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Part Two: Five Things Parents Need to Know About School Discipline

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October 11, 2016 09:55 am

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hallway with lockers (shutterstock)

As noted in part one of this blog, schools use a variety of preventive and responsive measures to ensure students’ physical safety. Creating a safe learning environment requires more than protecting students from outside threats, though. Students need to feel welcomed, supported, and respected, and policies that impact traditionally underserved students disproportionately, such as criminalizing student misbehavior, undercut efforts to build a nurturing school climate. Consequently, “[a]ll efforts to increase actual safety as well as perceptions of safety must take into account the impact of disciplinary actions,” according to The School Discipline Consensus Report (SDCR) developed by The Council of State Governments Justice Center. Here are five more things parents need to know about school discipline and creating safe and inclusive learning environments:

1. Schools discipline traditionally underserved students at higher rates.

Civil rights data from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) exposes an important reality: schools suspend and expel students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners (ELLs) more often than other students. In School Year 2013–14, 2.8 million K–12 students received at least one out-of-school suspension. This group included 1.1 million African American students, 600,000 Latino students, 660,000 students with disabilities, and 210,00 ELLs. Additionally, students of color receive suspensions and expulsions at disproportionate rates even though research does not show that these students misbehave more frequently. For example, African American girls represent just 8 percent of K–12 students, but 14 percent of students suspended from school. Compared to white students, African American students are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended, 1.9 times more likely to be expelled, and 2.3 times more likely to be ticketed or arrested for a school-related offense.

2. Traditionally underserved students receive harsher discipline for minor misbehavior.

Schools issue the vast majority of suspensions and expulsions for low-level discretionary offenses. Only 5 percent of all out-of-school suspensions are for serious or dangerous behavior, such as having a weapon, while 95 percent are for disruptive or other unclassified behavior, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The subjective nature of this type of misbehavior disproportionately impacts traditionally underserved students. For instance, while white students typically receive suspensions for offenses educators can identify objectively, such as smoking, skipping school, or vandalizing property, African American students more often receive suspensions for subjective behaviors like disrespect, excessive noise, and general disorderly conduct, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (Alliance’s) Climate Change reports. Educators’ implicit bias—the attitudes and stereotypes that affect a person’s understanding, actions, and behavior—influence these discipline disparities, particularly with highly subjective student behavior, according to an analysis by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. In fact, “research suggests that teachers’ perceptions of behavior may be unconsciously skewed based on students’ race,” according to the Kirwan report Race Matters … And So Does Gender.

Meanwhile, zero-tolerance policies, which impose standard penalties for specific offenses regardless of the severity of the behavior, likewise have contributed to the increased use of suspensions and expulsions as default disciplinary measures.

3. Exclusionary discipline practices negatively impact students’ academic performance and their likelihood of graduating from high school.

By removing students from the classroom, suspensions, expulsions, and arrests deprive students of valuable instructional time. Such disciplinary actions often become part of a student’s permanent academic record as well, which can impact a student’s access to postsecondary education and/or financial aid. These measures also correlate with lower overall attendance and test scores and increased course failures and grade retention, according to the Alliance’s Climate Change reports. In fact, a single ninth-grade suspension doubles the risk that a student will drop out of school. More importantly, such practices decrease rather than increase students’ engagement with school. Students who become disengaged are more likely to act out, creating a cycle of misbehavior, harsh discipline, and further detachment from school.

4. Suspensions and expulsions do not make schools safer or more orderly.

Research has not shown that suspensions and expulsions reduce the rates of disruption or improve student behavior and school climate. In fact, the data suggests that such practices actually negatively impact student outcomes and the overall learning environment, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “When suspensions and expulsions become the default response to misbehavior … students do not feel safe and supported, the achievement gap persists, other educational goals are undermined, and more kids become caught in the juvenile justice system,” says the SDCR. In other words, while schools may see exclusionary discipline practices as a way to maintain order and safety, they actually do the opposite and diminish students’ feelings of security.

5. Discipline policies that emphasize prevention, student support, and a positive school climate can reduce misbehavior.

Schools and districts adopting practices like restorative justice, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and programs to support students social and emotional learning (SEL) have seen positive changes in student behavior. For example, violent acts and serious incidents declined by 52 percent in a single school year when West Philadelphia High School, a school the state of Pennsylvania had designated as “persistently dangerous,” implemented restorative justice, a discipline approach that focuses on repairing harm caused by wrongdoing and preventing future incidents by building positive relationships. Similarly, twelve schools in Chicago saw their disciplinary referrals decline by 50 percent in three years after implementing PBIS, a discipline approach where schools recognize and reward positive student behavior. Research also shows that programs that teach students how to manage their emotions and social behaviors can decrease misconduct, reduce students’ emotional distress, and improve academic achievement.

How can parents support equitable school discipline practices?

  • Review your school or district’s code of conduct and discipline policy. Find out how school leaders evaluate the effectiveness of these polices, collect input to refine and improve them, and monitor their implementation.
  • Review your school’s discipline data. Identify which offenses result in student suspensions, expulsions, and arrests; which student groups receive the most suspensions and expulsions; and whether disparities exist in how school leaders implement specific discipline measures.
  • Ask about your school’s antidiscrimination policies and how school leaders enforce them.
  • Support discipline policies that recognize students’ positive behavior and prevent misbehavior rather than efforts that simply respond to misconduct. Advocate for programs and resources that support students’ underlying social-emotional needs.

Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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One Comment

  1. photo
    Dennis Bellino
    Posted 1 year ago

    Enjoyed the article. I teach ESS/SPED at Metro Tech High School. PUHSD. I would like to see more SEL in the home and in the curriculum. I incorporate SEL with my daily lessons to help students learn about individual social emotional intelligence and individual responsibility. Many youth respond to teacher questioning with disrespect and acting out due to not having the skill to argue their point without becoming defensive and physically challenging. Unfortunatly these skills should and could be taught in the home by parents, and teachers in the early pre school years Again the lack of SEL in our school curriculums and in the home is reflective of conflict in the classrooms, and in public. I don’t want to come across insensitive and naive to the student groups mentioned and the discipline issues mentioned in the article,,so I will refer to Robert Fulghums’ Book All I Really Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which is a reminder that SEL is important for all teachers and students, and must be taught and reinforced in the home and in every classroom curriculum,daily, and before the discipline process starts..

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