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Education and Crime - Peer Climates

school schools practices disciplinary

Peer climates can affect criminality in a number of ways, including differential association and altering social norms for acceptable behavior. Peer climates emerge in school as a product of both ecological and institutional factors. While peer climates are partly a reflection of peer composition, they are also structured by institutional factors. School practices in general and school disciplinary practices in particular define the parameters in which specific peer climates emerge and flourish. In the United States, significant variation in disciplinary practices exist: many public schools still practice corporal punishment, while in other schools often little is done to control student misbehavior and gang activity.

Peer composition has been demonstrated to be clearly associated with delinquency and subsequent incarceration in a large number of studies. Peer climates characterized by higher dropout rates and students of lower socioeconomic origins provide settings that make conventional school attachment more difficult. Research by James Coleman has emphasized, however, that schools have a role in structuring the manner in which peer climates exist. Work by Émile Durkheim also suggests the importance of school disciplinary practices in the socialization of youth. Punishment is necessary, according to Durkheim, because it unequivocally communicates that a normative rule has been broken.

Challenges to school disciplinary practices, regardless of whether they are from external environmental or internal organizational sources, would be particularly unsettling to the normative order of the school. Conservatives argue that due to administrative and legal challenges to school authority, students no longer view school rules as inviolate (Toby). At a practical level, school discipline works to generate student compliance and academically focused peer cultures. Peer climates have long been associated with student academic performance. In recent work, Coleman and his colleagues have argued that private schools outperform public schools in part because they are able to maintain stricter disciplinary climates with lower rates of student absenteeism, vandalism, drug use, and disobedience. Sociologists have also found that rates of misbehavior during the senior year are lower in schools that have higher rates of disciplining of sophomore students (Diprete et al.). Misbehaving students also have lower levels of educational achievement as measured by change in grades and test scores. Conservatives claim that without proper order and discipline, schools are unable to function properly and effective socialization is impossible.

Progressive educators, however, have countered that as traditional authoritarian disciplinary practices are eliminated from public schools, students will be less alienated from their educational environments, and more likely to remain in school and apply themselves to their studies. Support for this is suggested by the fact that the use of strict disciplinary practices, such as corporal punishment, leads to lower educational achievement and higher rates of delinquency. Researchers also argue that these school practices can lead to the formation of oppositional peer groups that resist formal education.

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