Suspension. Expulsion. Exclusionary discipline. Kicking a kid out of school is the most extreme form of discipline a school district can hand out, so you might think that the removal of a child from his or her educational environment would be reserved for the most extreme offenses—for children who pose a threat to the safety of their peers or school staff. The data suggests otherwise.
“Nationwide, as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior—like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, tardiness, profanity and dress code violations,” according to the study “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence” by the Education Policy Center of Indiana University.
“There are always going to be disobedient, disruptive kids in school,” says John Hudson, Waco ISD Truancy, Attendance, Dropout Prevention and Credit Recovery supervisor. “It is the response to this behavior that’s inadequate. I know it’s a cliché, but when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” But this is a problem only a few students face, right? Not so.
In a groundbreaking study, “Breaking School’s Rules,” the Council of State Governments Justice Center tracked over one million public secondary students in Texas for six years. They found that nearly 60 percent of these students were suspended or expelled at least once between their 7th and 12th grade years. You read that right. Nearly three in every five public secondary students in Texas are suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grade. The study also found that these disciplinary measures increased the likelihood that a student would drop out of school or wind up in the juvenile justice system.
The thing is, removing a child from school may seem to be an economical, uncomplicated solution, but suspensions and expulsions have long-term costs. Students may be left home unsupervised, and they lose valuable classroom time that is hard to recover. As a disciplinary measure, suspensions and expulsions fail to teach students the skills and strategies they need to improve their behavior and avoid future problems.
And not all students receive equal treatment. According to the Office for Civil Rights, African-American students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended. And while students who receive special education services make up 12 percent of the country’s student body, they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.
So, what can be done? In January 2014, the departments of Justice and Education together released a “School Discipline Guidance Package” intended to encourage the re-thinking of school discipline. The package is directed at educators, principals, district administrators, school board members, charter school heads, school resource officers, counselors, social workers, parents, community leaders and, importantly, students themselves. Within this package are a set of guiding principles aimed at improving school climates and discipline:
1. Positive school climates can help prevent misbehavior. Misbehavior is an external sign of difficulties in the child’s life, such as trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse or issues in the home, school or community. A school should work with outside community resources to determine cause and provide support while the student is still engaged in education.
Suspending or expelling students can negatively affect the overall school climate, diminishing trust between families and school staff. Instead, teachers, administrators, support staff and school-based law enforcement officers should receive regular training on how to engage students and promote positive behavior. In addition, when safety is not an issue, school-related disciplinary issues should be handled by the school, rather than turned over to law enforcement.
2. Expectations should be clear and consistent, and consequences should be developmentally appropriate and proportional.
“Schools should be seeking to provide differing levels of support and interventions to students, based on their needs,” says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “The one-size-fits-all mentality simply doesn’t work.” Families, students and school personnel should be involved in the creation and implementation of disciplinary policies at the school, and policies should be clearly communicated. With training, staff can use alternative strategies that keep all students engaged in instruction as much as possible.
3. Students should be treated equally and fairly.
All school personnel and school-based law enforcement officers should receive training on how to discipline in a fair and equitable way. Districts should keep track of disciplinary actions and evaluate whether policies are discriminatory toward subgroups such as children of color, students with disabilities or at-risk children.
As Frederick Douglass famously said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”