Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Discipline Policies Shift With Views on What Works

After millions of ‘get tough’ suspensions and expulsions, educators nationwide are looking for ways to assure safety while keeping students in school
By Nirvi Shah — January 04, 2013 17 min read
A student passes through security at the beginning of the school day at Christian Fenger Academy High School in Chicago. School officials around the country are working to balance school security with the need to maintain a positive learning environment.
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If students aren’t in school, they can’t learn.

But if they are disruptive or violent, they may shortchange other students’ chances at an education.

Attempted solutions to that unresolved school-discipline dilemma have yielded state and federal policies behind millions of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions during the past two decades.

The laws and policies have been applied to students wielding weapons and to those sporting a smart mouth or a cellphone. The so-called zero-tolerance approach to discipline, once reserved for the most serious of offenses, has prompted the suspensions and expulsions of students in possession of butter knives and theater-prop swords. The federal Gun-Free Schools Act, enacted in 1994, ushered in an era of tough punishment for low-level offenses.

Meanwhile, research and public positions by psychologists, physicians, and teachers’ unions denounce such practices as harmful to students academically and socially, useless as prevention tools, and unevenly applied. Advocacy groups—backed by that research and by data collected by the U.S. Department of Education—say the discipline machinery has a disproportionate effect on students who are black, Latino, or male and those with disabilities.

Supporters of out-of-school suspension and expulsion counter that students have become more combative and disruptive, problems attributable at least in part to the deterioration of students’ home lives. Out-of-school punishment shifts the weight of discipline to parents, they reason. When it comes to lesser offenses, they argue that ejecting students who don’t take part in lessons means students on task can benefit fully from educational opportunities. If some groups of students appear to be disproportionately affected, it’s not purposeful, they say, just a reflection of reality.

Despite some firm support for disciplinary practices that remove students from school, those opposed to the policies believe there has been no better time to capitalize on the tide countering them.

“Schools that are taking this on now are still fighting against the stream a little bit,” says Russell Skiba, a professor in counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington. His Equity Project offers evidence-based information to educators and policymakers on equity in special education and school discipline. But “there’s been some real momentum,” he says.

“If we can shift to an understanding that schools are not going to get to the outcomes that they’re desiring as far as academics until they get a handle on issues of school climate and discipline,” says Skiba, “then I think we might see more resources flowing in that direction.”

Long History

School discipline issues had a well-warmed seat in the spotlight long before federal legislation on the matter nearly two decades ago.

Back in 1982, for example, Principal Joe Clark of Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., became famous for suspending students en masse for disrespect, fighting, and vulgarity. His toughness later landed him on the cover of Time and made him the subject of a movie starring Morgan Freeman.

Clark was only a little ahead of his time. Pressure for schools to adopt what became known as zero tolerance—a term associated with Reagan-era anti-drug efforts—gained momentum in the early 1990s amid concern about national crime statistics and the perceived need to shelter schools from “super-predators,” a supposed new class of particularly violent youths.

A watershed arrived with Congress’ passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act, an initiative of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and then-Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, both Democrats. President Bill Clinton signed the measure into law.

The law requires all schools that receive federal money to expel for a year students caught with firearms on campus. It echoed and amplified local school board policies that had cropped up in pockets, and the law is believed to be the catalyst for current practice: dismissal from school for much-lower-level misbehavior.

Gun-Free Schools Act

The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act requires schools that accept federal money to expel for at least one year any student who brings any type of firearm onto campus. Since the law was passed, the number of expulsions nationwide demanded by the law has generally decreased. The law is often cited as the impetus for widespread use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for lesser offenses.


SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Since the law’s 1994 passage, it has led to the expulsion of more than 25,000 students, federal Education Department records show.

Neither Feinstein nor Dorgan granted multiple requests from Education Week for comment on their legislation’s legacy. Staff members for Feinstein instead offered her remarks from when the legislation was introduced.

