell, 2011; McCluskey, 2008; McCluskey et al., 2013; Osler, 2000; Raby, 2008; Thornberg, 2008). These studies have used different theoretical frameworks to analyze children’s critics regarding the discipline in their schools, children’s suggestions how to improve school discipline, and differentiations that children make between different kinds of school rules.
The research questions of the studies that explored children’s perceptions of school discipline do not rest on the human rights discourse. Our study contributes unique insights regarding the ways children perceive human rights in schools and as to schools’ ‘hidden human rights curriculum’: ‘the modeling of respect for the child’s rights in all aspects of the school social and regulatory functioning’ (Covell, 2010, p. 40). Human rights education includes not only knowledge, but also practices that reinforce the experience of human rights. Studies have discussed the crucial role of schools’ organizational practices in shaping children’s rights consciousness (e.g., Brown, 2009; Covell, 2010). In addition, most of the studies that examined children’s perceptions of school discipline have focused on secondary schools. Thus, we decided to focus the current study on children in lower primary school grades, who are taking their first steps of their compulsory schooling career.
The research was based on qualitative methods. The participants were 40 girls and 30 boys (N = 70), aged seven to ten, recruited from 19 Jewish secular public schools in Israel. The schools were located in cities, towns, and collective settlements (kibbutzim).
The research tools comprised 12 individual semi-structured interviews and 18 focus groups, with each group comprising between two and five children. We used both focus groups and individual interviews, as each methodology has its own strengths and weaknesses in relation to young research participants. Focus groups are less intimidating and more likely to facilitate interaction among the group participants. They provide opportunities to uncover aspects of understandings inductively, which are less likely to emerge in individual interviews. However, individual interviews can have an important role, because in sensitive topics, children may prefer one-on-one conversations. The methods thus complemented each other to provide a holistic picture of the research setting.
During the individual and group interviews, children were asked to describe the disciplinary procedures in their schools and to reflect on equal enforcement of the rules, on procedural aspects of their implementation, and on children’s participation in disciplinary decisions.
The participants were also asked to analyze three short vignettes relating to the challenges characterizing the right to due process in schools’ disciplinary procedures. We asked the children to reflect on the vignettes, rather than to provide a solution or to describe desired actions.
All interviews were recorded and transcribed. We used Dedoose software to analyze the data. During the initial coding, we coded all the issues that we identified in the interviews. Then, we organized the findings in categories that differentiated between justifications and various critiques of due process that reflects formalistic fairness in schools' disciplinary procedures. Some of the categories that were identified in the initial coding retained their form at the final coding, while others were merged, separated, or deleted to stay within the framework of the research questions.
Additionally, a children's advisory committee was established, comprising three children (two girls, one boy), who consulted us during the research process. The most significant contribution of the children’s advisory group, in the course of five consultation meetings, was in the process of shaping research questions and tools. The goal of the consultation process was to improve the research’s quality and to pursue a rights-based methodology (Lundy & McEvoy, 2011).
The findings indicated that all the children were familiar with the rules regulating discipline in their schools. These rules typically implemented a sticks-and-carrots policy to punish children who break the rules and reward children who abide by them.
Children’s perceptions of due process in schools’ disciplinary procedures varied widely. Many children have internalized the formalistic fairness of the disciplinary procedures in their schools and justified such approaches. However, many children criticized a formalistic approach to due process in the school and provided various reasons for their concerns. Some participants supported disciplinary policies that would take into account the specific circumstances of each child and of each case and enable compassion and understanding of social, academic, or other difficulties. Some noted the low efficacy of punishments that do not manage to improve the behavior of children who repeatedly commit disciplinary infractions. Other concerns reflected the difficulty of discerning the truth in the course of disciplinary procedures, the lack of children’s voice in disciplinary procedures, and their fear of a uniform punitive system. The children's criticisms indicated that they experience the problematics of being subjected to a formalistic approach of due process in school and are amenable to alternatives in appropriate cases.
This study demonstrated that the right to due process in the school setting produces constant tension between a legalistic-formalistic approach and pedagogic considerations. Many of the young children participating in the study had not (yet) normalized the legalistic-formalistic approach and raised deep, complex, and important reservations concerning it. Implications of this are substantiated in literatures on punitive approaches in criminal law (e.g., Stolle, Wexler, & Winick, 2000). The conclusions pertain to the need to invest more thought regarding the ways by which the right to due process should be realized in schools’ disciplinary practices.
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This proposal is part of a master or doctoral thesis.