The Consequences of Mistakes

Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child, was recently shot and killed by Cleveland police. Tamir was in possession of a toy gun. You can read about his tragic, unjust death here.


In Sarah Carr’s piece on the discipline codes of No Excuses schools, she writes:

“If you mess up once at Harrah’s [a New Orleans casino], you are going to be fired!” a parent called out during the KIPP Renaissance meeting. A sense of entitlement, she knew, wouldn’t take these workers far; a willingness to learn and follow the rules was essential.

It can be debated whether strict discipline policies prepare students living in poverty for the world that awaits them; or whether these discipline policies reenforce negative aspects of our current society; or whether these policies are simply a means to an end: through order, more learning takes place.

There is probably some truth to all of these statements. Many people I admire fall on different sides of the issue.

What is often not discussed, however, is that for too many urban schools, there is no choice to be had between discipline philosophies: chaos reigns supreme.

I tutored in a middle school in New Orleans before Katrina, and it was one of the unsafest places I’ve ever walked into. The year after I worked there, two teenagers shot each other. You can read about it here.

In this sense, I welcome the debate regarding discipline philosophies. It shows how far we’ve come. It also hints at how far we have to go, both in terms of schooling and as a society as a whole.


Tamir’s death is a horrifying reminder of how violence, in this case government authorized violence, shapes poor children’s lives and deaths. I don’t know the details of the case, but I find it astounding that the police felt that they had to shoot and kill a twelve year old child; that there was no other solution.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I’ve broken the law, in some fashion or another, countless times. The consequences of these mistakes have been minimal.

For many of the students we serve, the consequences of mistakes – of simply being children – can be death.

In a more just world, this would not be the case.

1 thought on “The Consequences of Mistakes

  1. Heidi Landers

    One of my concerns about discipline in these “no excuses/tough love” charter schools (I am a big fan of charters, by the way) is that many of them focus on pure discipline — “Don’t do that or you’ll be punished” — rather than diving deeper into the why’s of not behaving inappropriately. There are a set of principles called “Kohlberg’s moral stages” that Rafe Esquith, a master teacher who has written four books and is very well known outside his public school classroom, emphasizes with his 5th grade students, in order to get them to not just BEHAVE correctly, but understand WHY it is the best thing to do. That thread of “moral development” runs through all his teachings, particularly in the discussion about the books they read in class, from “Of Mice and Men” to “To Kill a Mockingbird”. (These are underpriviledged fifth graders for whom English is a second language, by the way.) I’ve been to many classrooms and note a great deal of emphasis on good behaviour, but it is often achieved by distracting the kids — aka “chanting your lessons”, “tracking your teacher with your eyes” “Placing one hand on your head when walking out to recess” rather than doing it from some more moral and organic reason. I know that Rafe’s methods demand more of the teacher, but I believe that in the end the lessons are far more long lasting.


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