Discipline and Diplomas: Keeping Students at Their Desks
April 24, 2014 11:52 am
The following post was written by Donique Reid, a policy and advocacy intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education.
In January, individuals crowded into Frederick Douglas High School in Maryland to listen as federal officials praised the school district for reducing student suspensions. The event came shortly after the US Departments of Education and Justice issued new federal guidance around school discipline policies. The new policies emphasize restorative justice and aim to end practices that often disproportionately discriminate against students of color.
In an address to the nation, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, acknowledged that under current school discipline policies across the nation, students of color and those with disabilities are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection on school discipline, African American students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, even when they commit similar offenses. The new guidance encourages states to amend policies that target specific students and to abandon zero-tolerance policies that suspend or expel students, even on their first offense, in schools.
Encouraging districts to focus on prevention and supportive approaches to increase student engagement and, ultimately, keep students in the classroom, will lead to improved school climates and improve student learning outcomes. But not everyone seems to agree.
Opposition within the crab state
Maryland has consistently been at the front of the pack when it comes to education so it is not surprising to learn that the state was a leader in passing new regulations around student discipline. Though principals are still able to suspend students, they must also implement structured rehabilitation for students and a timeline for appealing disciplinary decisions. (Parents are now given 45 days, as opposed to 30, to file appeals and are allowed to request extensions.) Local school districts are given the autonomy to devise their own policies around discipline but must adhere to state-level monitoring.
Frederick County Delegate Kathy Afzali has spoken out against the new regulations, drafting two bills that would allow local officials, specifically those in her county, to ignore these state-mandated checks. She advocates for greater autonomy for teachers to handle behavioral problems in the classroom and argues that the discretion to make disciplinary decisions should not be stripped from principals and teachers. In the district-wide bill on school discipline regulations, she writes that the county board, “may disregard all or a portion of the guidelines established by the state board… if the county board determines that the guidelines are not appropriate for the schools under its jurisdiction.”
Delegate Kathy Afzali’s bill does not provide details regarding the protocol for identifying whether or not the state regulations are suitable for specific county schools.
We need students in class
In order to graduate more students, we need more students at their desks. According to the Open Society Institute, African Americans are suspended at higher rates in every county in Maryland. Looking specifically at Frederick County, about 11 percent of African American students were suspended or expelled in the 2013 school year, compared to just 3 percent of white students.
African American graduation rates in Frederick are relatively high in comparison to other counties, though these students have the lowest graduation rate within Frederick County: 81.95 percent of African Americans students graduated from high school in 2013 in comparison to more than 95 percent of Asian, Native American, and White students. In other counties, African American graduation rates are as low as 77.12 percent. These numbers alongside disproportionate disciplinary figures have been the reality for the county under the prior state and local discipline policies. Afzali’s bill seemingly seeks to continue those policies thus potentially perpetuating these inequalities for students of color.
The expressed intent of Maryland’s new discipline policies is only to provide guidance for school districts. These policies are just what we need in order to keep kids in class. Maryland is taking a giant leap towards improving school climate across the state that will contribute to improved academic outcomes for the state’s lowest performers. As we seek to increase graduation rates for all students and to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color, Maryland local districts should be held accountable to these new regulations.
Donique Reid is a policy and advocacy intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education.