“What kind of a nation is this when students must go to school in constant fear of being shot, stabbed, or attacked?” she said then. “What kind of a learning environment can there be when youngsters bring guns to school? How can we expect students to learn when so many resources are spent on metal detectors and safety personnel?”

Although she said in her speech that “mandatory suspension is not the only approach to addressing the problem of guns in schools,” Feinstein was firm in her belief that expulsion would be a powerful deterrent.

Yet in the years since the adoption of the get-tough law, the nation has recorded some of its deadliest school violence, including shooting deaths at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Ark., in 1997, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., and the killings at Red Lake High School in northern Minnesota in 2005.

Despite scant evidence that super-predators ever existed, “if you were to come out for prevention at that point, the odds were someone was going to say, ‘What? Don’t you believe in safe schools?' " says Skiba, a technical advisor to Quality Counts 2013. “Zero tolerance was a wonderful political sound bite through the early to mid-'90s. It wasn’t a very data-driven discussion. It was a fear-driven discussion.”

With safety at the forefront of policymakers’ minds, they may have considered little else, says Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. That " 'it’s in all our interest to have all our kids succeed'—I don’t think that was part of [lawmakers’] thinking,” says Losen, also a technical advisor for Quality Counts 2013.

Dropout Connection

Research connects suspension with dropping out, or at least with a decline in academic success.

A 2011 study of Texas students by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in Bethesda, Md., and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, in College Station, found that as nearly a million middle and high school students in the state moved from 7th to 12th grade, more than half were suspended or expelled at least once. Those students were more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school than students not punished in the same way.

Losen and other critics of out-of-school suspension say they aren’t asking for a full-scale ban on its use, though one coalition, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, has asked for a moratorium until schools implement workable alternatives.

“I don’t think anyone is saying we should never, ever suspend a kid out of school,” Losen says, but he does take issue with the frequency with which suspensions are used. “Look at the sheer volume. Some of the people resisting [changing the policies] think we’re only kicking out the worst offenders. How can you be kicking out half the kids?”

Another point of contention: The penalties have been shown to disproportionately affect students whose academic achievement has historically lagged.

Data collected by the Education Department’s office for civil rights from the 2009-10 school year, encompassing 85 percent of public school students nationwide, show that across all school districts included in the collection, black students were 3½ times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. In districts reporting expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represented 45 percent of enrollment but 56 percent of students expelled under such policies.

An Education Week analysis of the same data found that while black students made up about 18 percent of students in the data set, they accounted for nearly 50 percent of students suspended more than once out of school. Of the roughly 20,500 students expelled that year without access to educational services, nearly 50 percent were black. And overall, one in every 10 students included in the data collection was suspended out of school at least once that year.

An analysis by Losen and his colleagues at the Civil Rights Project of the federal data found that one in six black students, one in 14 Latino students, and one in 20 white students of those in the data set were suspended at least once that school year.

But there’s nothing disproportionate about the numbers, says Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a think tank in New York City that emphasizes free-market principles and greater individual responsibility.

“I just think that behavior is driving the discipline rates,” Mac Donald says, citing crime statistics that show the rate of black teenagers who are either victims or perpetrators of homicide is higher than that for white and Latino teenagers. “It is completely fanciful to think that the types of crime rates that we’re seeing among black youth on the streets do not affect how students are acting in class, how they’re acting toward their teachers, toward their classmates.”

She cited a greater breakdown in the nuclear family among African-Americans than other racial groups. For black boys growing up with no father figure, she says, key lessons on self-control are often absent. “To then hold the rest of the class hostage,” she says, “and to say it’s the school’s fault, it’s blaming the messenger.”

Skiba counters that research doesn’t support the idea that discipline is meted out based on higher rates of bad behavior among some racial groups. But it does show, he says, that black and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to be suspended for minor misbehavior than are their white peers.

Under the Obama administration, a number of school districts have been investigated for discipline rates for one group of students that far exceed their representation in the student body. Mac Donald decries that line of investigation; Losen applauds it. He argues that the past segregation of black students and students with disabilities is a reason for both groups’ lopsided representation in discipline statistics.

