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School Discipline Reform Long Overdue, Experts Say

Resource type: News

NEA Today | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Edward Graham and Helen Yoshida

Photo: Getty Images

As schools around the country have tightened their disciplinary policies to curtail the possibility of school violence, some experts caution that these measures are doing more harm than good.

Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, has spent the past several years pouring over data relating to student suspension rates in middle and high schools. On April 9th, Losen and other like-minded educational experts convened for a symposium—“Closing the School Discipline Gap: Research to Policy”—in Washington, D.C. to offer policy recommendations and best-practice disciplinary approaches that can diminish the frequency, and often racial slant, of zero tolerance discipline policies.

Their research, which builds off of 16 previous studies, advances the need for serious policy discussions and school-based initiatives to combat the growing number of suspensions, and the widening racial disparity between those students who receive in and out-of-school suspensions.

One of the key findings discussed at the symposium was how suspensions, which have become an almost commonplace and frequently overused form of discipline, were enforced disproportionately on African-Americans, Latinos, students with disabilities, and ESLs. Although suspended students are typically typecast as having violated serious school policies, the majority of suspensions are actually given out for routine offenses—and minority students and those with disabilities are routinely susceptible to these kinds of disciplinary measures.

“Most suspensions are a matter of the routine enforcement of minor school rules, such as violating dress codes, truancy, excessive tardiness, cell phone use, loitering, or disruption,” says the executive summary of the new research presented by Dr. Losen and his colleagues. “There is no argument that serious misbehavior should be addressed, but as this body of new research suggests, harsh discipline policies increase the number of young people who are disengaged from school, which has damaging academic consequences and long-term economic and societal costs.”

Mr. Losen examined the frequency of suspensions in his report “Out of School & Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools,” and found that 24.3% of African-American students and 12% of Latino students were suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 academic school year. He also found that almost one in five secondary school students who had a disability were suspended at least once, three times the rate of students without disabilities. And all too often, suspended students face a greater risk of dropping out of school altogether. An eight-year long study of 9th grade Florida students found that the dropout rate of students doubled after the first suspension, and that the likelihood of dropping out increased by 20% with each ensuing suspension.

In his report, “Reducing Suspensions by Improving Academic Engagement among School-Age Black Males,” Dr. Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University who presented his research at the symposium, pinpointed one of the main reasons for student suspensions: academic disengagement. He argues that the culture of standardized testing and more constrained courses have left many students disengaged in their schoolwork, one of the main precursors to suspensions.

“It surprises a lot of people that the students who are academically disengaged, they by far have the highest association with the probability that a student will get suspended,” says Dr. Toldson.

The disproportionately high number of suspension of African American students has caught the eye of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Currently, the OCR is conducting 20 different investigations into discipline policies in 14 states, stemming from the Obama Administration’s pledge to reduce the numbers of some racial and ethnic groups who are overrepresented in school disciplinary cases. But many school leaders have pointed out that part of the problem can be attributed to the absence of financial resources that can fund programs designed to curb out-of-school suspensions.

“In recent years, with the cuts in public education, the resources that are available for in-house suspension programs or after-school detention, for example, are just practically nonexistent,” Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp recently told National Public Radio. It’s very, very hard to organize something like that in the current budgetary climate.” Seattle is one of the districts under investigation by the OCR.

Alternative disciplinary measures and effective in-school programs are costly, time consuming and they require district-wide support to implement. However, these policies have proven to be effective, which many of the presenters at the symposium were quick to highlight.

The establishment of statewide Student Threat Assessment Guidelines in Virginia, for example, has allowed educators to separate students with serious behavioral issues from those that are guilty of more minor infractions. The approach has already cut short and long-term suspension rates by over half—from 19% to 8%—and studies have shown that it benefits both White and minority students equally.

Another successful approach has been to establish teacher and peer-led programs to combat the behaviors that lead to suspensions. After additional high-security measures in the Cleveland school district in Ohio did nothing to combat behavioral issues, the district established student support programs, better parent-teacher initiatives, planning centers, and emotional learning-based curriculum ideas that radically altered the schools approach to suspending students. The results were impressive—schools in the district averaged 57% less behavioral incidents than before the programs’ implementation, and out-of-school suspensions decreased by 59% district-wide.

In Palm Beach, Florida, some schools were suspending more than a quarter of their students and African American and special education students were feeling the brunt.  In 2012-2013, however, thanks to new training and School Wide Positive Behavorial Supports, the district has seen a 30 % decline in out-of school suspensions.

While these programs have shown great promise, they are not a quick fix. Still, Dr. Toldson believes that a more fastidious and balanced approach to handling disciplinary issues will serve as an effective tool in combatting the all too frequent use of suspensions.

“One of the things we really have to ask ourselves is, is the lack of progress on reducing suspensions due to us not knowing what works, or not having the will or resolve to do what works?”

The Civil Rights Project is an Atlantic grantee through Regents of the University of California.

Related Resources


Children & Youth, School Discipline Reform

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The Civil Rights Project