There’s Something Wrong With Detentions

Detentions are a drain on everyone’s time: do they punish students and teachers alike?

Detention: Punishment for Staff and Students Alike?

The seconds tick interminably by. The clockface on the classroom wall seems to smirk, “Keep looking at me and I’ll go slower still.” Someone begins tapping on their desk. The atmosphere in the room is so cloying that the pitter-patter of fingers sounds more like a ticking bomb, but the destruction has already been wreaked… brains have long turned to mush and spirits been broken… those drumming digits instead assume the air of a funeral march. Blank faces stare at blank walls. What did anybody do to deserve this? You glance again at the time. Ten more minutes to freedom. Then you can properly concentrate on the marking in front of you…

With many sanctions, you have to wonder who exactly they’re designed to punish. And, indeed, whether or not punishment is worthwhile. Taking time off a teenager might act as some form of deterrent but one thing teenagers generally aren’t short on is time. Their teachers, on the other hand, who have to dutifully log and administer every detention, regard time as a rare and precious commodity. So why are we frittering it away with such mindless sanctions?

School shouldn’t be punishing for anyone. It should be the most vibrant and energised place imaginable. The joy of learning should be insatiable. The children who enter Reception each September are basically knowledge sponges, ready to soak up whatever their teachers throw at them. Only, once we start throwing rules and reprimands as well as facts and wisdom, those sponges become hardened to the experience. Of course, rules are required. Learning the rules is part of our education. However, it would help if the breaking of them were met with more learning opportunities rather than austere penalties that repetitively undermine the pursuit of enlightenment. Just as we learnt that beating ideas into pupils with capital punishment didn’t work, how long will it be before we realise that holding them hostage is no less effective?

Detentions – the most common school sanction for the past two generations – are essentially hostage situations. In some scenarios, a negotiation will be taking place – complete the assignment and you can leave; convince me that you understand where you went wrong – in others, it is simply a matter of waiting it out. And what is the point of that? At the very least, punishment should be purposeful.

Sentenced to Read

One theory goes that you can’t make students read during a detention because they will then associate reading with punishment. Truth is, certain pupils aren’t going to have positive associations with reading anyway. And with so little to lose, why not attempt to engage them? No-one can be made to read, yet human nature is inquisitive and reading is a veritable thirst-quencher. So, you can lead a horse to water… if detention were reframed as time for rehabilitation rather than reparation then it could be considerably more nourishing and rewarding for all concerned.

Case in point: in September 2016, an old school house in Virginia, used for teaching black students during the era of segregation, was sprayed with offensive graffiti. Prosecutor Alejandra Rueda made an astute observation, that this looked more like the work of “dumb teenagers” than racist criminals. Five were arrested, all aged sixteen or seventeen, one of whom had recently been expelled and had enlisted his friends (of varying ethnicities) in kicking out against authority. Guided by Rueda’s insight, Judge Avelina Jacob sentenced the youths to reading.

Prescribed a reading list from which they chose one book a month for a year, writing an assignment on each to prove that the sentence had been upheld, their “punishment” had far more effect than the expected probation period would have. More than two years later, none has reoffended and all are still in education. One agreed to extracts of his final essay being shared in order to publicise the power that Elie Wiesel’s Night and his other reading choices had on him:

“I thought a swastika was just a symbol and it didn’t really mean much – not any more. I was wrong and it meant a lot to people who are affected by them. It reminds me of the worst things – losing family members and friends, of the pain of torture, psychological and physical, among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair. Swastikas are also a reminder of oppression, not being heard and being kept down on the ground… I will do my best to see that I am never this ignorant again.”

How many swastikas have been mindlessly scribbled on school desks as a result of inactive custodial sentences being handed down to minor offenders? Teachers don’t want to be prosecutors, let alone prison guards, so the Virginian model should be flagged up to all school leaders as an effective example of fostering an enrichment culture over one of oppressive maltreatment.

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