Published Online: October 11, 2011
Published in Print: October 12, 2011, as Policy Fight Brews Over Discipline

Findings Stoke Concerns Over 'Zero-Tolerance'

Research about disparities on punishment mounts

A new report finding that black and Hispanic students are far more likely to be kicked out of school when they break the rules adds to a growing chorus of concern over the discipline policies being used in K-12 schools.

Over the past two years, an increasing number of reports and initiatives have pointed out problems with “zero tolerance” policies and other school discipline practices that some see as overly harsh or that seem to unfairly target students from some racial, gender, and ethnic groups. This past summer, for example, a study found that more than half of all Texas students were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades, and that those punishments were meted out disproportionately.

Demonstrations were also scheduled to take place last week in 14 states and the District of Columbia for the National Week of Action on School Pushout to protest overly punitive discipline policies.

Racial Impact of the Rising Use of Suspension

Data from several states suggests that both school suspensions and racial disparities have grown since the 1970s.

The mounting data and criticism prompted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in July to share plans he and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have to reshape discipline policies that end up pushing children into the juvenile-justice system for crimes and rule-breaking on campus, keeping them from pursuing an education. And the Education Department’s office for civil rights is developing guidance to help ensure that school discipline policies and practices comply with the civil rights laws the agency enforces.

In the latest report, released here last week, researchers from the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, drew on national and state data to find that black and Hispanic students were being suspended or expelled in disproportionate numbers even for minor offenses, such as dress-code violations.

Some experts trace the current wave of zero-tolerance policies in schools to the shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. A provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, gave such policies added momentum. It requires states to create laws that say students who bring a gun to school must be expelled for at least a year, he said.

Suspensions for some offenses, such as bringing firearms to school, are necessary, said Daniel J. Losen, the author of the new report and the senior education law and policy associate at the civil rights center. But many schools have gone too far and may be pushing too many students out of school.

“The massive increase in the use of suspension out of school, which is a really important indicator of whether or not a kid’s going to drop out, is something a school can control,” he said.

The center’s report argues that school discipline records are too often seen as a measure of how safe a school is and not often enough as a gauge of how healthy a school is academically. But Mr. Losen said there is no evidence that banishing some students will improve the education of classmates still in school, while studies have shown that punishing students increases their risk of dropping out. Like previous reports, his argues that students who miss class time for misbehavior are at a greater risk of missing out on educational opportunities, but schools only reluctantly turn to alternatives for managing students’ behavior. Mr. Losen’s report was published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, in Boulder.

Analyzing 2006 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, Mr. Losen found that more than 28 percent of African-American middle school boys had been suspended at least once, compared with 10 percent of white males nationwide. For girls, it was 18 percent of black students, compared with 4 percent of white students.

Minor Violations

Mr. Losen pointed out that the 2006 data from the Education Department’s civil rights office found that 3.25 million students, or 7 percent of those in K-12 schools at the time, had been suspended at least once. Only about 102,000 were expelled, however.

Are We Too Strict?

A report released in July casts doubt on whether increased suspensions and expulsions are getting the right results in Texas public schools.

Many suspensions are handed out for breaking school rules, such as being tardy or skipping school, even though removing the student wouldn’t necessarily make the school safer.

“When people hear ‘suspension,’ they think the kid must have done something pretty bad. Most of these are for minor violations,” Mr. Losen said.

Wanda Parker of Greenville, Miss., said her son James was suspended from school after a teacher thought he was using a cellphone in class. In reality, Ms. Parker said, James, a 9th grader at the time, was holding a classmate’s iPod. Unable to persuade the school that James didn’t have a cellphone, he served a 45-day suspension from school. James wound up in summer school to pass the classes he needed to become a sophomore this school year.

“These zero-tolerance policies are unfair,” Ms. Parker said at a press conference on the center’s report.

The report’s review of data from North Carolina from the 2008-09 school year found that, for possessing or using a cellphone at school, almost 33 percent of first-time black middle school offenders were suspended, compared with 14.5 percent of white students. For dress-code violations, 38.3 percent of black students for whom it was a first-time offense were suspended, vs. 16.6 percent of white students.

A dress-code violation may involve a student wearing colors affiliated with a gang, but kicking a student out of school could make the problem worse, Mr. Losen said.

“You’re afraid about gang affiliations, and you’ve just increased the chances of gang affiliation,” he said.

The reasons for such wide disparity in the punishment of white and minority students are unclear, Mr. Losen said. Research suggests that unconscious bias likely plays a part in the disparities, he said. “Why else would we see, for the same first-time offense, blacks receiving harsh punishments far more often than whites?”

He said raising awareness about the disparities is crucial, and training in multicultural competence should be combined with training in classroom-management and strategies such as positive behavioral interventions and supports. This intervention-and-supports model is a decisionmaking framework that guides the selection, integration, and implementation of evidence-based interventions for improving academic and behavior outcomes for all students.

Related Blog

Using that framework allows for the tracking of student-discipline data by race or ethnicity, he said, “but too few schools have elected to look at that information. That should be a requirement.”

The Dignity in Schools campaign, which planned the demonstrations for last week, also advocates an end to zero-tolerance policies and the use of methods, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports, spokesman Joao Da Silva said.

Civil Rights Issue

Compounding the disproportionality problem is that many minority students have less-experienced teachers than their white counterparts. Mr. Losen said that when he was a new teacher, he relied on sending students to the principal’s office when they misbehaved, which he now knows to be ineffective at improving students’ behavior.

“Children who need the most too often get the least. It’s a civil rights issue, an economic security issue, and a moral issue,” Mr. Duncan said at the time.

Trading suspension and expulsion for other types of discipline doesn’t mean a school is trading control for chaos, Mr. Losen said.

The Baltimore district famously cut its suspensions in recent years, and in turn, the dropout rate decreased. The school system used a series of methods and collaborated with the police department to make changes in how students are disciplined, while also stepping up efforts to coax truant students and dropouts back to school.

In that district, and in the Clayton County, Ga., school system, which also reshaped its discipline practices, the changes didn’t cost money, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske said. “We just had to take what we had and do it differently,” he said.

Mr. Losen recommends that, as Congress rewrites the ESEA, the new version of the law should include incentives for schools, districts, and states to support students, teachers, and school leaders to improve classroom and behavior management where suspension and expulsion rates are high, and that the rates at which those punishments are used be published for every school, with a breakdown of students’ racial and ethnic information.

“This is a myth busted, that we have to kick out the ‘bad’ kids,” Mr. Losen said. “This is an unsound educational practice. The idea that we’re going to scare them straight is not working.”

Vol. 31, Issue 07, Pages 1,12

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