Detention has been around for as long as I can remember, and some of us—myself included—have served a detention or two when we were students. When I became principal of Wilson West Middle School, I thought deeply about detention as part of our discipline practice. Do detention policies that have been around for decades work for today’s students? If the same students keep finding themselves in detention, what good do they serve? Are detentions effective and helping students learn from their mistakes or do schools keep them simply because they are so ingrained in our tradition?

What if there was a way to stop the same students from receiving detentions or not give them any at all? You can, by replacing it with more constructive ways for students to learn from their mistakes.

Here’s what we did at Wilson West Middle School to reduce detentions and make them more meaningful:

Create a Staff Committee to Review Discipline

Like so much of our work as school leaders, we are better when we work together. We formed a committee of administrators, teachers, and counselors to review our current approaches to discipline and detention policies and looked closely at what infractions students were committing to gain an understanding of what was really happening with detention. What we saw was the same students receiving repeated detentions and not all of our teachers assigning detentions; only a few teachers gave detentions, so some students had higher detention numbers only because they had a particular teacher. And when we asked these teachers why they assigned detentions, it wasn’t because they thought them particularly effective at curbing the behavior, but rather they did it because that is what the student handbook required and there was no other way to address the behavior.

Update Outdated Detention Policies

These observations led us to review our detention policies. Our committee realized quickly how outdated some of the rules were, and we needed to make changes. For example, we dropped the no gum or food policies schoolwide and turned that responsibility over to the individual classroom teacher. Each teacher decides if they want to make that a classroom rule/policy. In real life everyone can eat and drink anywhere they want unless it is posted. Are we not getting our children ready for the next level? Teachers and staff have that morning cup of coffee or tea. Why can’t students? Do we practice what we preach?

Another big issue for which students were getting detentions involved being late to class. To address this issue, we got rid of our bell schedule. This required a major climate shift in the building, and there was immediate pushback from the staff. I created a schedule that had one-minute passing times between classes and explained to the teachers that they should be the ones starting and dismissing the classes, not the bell. Next time you are in the hallway, take a look at the number of students that stand in the hallway speaking with friends, waiting for the bell to ring before darting into class. To avoid the sporadic and inconsistent nature of late markings, there are no bells. In addition, it more closely resembles the nature of the likely next leg of their journey—college.

Creating New Detention Criteria

Just by making these two changes, we saw an overall decrease in detentions by 75 percent. The detentions that are assigned are addressed by the teacher or administrator with a call home and engagement with a parent/guardian. Getting the parents/guardians involved is the first step in making detentions more meaningful for students. After all, if the infraction is bad enough to warrant a detention, then parents need to be called.

We also track the students who are getting detentions. If a student gets four or more detentions in a quarter, we set up a conference with the parent/guardian. The staff that are invited usually consist of grade-level team members, a counselor, an administrator, and other interested parties. These meetings help to address the problem behaviors in a more direct way by discussing the underlying issues that led to the infraction in the first place.

Making Time in Detention More Meaningful

If students end up in detention, we now use the time in a more constructive manner. We offer a variety of activities that help students reflect on what led them to detention in the first place. Our students can:

  • Write a reflection as to why they got detention in the first place and what they could have done differently.
  • Have a one-on-one conference with the monitor who asks the student a variety of questions for personal reflection. We developed questions for various situations to guide these conferences.
  • Read an article about their offense and then report out to the counselor.
  • Set goals. One of those goals should be not to get detention ever again.
  • Write an apology letter to their parents for being assigned the detention. In the letter they should explain why they got the detention and thank them for picking them up after detention.

We also use lunch detentions. When serving a lunch detention, the student needs to do schoolwork as they are eating. This is also a good time to have teachers conference with students to discuss why they received the lunch detention. (Check with the building union representative prior to asking a teacher to do this during their lunch.)

Changing our detention policies have shifted our culture from a punitive one where students’ every move is monitored to a restorative one where students have more autonomy and choice. I encourage all of you to review your school’s approach to discipline and its detention policies. Making a few adjustments can definitely change the climate of your building for the better.

What is your school’s approach to detention? What strategies help make detention more meaningful and effective?

Kyle Wetherhold is the Principal at Wilson West Middle School, a state and national School to Watch. Heis the 2018 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @wetkyl.


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