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Elementary school students forced to eat lunch in complete silence

The school cafeteria can be a pretty rowdy place. Since lunch is one of the only times kids get to socialize on their own terms at school, the lunchroom usually has an air of controlled chaos. But one dad says his son’s school implemented a silent lunch disciplinary action that turned the cafeteria at Leila P. Cowart Elementary in Oak Cliff, Texas, into a dismal place.

When Martin Rodriguez’s 10-year-old son first started complaining about not being able to talk during lunch, he chalked it up to normal tween exaggeration. That was on Monday of last week. When his son was still talking about the punishment as the week wore on, Rodriguez decided to pop in to the lunchroom on Thursday and see what was up.

He described what he saw as “literally… like a prison scene” and how even the smallest peep was met with a harsh chastisement from one of three lunch monitors, prompting the dad to film a few seconds of the eerie scene on his phone.

Rodriguez wanted answers, but no one seemed to have any; the kids didn’t know why they were being punished, and the interim principal didn’t even know such a disciplinary action had taken place.

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Speaking out to local media, Rodriguez said he was upset and confused as to how this had been allowed to go on for so long. His frustration is understandable.

Lunchtime at school isn’t just about socialization, although it does play a huge role in learning appropriate social and mealtime behaviors. It also offers an equally important opportunity for kids to unwind after the first half of the school day. Between the two, the American Occupational Therapy Association credits school lunch periods with everything from fostering inclusion among peers to learning healthy eating habits and allowing students to compartmentalize work and play appropriately.

It’s not unlike recess in that if you take it away, you can pretty much expect kids to respond negatively. They’ll be miserable, burnt out, unmotivated and transfer all that socialization into the classroom, where they should be learning.

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After all, as adults, many of us have experienced a similar corporate-flavored experience. Ever had a boss who insisted you take 15 minutes for lunch and then press your nose back to the grindstone? Did you give that boss your best work? Did you even want to?

That’s not to say teachers shouldn’t be allowed autonomy when it comes to deciding on appropriate discipline. One silent lunch is not the end of the world, and it is usually pretty effective as far as being so unpleasant an experience that kids won’t want to repeat it.

But that’s not what happened here. A lot of those kids didn’t even know why they were being punished, which is a great way to disincentivize following the rules. I mean, if you’re going to get in trouble no matter what you do, you might as well earn it.

Second, this went on for days. A week of silent lunches is a sure recipe for morale so low that it’s practically gone into hiding. That’s going to make kids surly and unfocused, which is ultimately counterproductive and could potentially just lead to more punishment.

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Fortunately for Rodriguez and his son, as well as all of his son’s classmates, both the interim principal and the new full-time principal agreed that the policy was way too harsh, with the former saying that it never should have been used that way and the latter abolishing the practice altogether. That meshes with a comment from a Dallas ISD official who said that while silent lunches may be used, they may not be used for consecutive days.

We’re finally reaching a consensus that more play and leisure time — both on the playground and in the cafeteria — is ultimately a good thing, though we still have a ways to go on correcting the erosion of those periods. If miniscule amounts of lunch and recess time have already proven themselves to be an educational disaster, taking them away as a punishment has the potential to be nothing short of a catastrophe.

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