School Climate & Safety

Discipline Debates Turn to Broad Terms Like ‘Defiance’

By Evie Blad — September 23, 2014 7 min read
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As school districts around the country have revised their discipline codes, many are zeroing in on limiting or eliminating the ability to suspend students for broad offenses like “willful defiance” and “disruption.”

Those offenses are often poorly defined and open to varying interpretations of teachers and principals, leaving schools susceptible to meting out inconsistent and overly harsh discipline, school climate researchers say.

And such infractions are often heavy contributors to disparate discipline rates for some students, particularly those in racial and ethnic minority groups, researchers say, adding that such rules have been used to flag behavior as minor as talking in the hall or violating a school’s dress code.

The move to rethink broad infractions is often part of greater plans to rework discipline.

In first-of-its-kind civil rights guidance on discipline released this year, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice recommend that districts clearly define broad offenses, such as “acting in a threatening manner,” to ensure they are applied fairly.

In addition, a consensus report released in July by the Council of State Governments, with input from a variety of organizations, recommends clarifying “ambiguous catch-all terms” in discipline codes as a way of ensuring fairness.

Districts Make Changes

While black students represented 16 percent of overall K-12 enrollment in the 2011-12 school year, they accounted for 33 percent of students suspended out of school that year, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

Some of the largest districts that have sought to address that disparity by reconsidering broad infractions in their discipline code are in California, where researchers at the University of California Los Angeles Center for Civil Rights Remedies reported that 34 percent of out-of-school suspensions issued in 2012-13 were for defiance or disruption. Such figures are not available on a national basis as there is not a uniform method for reporting discipline causes across state lines.

In 2013, the 654,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District became the largest school system in the country to ban suspensions solely for willful defiance. But two school board members voted against the move, saying they didn’t want to give students a “free pass” to misbehave, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The 58,000-student San Francisco district followed in February of this year, with a resolution noting that 36 percent of all suspensions in the district in 2012-13 listed willful defiance as the student’s most serious offense.

Advocates for reworking school discipline have pushed for other urban systems to take similar steps. The Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition of civil rights and student groups, is seeking revisions to the code of conduct in New York City schools, including an end to suspensions for “defying and disobeying authority.”

Perceptions of Defiance

Researchers say a lack of trust between a student and a teacher can build up over time and contribute to repeated discipline referrals for broad infractions like “defiance.”

Because of differing cultural perspectives, implicit bias, or a misunderstanding of certain behaviors, teachers may be more likely to see some students as more defiant than their peers, researchers say. For example, one student may express defiance in a less noticeable way, such as a quiet sigh, while another student might be more expressive, rolling his or her eyes. A sense of feeling threatened or challenged in the classroom is also subjective and dependent on issues like the size of the student and the confidence level of the teacher, researchers say.

Students who’ve been disciplined for defiance report that, in classes where they’d been disciplined, they felt the teachers had lower standards and showed less care for their students. And, if students begin to notice that peers in their racial or ethnic group are disciplined more than others, they may act defiantly in response, researchers say.

“While students should be held accountable for their behavior, research has shown that suspensions are ineffective in preventing future behavior problems and can actually increase the likelihood that students get into additional trouble and fall behind in their classroom work,” Dignity in Schools said in a recent press release.

City and school leaders in New York have said they support making some changes to the code, but the city’s 1.1 million students started the school year without revisions. Representatives of the district did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

Researchers have found variability in how defiance infractions are used—both across racial and ethnic groups and from classroom to classroom.

Source of Disparities

In a 2002 analysis of the discipline data from an unnamed large, urban district in the Midwest, researchers found that white students were more likely to be referred for discipline for the more narrowly defined offenses of smoking, leaving without permission, vandalism, and obscene language. The same analysis found that African-American students were more likely to be disciplined for the broader offenses of disrespect, excessive noise, threats, and loitering.

“Those are things that are much more subjective in terms of interpretation,” said Russell Skiba, a psychology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who co-authored the study. “Even ‘threat’ is depending on the perception of the person being threatened.”

What’s more, inconsistent discipline from teachers can foster a lack of trust in students, causing them to misbehave in sort of a self-sustaining loop, researchers say.

“We’re dealing with something that’s developmentally normal, and we’re dealing with it through exclusion instead of saying, ‘What are some ways that we could deal with this issue in a more productive way that teaches kids something?’ ” Mr. Skiba said.

Two teachers may have very different perceptions of the same behavior from the same student, said Anne Gregory, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., who studies discipline disparities.

“One teacher would say a student was ‘insubordinate, purposely willful,’ ” on a discipline form, she said, “and another teacher would say, ‘talkative, joyful.’ ”

While many educators assume defiance is a trait that exists within a child, Ms. Gregory said such behavior is actually more situational in nature. In a 2008 study, she and other researchers reviewed discipline records of an unnamed Midwestern high school and found that 67 percent of discipline referrals were for “defiance of adult authority.” While black students made up 30 percent of the school’s enrollment, they represented 58 percent of the students disciplined for defiance. Of the 250 black students who’d been referred for suspension for defiance, 185 had been referred by one or two teachers, suggesting that other teachers did not detect the same defiant behavior or were more capable of handling it in class.

Using surveys, researchers also found that students perceived higher levels of trust, care, and expectations from the teachers they said they “got along with best” than from the teachers who’d last referred them for discipline.

More recently, Ms. Gregory and fellow researchers used a randomized trial of an intervention in which veteran teachers coach newer teachers, reviewing videos of their classroom routines to emphasize positive interactions with students. At the end of the study, teachers in the intervention group had no record of discipline disparities, while teachers in the control group disciplined black students at higher rates than their white peers, in part because the teachers in the experimental group were better at preventing and addressing disruptive behavior, Ms. Gregory said.

Critics of reworking discipline plans have said reducing suspensions is a worthy goal, but limiting the ability to remove troublesome students from the classroom has taken a valuable tool away from teachers.

Resources Needed

Supporters say such concerns can be addressed through additional professional development for teachers and through programs that rely on new ways of addressing student behavior, such as peer mediation, restorative-justice plans, or sending students to another classroom to briefly “cool off” and refocus.

Disputes between advocates for policy changes and classroom teachers center on whether those interventions are effective and whether schools have the resources to implement them.

“In taking away a tool from a teacher in the classroom, you need to replace it with something, even if it is just training for how to deal with the needs of students who do get out of control,” said Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association. “This isn’t something that is really taught when you get your credential.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill that bans suspensions for willful defiance in kindergarten through 3rd grades and expulsions for willful defiance in older grades. The state school boards association lifted its opposition to that bill after it was amended to allow such suspensions in older grades.

In a previous legislative session, the California School Boards Association opposed a similar bill that would have banned suspensions for willful defiance. Gov. Brown vetoed that bill, saying he could not “support limiting the authority of local school leaders, especially at a time when budget cuts have greatly increased class sizes and reduced the number of school personnel.”

“It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom,” Mr. Brown, a Democrat, said.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2014 edition of Education Week as Discipline Debates Center on Terms Such as ‘Defiance’


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