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The U.S. Constitution does not address the subject of public education. Apparently the founding fathers thought the implementation of schools ought to be the sole responsibility of the states. Initially, education was for the wealthy, and a belief persisted through the eighteenth century that poor individuals were not educable or were not worthy of being educated. In 1852, however, then secretary of state of Massachusetts Horace Mann urged that states be obliged to offer public education to all children. The revolutionary idea behind this plea was that all individuals could and should be educated irrespective of economic class.

During the middle of the nineteenth century, some U.S. educators studied European models, such as the theories of Philipp Emanuel von Fellen-berg (1771–1844), who urged that corporal punishment not be used for academic errors and suggested that learning occurred best with encouragement and kindness. Francis Parker introduced European ideas into the public school system in Quincy, Illinois. What came to be known as the progressive Quincy Movement attached kindergarten to elementary education and extended into the early grades the idea of learning through play. These pedagogical developments examined connections between education and discipline and considered teachers’ roles in creating environments conducive to learning.

By 1910 attendance at public school was mandatory; children were thus absent on a daily basis from parental direction and placed under the authority of educators. This transfer extended teachers’ roles to parental disciplinarians; teachers functioned in loco parentis, meaning in the place of parents. During the first decades of the 1900s, as teachers were stepping further into these parental roles, state legal systems were beginning to evolve ways to handle juvenile offenders which intended to distinguish them from adult perpetrators. One value attached to this development asserted that while adults should be punished for their crimes, children should be rehabilitated for theirs, thus formalizing a beginning to the separation between juvenile misconduct and suffering as its remedy.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, good discipline was evinced as students sitting quietly while they learned by rote. The conventional wisdom saw education as a process of controlling student behavior while information was transferred from teacher to student. This model continues to shape concepts about classroom activities and goals. Challenging this model, however, were the increasingly popular post-World War II theories of Benjamin Spock (1903–1998), who disapproved of rigid child-rearing techniques and urged adults, parents and teachers alike, to be more affectionate and flexible. Some critics of Spock’s theories asserted that they contributed to a growing attitude of permissiveness and relativity that blurred children’s understanding of right and wrong and encouraged self-defeating traits like selfishness, indolence, or noncompliance.

In the second half of the twentieth century, healthcare professionals and educators became more informed about how student misbehavior may be connected to physiological or psychological problems, like attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, or emotional disturbance. Changes in the family unit, increase in the Hollywood celebration of violence, and effects of illegal drug use also affected students’ ability and willingness to learn in school. Moreover, in the 1990s and 2000s, juveniles committed serious felonies on school property, some of which converted schools temporarily to war zones. Reactions to these events caused many people to advocate for a return to more stringent controls of students, which in some circles acquired to the label, zero tolerance.

Inside History