Ken Fontenot: Schools need more freedom to discipline disruptive students

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 9, 2024

By Ken Fontenot

I jumped out of the way as an angry parent stormed past me and out of the school I worked in at the time. The parent, an older African American woman, was outraged that her son had been suspended. I turned to see who she was yelling at and saw my assistant principal, who was also an older African American woman. 

My assistant principal suspended her son. 

Not sure what was going on, I asked one of my colleagues as we walked back to our classroom from the school’s front office. 

“The student,” she said, “just threatened to kill Mrs. M. and to shoot several other students.”

My heart sank as we walked along. At this point in my life, I’d lived through the Columbine, Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shootings. Nick Cruz, one of the more recent shooters, had been plain in his intention to kill others and professed his desire to do so several times. No one arrested him or took him seriously. Even calls to the local authorities had been treated as hysteria. 

“Just a suspension? Shouldn’t that type of thing be expulsion?”  I asked. 

“Yes,” she responded. “But we don’t expel any more. It is nearly impossible. There are regulations that make it hard to do.”

“So what did they do?” I retorted eagerly.

“He got 10 days,” she responded, explaining that he had received a two-week suspension. 

“That’s ridiculous!” I blurted out, as my heart began to race. 

Now that I’m on the other side of things, I know exactly what obstacles my colleagues were talking about. In the name of equity and justice, there are regulations that create predatory environments and demoralizing conditions to both teachers and students. One such regulation almost forbids long-term suspension and expulsion, even for making death threats. 

Such regulations, meant to help troubled students, have only chased teachers from the classroom and students from public schools. Nationwide, discipline is seen as the No. 1 issue destroying our public schools. In the case of the school that I am referencing, only about 10 percent of the staff that I worked with still work there. The rest have moved on or left the profession. 

Thankfully, I am fighting for the passage of House Bill 188, which will repeal these disastrous regulations and give principals and teachers the means they need to allow students to be safe. It will also give teachers the ability to teach without having to be in a free-for-all with uncontrollable and dangerous behavior. One may wonder how dangerous a child can be?

I think we all remember the elementary teacher shot in her own classroom, the recent attack of a teacher in Winston-Salem, and the eight-months-pregnant Mecklenburg teacher who lost her baby after being shoved into a desk by a violent student. The student in this case received, yes, a two-week suspension. 

Can you see why teachers and students are leaving our public schools? People blame vouchers, but statistics clearly show safety and discipline are the top reasons they are leaving the field. Even the most liberal and most pro public-school networks like CNN and Washington Post have acknowledged this. 

Currently, it is extremely difficult, nearly impossible, for principals to expel dangerous students, and even long-term suspension (anything more than three days) is discouraged and frowned upon, no matter the infraction. 

After the passage of HB 188, principals will be able to lead their school appropriately, keep children safe by removing troubled children from the classroom, and give the teachers the disciplinary power and respect they deserve. After this, they will not have to bear as heavy a burden regarding disrespect and demoralizing student and parent behavior. 

I firmly believe that as we make schools safe with common-sense regulations, we will see teacher retention and satisfaction increase. We will also see far fewer families fleeing our public school system. For those who decry vouchers as a threat to public schools, I say there are better ways to increase public school retention than reducing families’ options. 

Rep. Ken Fontenot, R-Wilson, is a United States Marine Corps veteran and former public school teacher. Ken is the lead pastor of Door of Life Church in Wilson. He is married to Francesca. Together they have three children. This first appeared in the Carolina Journal.