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School Climate & Safety Opinion

7 Suggestions for Better School Discipline

If the Trump administration rescinds Obama-era discipline guidance, what’s next?
By Michael J. Petrilli — May 29, 2018 5 min read
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It seems pretty likely that the Trump administration will revise or rescind an Obama-era directive intended to address racial disparities in school disciplinary actions. The “Dear Colleague” letter in question, issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in 2014, has been the subject of much debate of late. It stated that school districts could be investigated and found guilty of violating students’ civil rights when doling out punishments, even if the discipline policies were race-neutral and implemented in even-handed ways (in other words, even if there was no evidence of discriminatory treatment of students).

Yet, the latest federal discipline data, released earlier this month, show that African-American students continue to be disciplined at higher rates than white students. While U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos held roundtable meetings with lawmakers in April to hear debates about the guidance from both sides, there is no timeline for the administration’s final decision.

But school discipline reform did not begin with President Barack Obama, and it won’t end with President Donald Trump. Efforts for change have been gaining steam for years, which legislatures and school boards have increasingly codified into laws and practices at state and local levels.

As an education reform leader who has been studying and writing about school discipline for years, I am concerned by the lack of common sense and evidence-based consensus in this realm. If the Trump administration makes its move to revise or rescind, local education leaders will regain discretion over how to balance discipline with safety and order in the classroom. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, school discipline brings into play a number of important but often competing goals for school districts: eliminating discrimination, protecting the learning time of both disruptive students and their well-behaved peers, upholding high expectations for students, empathizing with traumatized students, and defending the authority of teachers.

School discipline reform did not begin with President Barack Obama, and it won't end with President Donald Trump."

With those competing values in mind, here are seven suggestions (which are by no means a comprehensive list) for superintendents and district-level administrators to consider for their discipline policies:

DO worry about racial discrimination and implicit bias when determining punishments for students who misbehave. Advocates for fair school discipline are right to be alarmed by the dramatic racial disparities. Schools nationwide suspended 2.7 million students in 2015-16—100,000 fewer students than 2013-14. But African-American male students represented a quarter of all students who received an out-of-school suspension in 2015-16, despite making up only 8 percent of enrollment. Multiple studies have found that educator bias explains some of these disparities.

Furthermore, it is clearly against the law—and has been for half a century—for districts to treat students differently based on their race. Any differential treatment will remain illegal, even if the Trump administration does rescind federal guidance.

DON’T assume that racial bias alone explains disparities in discipline rates. The same studies that find evidence of racial bias in disciplinary actions also find that such bias only explains some of the disparities. Differences in student behavior are also a major factor. That’s not because of the race of the students, but because, tragically, different racial groups face different kinds and degrees of trauma, abuse, and deprivation, many of them associated with poverty.

Students themselves even report such differences. On federal surveys, twice as many African-American students report getting into fights at school as white students. It would be a miracle if children’s vastly different experiences didn’t result in behavioral differences in school.

DO show empathy for kids whose misbehavior is due to difficult life circumstances. Educators need to understand the truly tough circumstances that some children face outside of school and do their best to help them cope. Identifying appropriate mental-health supports is particularly important. Addressing the underlying causes of student misbehavior can go a long way toward nipping it in the bud.

DON’T engage in the soft bigotry of low expectations. It’s just as important for empathy not to turn into excuses for behavior that is out of line or compromises students’ academic potential. All students need to learn how to control their impulses and behave in acceptable ways, as well as cultivate an attitude that reflects motivation and engagement.

DO find ways to address misbehavior that lead to positive changes and protect opportunities to learn. Long suspensions reduce learning time for those being punished and may not improve their behavior. It’s worth trying in-school suspension for nonviolent offenses, with supports for students so they can behave better and continue learning the valuable skills and knowledge that schools exist to teach them.

DON’T just send disruptive kids back to their classrooms. Those who break rules can’t be our exclusive concern; their classmates also have the right to learn. We must protect their learning environment to stay on track and close achievement gaps. Research also shows what common sense indicates: One or two disruptive students can erode the learning of an entire classroom. It should alarm us that in 2015-16, 43 percent of educators reported classroom misbehavior that affects their ability to teach students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

DO address your “suspension factories.” A 2013 report by researchers at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that thousands of public schools suspend more than a quarter of their students every year. And that is still the case for too many schools today—a sign that they are careening out of control on disciplinary measures. While it’s bad to ignore schools with such high rates of suspensions, it’s arguably worse to respond by simply commanding that they get their numbers down without providing massive amounts of support.

School discipline presents enormous challenges for education leaders. Getting it right takes balance, judgment, and wisdom. There’s not much of that in Washington these days, but thankfully it still exists in abundance across our nation’s schools. Let’s make our decisions wisely.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Fair and Effective Approach to School Discipline

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