Ask pretty much any school administrator about their least favorite part of their job. A hundred bucks says it’s dealing with student discipline. Students are masters at pushing the line (I certainly was, and I bet you were, too), leaving teachers and parents alike to constantly struggle with the tensions of how to respond. It’s exhausting. Be tough or have grace? Punish or just have a conversation? Yell or whisper? Keep it confidential or tell someone? Apologize? Just pass it off to your spouse or another teacher? To make matters worse, those responsible for responding or providing consequences often can’t agree on what’s best, whether it be between spouses or, perhaps even more complicated, parents and the school.

Despite the frustrations, I would argue that how we deal with student discipline – or perhaps better stated as ‘our response to student misconduct’ – is one of the most important things we do as a Christian school. The lessons available when we make a mistake often run soul deep, don’t they? David and Bathsheba. Adam and Eve. Peter. Moses. Whether we like it or not, how we handle discipline is part of how we ‘equip children to be lifetime followers of Jesus.’ 

So what is our approach to student misconduct at CHA? How can we — and you, as parents — work together in partnership to reinforce these lessons?

Let me share a couple stories with you to get the wheels turning. 

8th Grade Graffiti

It was the winter of my 8th grade year. We were between sports seasons, and nothing was going on after school. One of my best friends, Katrina, and I were sitting with our backs against an outdoor classroom wall, facing another wall adjacent to the front parking lot. As we sat and talked, I lobbed a chunk of rock from the nearby planter against the wall. Why? Because I was an 8th grade boy. Lo and behold the rock made a clear, sandy mark on the wall.

“Katrina, this sandstone stuff is like chalk,” I exclaimed.

Twenty minutes later, Katrina and I had composed a masterpiece. Flowers. A giant dog. Philippians 4:6 in looping, cursive letters. Joey+Kelly. The Stüssy symbol. All the things were there. It looked great, so we brushed off our hands and wandered off to find our other friends. 

The next morning, Mr. Rempel, our science teacher, called us into his room. We walked in laughing, completely unaware of why he would want to see us. Maybe he wanted to show us how well we did on our tests! 

“Joey and Katrina, did you vandalize the entire wall next to the parking lot? The one everyone sees when they leave the school?” 

We were shocked. 

“Vandalize? Well, yes. I guess we did draw on it. How did you know it was us?” 

“Your names.” 

Oh no. Were we going to get suspended? Were our parents going to get brought in for a meeting? 

“What is the punishment, Mr. Rempel?” 

“Katrina and Joey, I’ve got a bucket and some brushes in the back of the room. Do you understand why this wasn’t a good idea? Can you explain it to me? Okay, before 4 PM this afternoon, the wall needs to be clean. Got it?”

We were furiously scrubbing the walls at lunch time. Mr. Rempel showed up halfway through with a big grin on his face and a camera. I’m pretty sure he sent the photos to our parents – or at least had plans to show them off at our graduation. We both sheepishly smiled back. 

Zeroes and a Suspension for Cheating

During my first year as a school principal, we had a high school student who committed a third cheating offense. “James” had plagiarized a few years prior in my English class. He got a zero and had to redo the assignment – standard procedure. The following year he copied something else for a presentation. Again, he received a zero, and we had a conference with his parents. But this time it was different; he had actually gone above and beyond to obtain another student’s work and copy it. We had evidence. But James was insistent that he didn’t do anything wrong. His cheating was compounded by bold faced lies.

We had a preliminary conversation with him about what had happened and what the consequences would be. This time it would be more serious and included a suspension. It would also seriously affect his grade and possibly even which college he would be able to attend. We had a meeting with his parents. They were insistent that he did not commit the crime, and they accused us as a school of not having enough grace – we were a Christian missionary school, after all, and that is what Christians are all about, right? I can’t tell you how hard that was to hear from a Buddhist family that I was hoping would come to know Jesus. 

James and I met again at lunch and, once again, he outright denied what had happened. He shouted at me, tears streaming down his face. 

“It’s just not true! I would never do something like that!” 

I had to stick to my guns. 

“James, I’m sorry, but I just know that you’re lying. I care about you too much to let it go – you have to learn this lesson. The consequences have to stay the same. I just wish you could admit what happened so we could talk about it.”

He held his ground and refused to admit it.

Two years later, I got an email from James, now in college, admitting to and apologizing for lying, and thanking me for holding my ground. He told me that that moment – getting caught and not being able to get out of it – had helped him finally get over his chronic lying. I finished reading his email with tears streaming down my cheeks. 

Student Discipline is Complicated

This summer I’m reading Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. I recommend reading it if you haven’t. One of his foundational points is that our heart – the core of who we are – is molded by a multitude of things. Its tendencies are affected by our body, by those around us, by our thoughts, by our feelings, by our habits. It’s hard to access and it’s hard to change. And what God cares about most is not our behavior; rather, it’s the complicated and mysterious condition of our heart. Likewise, as a Christian school, we care most about a student’s heart. 

Why did Mr. Rempel not bring down the hammer on me and Katrina? He was aiming at the heart. We just didn’t understand the implications of what we were doing and needed a reminder. Were we embarrassed? Yes. But did his response get to the root of the issue? Yes. 

Why didn’t I respond to James with more grace – especially when his parents were pleading for it? Because I (and the team of teachers behind me with whom I was consulting) knew that James needed firm and clear consequences because he just wasn’t getting the gravity of his offenses. We cared about his heart too much to let him get another slap on the wrist. 

