A YouTube video, of all things, got me thinking about the efficacy and ethics of group punishment.
The 70-second clip posted on July 13 takes place at Morgan Hill’s brand-new skate park. It shows someone with an air of authority informing park visitors that because some skaters aren’t wearing safety gear, the park is closing for two hours. The video cuts to a woman complaining about the injustice of punishing skaters who were following the rules.
I agree with her. However, group punishment has supporters who argue that closing the park — a form of group punishment — will create a culture of self-policing at the skate park in which obedient skaters nag offenders into compliance.
I doubt that claim; instead, I suspect that group punishment is far more likely to have the opposite effect, causing obedient skaters to decide that they might as well ignore the rules because they’re punished just like the rule breakers.
But beyond the question of effectiveness, group punishment is simply wrong. It’s wrong to knowingly punish innocent people no matter how noble the aim. The ends do not justify the means.
You’ve probably experienced group punishments meted out by frustrated teachers who can’t identify rule breakers, for example, in physical education classes: Everybody has to run laps or do push-ups because it’s unclear who is whistling, snickering or otherwise disrupting class.
I disagree with group punishment even in that situation, but I almost understand it.
But in the case of the skate park, it’s easy to tell who is wearing safety gear and who is not, making the use of group punishment sloppy, unfair and utterly inexcusable.
The proper reaction is simple: Banish people who aren’t wearing safety gear. Let those wearing safety gear stay. It seems appropriate and logical to me. Common sense tells me that group punishment is lazy, counterproductive and unfair to those who follow the rules.
It looks like most readers of the Morgan Hill Times agree. At last check of the web poll on this topic, only 11 percent of respondents said that closing the skate park to all visitors is the best enforcement technique.
Even city recreation officials concede that group punishment has been ineffective in generating compliance with the skate park’s rules.
But still, I wondered: What do the experts say?
In Discipline with Dignity, a respected classroom management book by Richard Curwin and Allen Mendler, the conclusion is clear: “Group punishments are almost always ineffective. They generate resentment in the innocent students who learn to think that they might as well break the rules because they will be punished anyway, and they teach the rule violators that they will not have to take responsibility for their actions. … Focus instead of teaching correct behavior through natural and logical consequences.”
School psychologist Beth Bruno writes, “Disciplining a whole group for the misbehavior of one person in the group could be viewed as lazy… It gives the impression … that the teacher isn’t interested in taking the time to determine who is acting out and how to deal with one or a few students directly. … Such an approach is likely to feed a feeling of adult unfairness.”
A Mills College study found that the threat of group punishments did not reduce social loafing — the inclination of people to expend less effort when working in groups than when working individually on tasks.
The British Columbia Association of Family Resource Programs specifically bars as unethical the use of “group punishment for individual behaviour.”
In short, experts say that group punishment is ineffective, counterproductive, lazy and unethical.
Consider other situations involving obedient and non-compliant participants:
• We don’t close roads because some drivers speed. We ticket lead-footed drivers.
• We don’t close libraries because some patrons damage books. We fine careless borrowers.
• We learned not to prohibit everyone from drinking alcohol because some people abuse it when Prohibition was a colossal failure.
Clearly it’s not acceptable for city officials to close a public venue because some easily identifiable visitors violate rules.
Morgan Hill’s skate park should remain open to skaters who obey the rules and should be made unavailable to those who don’t.
Let’s remember that the ends don’t justify the means. Closing the skate park might be easy. It might help those charged with enforcing rules vent their frustration. But it doesn’t increase compliance with safety rules, and even if it did, it’s wrong.
Let’s stop justifying group punishment, and let’s stop using it.