Whenever I engage in debate on social media, I am prepared to encounter fallacious and emotive arguments. And yet, when the discussion turns to classroom behaviour or school suspensions and exclusions, people start making stuff up about me.
And this is not new. A year ago, I wrote a blog post about an academic who claimed in a tweet that I had argued that teachers should not have to follow laws they disagree with, a claim I consider to not only be false, but defamatory. I said I would remove the blog post if the tweet was deleted and a correction made, but it is still there today.
The recent examples are perhaps a little ironic. In this blog post, I wrote about an article in which a number of students discussed why they had been suspended or excluded from school. I made the reasonable point that this is just one perspective on the events that led up to the suspension or exclusion. The teachers in the schools involved may have a different perspective. This is not necessarily to accuse anyone of lying – people tend to put a spin on events that suits their narrative. They may make true statements but fail to mention elements that others think are critical. They may emphasise or downplay aspects of what happened.
Perhaps inevitably, I was criticised for not immediately and uncritically accepting these students’ stories. Apparently, my disbelief was due to my fear that the new strategy in New South Wales would reduce the number of students with a disability being suspended. Obviously, this is not true:
To teachers, the issue of the veracity of students’ versions of events is key. I doubt that there is anyone in the teaching profession who has not heard two very different versions of the same set of events from two different students. Teachers simply cannot operate on the principle that we uncritically accept everything every student tells us. And perhaps it is this that is missing from the advocate perspective – advocates only ever hear the one version of what happened at school.
In fact, one of my top pieces of advice for all parents – one I try to live by as a parent myself – is this: When your child comes home and describes something outrageous that happened at school, they may be right. However, when you contact the school about this, rather than starting from the premise that the story you have heard is a completely accurate and fair summary of the events, put that summary to the teacher you speak to and ask, “Is this right?” Sometimes, things are a little more complex than they first appear.
Somehow, this argument – which I assume that my readers will have no difficulty in comprehending – became translated into me claiming that ‘schools are not transparent and cover up or lie about issues’ – something I never said:
I don’t understand the need to do this. If you disagree with me, there are plenty of arguments I have actually made that you can take issue with. Making stuff up is an eccentric approach to take in a discussion about the veracity of different versions of events.
In addition to all this kind of stuff, one person replied to my blog post with a link to this radio interview. In the interview, a campaigner refers to people, ‘in their blogs and in some opinion pieces’ being apparently confused about the difference between a disability, a mental illness and ‘behavioural issues’ such as ‘oppositional defiance’. I think this comment is about me because I have written blogs and opinion pieces on the issue of suspensions and exclusions and I often discuss disabilities and disorders at the same time.
I do not think I am confused about these issues. What is clear is that children with disabilities make up a large proportion of students who are suspended or excluded in New South Wales. I certainly do not think it is clear that the representation of students with disabilities in these figures is necessarily due to discrimination. Some disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), can affect student behaviour. Moreover, the idea that there is a clear dividing line between disabilities and ‘oppositional defiance’ is thrown into question by the fact that ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) frequently co-occur. I think we can perhaps all agree that if New South Wales produced a breakdown of which disabilities were represented in these figures then that would perhaps help us to start answering some of these questions. If, for instance, we found large numbers of visually impaired students were being suspended then a role for discrimination may seem more likely.
However, why is it so important to delineate the differences between disabilities, mental illnesses and behavioural issues? What is the relevance? It is not as if campaigners are claiming that it is fine to suspend students who belong to some of these categories but not others. Campaigners generally argue against all suspensions and exclusions and even school discipline more generally. The following is my transcript of a later section of the radio interview:
“I was a teacher for 17 years and in virtually every single situation, you could look back and pinpoint why a situation had escalated or happened to be in a certain way and in the majority of cases, it was linked to what the school or I as a teacher would have been doing – whether that child was not engaged enough because the work was either too difficult or too simple for them, or there was a situation going on outside of the classroom that caused that child to react that way. So, do I punish a child because of that – because they’re a child trying to emotionally regulate?”
I have been a teacher for 23 years and this is not my experience. In my experience, suspension and exclusions have never been seen as punishments. Instead, they have been used as a method of last resort to prevent harm to others. If campaigners succeed in severely restricting such a method of last resort in New South Wales, my experience therefore suggests that the result will be harm – harm to other students and harm to teachers.
The reason I am making this case now and dealing with the flak that is sent my way – including distortions of what I have said and, in one case, even contacting my employer – is because I do not want to be proved right.