Both of these judgements required wisdom, not just a formula. 

Does behavior matter? Absolutely. But in the case of student discipline, we are seeking to reach beyond just addressing the action to focus on character. The practical implication of that is that student discipline is not always formulaic. It’s an attempt at transforming the heart – and that makes it both much more meaningful and much more complicated. 

While we certainly do have policies and rules and consequences in our handbook, instead of merely using a formula at CHA, we seek a principled approach. 

Principle #1. Get at the Why.

When Mr. Rempel asked me if I knew why we shouldn’t have done what we did, I had two visions – one of a nasty, streaked wall that everyone had to walk past, and the other of one of our school’s cleaning staff having to begrudgingly scrub down the wall by herself for hours. 

At CHA we really try to positively emphasize the ‘why’ with our Three Bs:

  • Be respectful.
  • Be responsible.
  • Be courageous. 

Writing all over a wall isn’t wrong because of “vandalism.” It’s wrong because it’s disrespectful to our cleaning staff, who are made in the image of God. It would be treating them like servants. It’s not responsible because it’s not taking care of what God has given us. Likewise, cheating on an assignment is not respectful to ourselves or to the mind God has given us. Cheating is also not courageous, because it fears taking a risk and runs from an accurate assessment of our true abilities. Getting at the why gets at the heart. Parents and teachers alike need to keep the why as the focal point of the conversation. 

Principle #2. Stay Flexibly Consistent.

I love the two examples above, because one can be seen as gracious and the other can be seen as harsh, but both were, I believe, the correct response. At CHA we seek to be fair, certainly. Our administrative team regularly looks at ‘what has been done in this situation before’ to determine the ‘baseline’ of how to respond. But from there, we sometimes need to be flexible, looking at the student and the context. This is what discipline rooted in love and aiming at character development looks like. My guess is that it’s probably also how you handle discipline at home if you have two or three or four very different kids.

Principle #3. Partner in the Message.

Such a stance from the school can be infuriating to some parents. Imagine if two months later during my 8th grade year, Timmy, who is habitually pretty mean to other kids, writes JASON IS A LOSER in large letters in the middle school hallway. Same crime: writing on a wall. But Timmy received a one-day in-school suspension instead. Timmy’s parents know about the consequences for Joey and Katrina last quarter and are furious, requesting a meeting with the principal. “Joey and Katrina’s only consequence was to clean it up!” Context matters.

The reality is that parents and the school will not always be on the same page about what exactly is right and what is best for each situation. This makes our value of “partnership with parents” nuanced.

It’s important to note that “partnership with parents” here is not a negotiation of consequences that both parties agree on. (And note, importantly, that sometimes administrators and teachers are surprised at the severity or lack of consequences at home, too!) Rather, it’s a partnership in the message. Here is an example: Say “Lisa” was grounded for a month for not washing the dishes, and she tells her math teacher. That teacher’s response shouldn’t be, “Wow, that’s terrible; your parents are too strict! I’m going to give them a call!” Instead, it should be “Well, it sounds like your parents really value responsibility. What lessons are you learning here? Are you heeding them?” That’s partnership. Likewise, if parents disagree, like my former student James’s parents did, with where the school lands on a consequence, the parent response shouldn’t be “That’s crazy! I can’t believe they did that to you! I’m going to call the principal!” Rather, the partnership response should be, “It sounds like your school really values responsibility. It might not be a direct match with what we’d do at home , but let’s learn from this. How is this growing your character?”  

Principle #4. Confidentiality is Important.

Often when students are involved in interpersonal conflict, parents of those involved demand that they know what the consequence is. For example, say Elaine received a mean note written by Sarah after it had been passed around the class. And this is not the first time it’s happened. In our work with Sarah and her parents, we discover that part of Sarah’s situation is that she doesn’t have good structure or discipline at home. In fact, home is kind of a mess. In the end, we settle on an in-school suspension so that we can better control the time and because we want Sarah to understand and compose a genuine apology. Elaine’s parents are furious when they find out through other students that it is not an at-home suspension but is a “lighter” in-school suspension. But they do not understand the context – and we certainly can’t explain it without disclosing confidential information. Just as we would not share your at-home consequences with another family, trusting you to make your own good decisions, we expect the same trust in our decision-making at school – and your understanding that we must keep things respectfully confidential.

Principle #5. Imagine It’s Your Child.

Finally, as a family school, our approach is always to try to treat your child like we would our own. This is of course part of the reason for confidentiality. But it also means we do our best to equip and nurture the souls of each of our students at CHA. It’s important to remember that if we seem firm in our response, it’s because we love your kids. And, likewise, if we seem gracious in our response, it’s because we love your kids. Your kids are our calling.

By the same token, we ask parents to try to have empathy in discipline situations. Sometimes it’s easy, if our own kids are the ones harmed, to want vengeance and “the full force of the law” on the kid getting in trouble. But at some point, it might be your kid making the mistake. Just ask any veteran parent. Parents should try to seek the character growth for every kid as well, even if it’s not their own. 

In the end, our goal remains consistent with our mission – to equip students to be lifetime followers of Jesus. We pray as a faculty nearly every morning for CHA kids and for CHA families, fully recognizing the vital – and primary – role that you as parents play in raising your children to know and follow Jesus. Please pray the same for us as we seek to do the same, not only in the happy and inspiring times but also when tough decisions have to be made in the context of the inevitable poor decisions our kids will make as they learn and grow at CHA.