A few years ago I taught at a small rural school in the Mississippi Delta. The old timers would talk at great length about how much better the school had been before I got there. They attributed the decline to the closing of the alternative school. In the "good old days," any student who caused trouble would be pulled out of class and sent to a special, highly structured school -- basically a glorified study hall -- run by an honest-to-God former Marine drill sergeant.
According to the version I was told, the program worked exceptionally well but was shut down in a discrimination suit because a disproportionate number of African-American students were being sent to there. This was a very conservative community (I doubt that there was a unionized teacher in the county let alone in the school), so it is not surprising that this was seen as another instance of the federal government interfering.
As you might guess, I saw things a bit differently. The government has not only the right but the obligation to step in in cases of racial discrimination. Furthermore, even if there had not been a civil rights issue here, I still have very mixed feelings about policies that potentially denied certain kids a quality education simply because they were difficult to deal with.
There is, of course, another side to the debate. In a world of fixed resources, educators frequently have to weigh the needs of the many against the needs of the few. If a small group of students is undermining the quality of education for the student body as a whole, there is a case to be made for removing the students. Just as importantly, sometimes that particular disciplinary action is the best thing for the kid being disciplined. For some, the structure and discipline of a boot camp environment really is the best educational setting. For others, there is a scared-straight effect. For these kids, a brief stay in the alternative school is enough to convince them to improve their behavior and work habits.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned here, but for me, the big one is that education is filled with tough choices and difficult trade offs. We need to acknowledge this difficulty. We need to have honest, well thought out discussions about the consequences of discipline and expulsion (both nominal and de facto). In particular, if we decide to sacrifice one student for the good of the many, we need to own up to that decision.
Today, in many schools, we have covert policies in place (particularly in the popular "no excuses" schools) that effectively mimic the alternative school approach of that small Delta town, including having a disproportionate impact on African-American males (often taking it to the next degree). But as much as that troubles me, what bothers me even more is the fact that we don't face up to what we're doing.