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School Discipline: Will 2014 Bring a Shift in Approach?

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

School discipline policies often promote a zero tolerance approach that disproportionately, and negatively, affects minority children. Pushing students out of the building for behavioral infractions is not the answer; instead, policies should prioritize programs and actions that create safe environments for students to learn and thrive. Zero tolerance is easy, but it is not a real solution because it actually funnels many students towards the cracks, letting them fall through with little ability to pull them back. Yet many schools lack comprehensive alternative courses of action. Schools and states need to revise their approach to school discipline if they truly wish to leave no child behind.

Statistics surrounding school disciplinary infractions are alarming for multiple reasons. Suspensions reduce overall learning time; in 2009-2010, more than three million K-12 children were estimated to have lost seat time due to school suspensions. In addition, students who are frequently absent are at greater risk of dropping out of school and failing to graduate. Of equal, if not greater, concern is that students who are suspended or expelled are at greater risk of participating in future criminal activity and are eight times more likely to end up in prison. This is a costly reality as prison incarnation rates continue to rise and drain public resources. Finally, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are heavily skewed towards students of color, especially young black men. These strict punishments are frequently handed out in response to minor infractions to these students.

But promising recent events suggest that 2014 may signal a shift in the national and state dialogue surrounding school discipline and provide an opportunity for districts and schools to recalibrate their approach to disciplinary issues. On January 8, the Albert Shanker Institute hosted an event called Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), featuring AFT President Randi Weingarten, Yale law professor James Foreman, Jr, and Congressman Keith Ellison (D - MN 5). The panelists all highlighted the need for a new approach to school discipline, one that focuses on restorative justice, appropriate disciplinary responses to certain misdemeanors, and the need to create safe environments for students without pushing some students out of the classroom. The AFT also issued a discipline statement highlighting nine necessary changes that would have a positive impact on school discipline disparities.

On the same day, the U.S Department of Education, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice, released a package of resources to help schools and districts address issues of school discipline. The release acknowledged the troubling effects of zero tolerance policies including negative outcomes on student well-being, achievement and future success, and expressed hope the resources will be of use for possible changes in the year to come.

Some states are already reexamining their discipline policies. Maryland recently joined other states and localities, including Massachusetts and Minneapolis, when they released new regulations that embrace alternatives to zero tolerance. However, it will be difficult to ensure changes are carried out without securing the appropriate support and resources. Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, funds are available for testing and new evaluation systems, but resources for restorative justice efforts are scarce. While the Department of Education’s leadership and guidance on this issue are important and overdue, the cost to schools and districts is also significant, from funding programs and initiatives to the training and professional development for teachers and staff. The department’s database of state regulations should offer some helpful examples for state and local entities, but change will be slow.

The education community has no shortage of challenges at any given time, but with school discipline policies, districts and schools have tremendous capacity to influence outcomes. Encouraging shifts in policies requires a thorough examination of how they are contributing - negatively or positively - to student outcomes. Education is inherently local and nuanced. That said, the challenges are shared - and contending with behavioral realities is universal. Schools must have a viable alternative to pushing kids out of school and enforcing outdated discipline policies if we are to make a dent in the number of school dropouts, help kids succeed and graduate, and ensure that students from all backgrounds receive the support they need to learn and grow.


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