When Congress worked on the 2004 renewal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, one of the biggest sticking points was discipline, notes Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children, in Arlington, Va.

At the core of the dispute was punishing students whose misbehavior was a manifestation of their disabilities. The revised law requires schools to ask detailed questions about an incident to determine the cause of a student’s actions. Instead of issuing consequences when a student’s disability is to blame, schools must adjust a student’s education plan to address the behavior.

The question shouldn’t be how to punish a student, Jones says, but “How could we have prevented this?”

Her organization supports legislation that would encourage the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, including a bill that would infuse the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently the No Child Left Behind Act) with the approach, which emphasizes teaching students how to behave and rewarding positive behavior.

In Perspective

Although zero-tolerance policies and eye-popping numbers of suspensions and expulsions persist, shootings and other extreme instances of school violence remain rare: The most recent federal statistics available, from the 2006-07 school year, show the number of students expelled for having firearms on campus is lower than a decade earlier. Energy spent deterring potential gun-toting teenagers would be better directed at preventing disruptive behavior that teachers deal with every day, some school administrators say. That shift in emphasis, they say, could address far more common problems, including disrespect and fighting.

“Is it a crisis, a traumatic, horrible event, if a child brings a gun to school? Absolutely,” says Laurie Barron, the principal of Smokey Road Middle School in Newnan, Ga. She is the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2013 Middle School Principal of the Year.

“But how often does that happen?” she says. “We spend more time explaining to you what’s going to happen if you bring a gun to school than what’s going to happen if you do the right thing every day.”

An at-risk student coordinator leads a peace circle, which can be used to resolve conflicts between students at Chicago’s Christian Fenger Academy High School. Students in the gathering must hold an item they’ve picked off the floor while they talk; other students must refrain from speaking until they hold an item.

At her 750-student school, changes in recent years, including an emphasis on building relationships between teachers and students, have helped cut discipline referrals from an average of 120 a month four years ago to 20 now.

Schools in New Mexico and several other states are using a program called Elev8, which is tapped the moment a situation arises that might typically result in a suspension or other disciplinary consequence. The Elev8 model uses school-based health centers to provide mental-health and behavioral support for students, says Frank Mirabal, the director of the program in New Mexico.

The program also provides after-school activities for students, can connect families with medical and social services, and in some cases offers academic support. Suspensions in one Chicago Elev8 school dropped 80 percent in the 2009-10 school year, the organization says.

Wilson Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M., offers an even more powerful example. The year before Elev8 was implemented, there were 50 arrests of students on campus and in the neighboring community, Mirabal says. During Elev8’s first year, there were four.

Exploring New Options

While schools continue to adopt strict discipline policies or enforce existing ones, expert voices opposing them have emerged, as have attempts to try alternatives.

A 2003 position statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., concluded that “out-of-school placement for suspension or expulsion should be limited to the most egregious circumstances. For in-home suspension or expulsion, the school must be able to demonstrate how attendance at a school site, even in an alternative setting with a low ratio of highly trained staff to students, would be inadequate to prevent a student from causing harm to himself or herself or to others.”

In 2008, the zero-tolerance task force of the Washington-based American Psychological Association concluded that “ultimately, an examination of the evidence shows that zero-tolerance policies as implemented have failed to achieve the goals of an effective system of school discipline.

In addition, the federal departments of Education and Justice in 2011 jointly contracted with the Council of State Governments to draw up a national consensus document on school discipline approaches. New federal initiatives also have provided states with money to train teachers in classroom-management strategies in Hawaii, develop positive behavioral interventions in South Carolina, and infuse instruction in Michigan with social-emotional lessons.

Parents, students, and school administrators pressing for changes also are gaining traction. In June of last year, the Chicago school board voted to eliminate automatic 10-day suspensions for the worst school-based offenses. District codes of conduct that rely heavily on out-of-school suspension have been rewritten several times in the past few years in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, students have tried to disabuse school administrators of the notion that they are disruptive to escape class.

“Students generally want to be in school,” says Hiram Rivera, the executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union. But inappropriate behavior may be a reaction to the schools themselves. “They don’t want to be in underresourced schools,” Rivera says, “or go to a school where all they’re doing is test prep in crowded classrooms.”

In late 2009, a fight at South Philadelphia High School, between Asian students who were English-language learners and black students, sent 13 people to the hospital. The fracas highlighted inequities in educational programming for the different groups on campus. The disparities and concerns about district disciplinary practices also were tackled by Youth United for Change, a Philadelphia group working on education issues. Reconfiguring the code of conduct cut expulsions in the district in the last two school years from 236 to 30.

But the groups look forward to this school year’s data, which will show whether principals are handling smaller incidents such as dress-code violations and tardiness less aggressively than with an out-of-school suspension.

And with the start of 2013, Philadelphia is set to pilot alternatives, including restorative practices—which require students to repair harm caused by wrongdoing—in at least 10 schools and PBIS, in 10 others.

“Oftentimes, when people say we’re against zero tolerance, people think we’re against accountability. No,” says Andi Perez, the executive director of Youth United for Change. “We think there’s a better way to handle it.”

Heavy Lift

Despite a will in some places, shifting away from heavy use of out-of-school suspensions can be cumbersome, takes broad staff buy-in, and doesn’t provide the quick remedy a suspension offers for a student or staff member affected by student misbehavior.

In Clayton County, Ga., the school system collaborated with the local juvenile court, revised its code of conduct, hired additional safety personnel, and added surveillance equipment. It also implemented alternative disciplinary methods, provided gang-resistance education and training, instituted in-school suspension, and evaluated its professional-development offerings, all with the intent of improving student behavior and cutting suspension rates.

In the course of five years and all those endeavors, suspensions have dropped by less than half in the 52,000-student school district, says Tamera Foley, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning.

“Every week, we’re looking at discipline, how many incidents are out there, what are they for,” she says. “We want to do everything possible to keep kids in schools,” but there are still those among the staff, says Foley, who want students gone when they misbehave.

And alternative measures often come with a price tag. At one junior high school in Minnesota, adding Saturday school and evening social-skills classes for three years contributed to a sharp drop in the out-of-school suspension rate, but both options evaporated once a state grant that paid for them expired.

Political forces still play a role. In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a bill in 2010 that requires school districts to provide teachers with training in classroom management—a skill that can keep behavior issues from escalating or happening at all—but he vetoed a bill a year later that would have required school boards to define “willful disobedience,” along with rules and guidelines for the suspensions issued for that offense. In California, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012 signed a number of measures that aim to curb the use of out-of-school suspension, but also vetoed a measure tackling suspensions on the grounds of the unspecific “willful defiance.”

Long-Term Benefits

Keeping students in school as much as possible will only serve schools well in the long run, anti-suspension advocates say. That message has sunk in for the superintendent of the Greenville public schools in Mississippi. Leeson Taylor, a graduate of the 5,700-student school system in an agricultural swath of the state’s Delta region, says he is trying to adjust the district’s approach to school discipline, with students’ academic success in mind.

See Also

Read more on discipline policies in these related Quality Counts stories:

‘Restorative Justice’ Offers Alternative Discipline Approach

Student Out for Months Over Cellphone Allegation

“We know that in April we’ll have to do our high-stakes assessment. We have to have 95 percent attendance on that day,” says Taylor, who became the district’s chief in the summer of 2012.

This year, a portion of teachers’ evaluations will be based on those test scores. “Would you rather have a child who you’ve taught be tested, or a child who’s been absent because they’ve been suspended be assessed?” Taylor says.

He’s had conversations with a number of principals about suspensions and supports the district’s shift to placing highly qualified teachers at an alternative center for students who must be removed from school.

“Too many times, the solution is to remove the child from the [school] environment. That does not mean you’ve removed them from a learning environment,” says Taylor. “They’re just, instead, learning what the streets have to teach them.”

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.
Michele McNeil contributed to this article.


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