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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Take a Positive, Personal Approach to Discipline

By Matt Cregor — January 04, 2013 3 min read
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With the number of students missing at least a day of school due to suspensions or expulsions now double what it was in the 1970s, and suspensions a predictor of dropping out, how can we expect to resolve the dropout crisis?

This spike in exclusionary discipline raises a fundamental question of fairness. Students of color are far likelier than white students to be disciplined with exclusionary measures that take them out of regular public school. And, while white students are disproportionately likely to be punished for objective violations like smoking, students of color are far more likely to be disciplined for subjective offenses such as disrespect, making one wonder if we can close the so-called “achievement gap” as well.

Thankfully, some schools and communities have improved both safety and achievement by eschewing “zero tolerance” and implementing positive, preventive approaches to discipline. No one method works for every student, school, or community, but the skills honed by the schools cited here belong in any educator’s toolkit.

  • Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community organization, led a multiyear effort to reform Denver’s school discipline policies. In partnership with the civil rights group, Advancement Project, Padres y Jovenes Unidos worked with the Denver public schools to revise the district’s discipline code to incorporate the principles of restorative practices. To promote trust, reconciliation, and mutual responsibility, restorative practices engage all members of a school community affected by a conflict in addressing and resolving it. Since implementing the new code in 2008, Denver has cut its expulsion rate in half and its suspension rate by a third.

  • In Clayton County, Ga., the juvenile court, alarmed by dramatic increases in misdemeanor referrals from schools, convened leaders from the school district, law enforcement, the mental-health profession, and the greater community to develop a “school offense protocol” in 2004. By drawing a line between safety matters, which would be handled by law enforcement, and discipline matters, which would be managed by the school, Clayton County reduced its court referrals by almost 70 percent and increased its graduation rate by 20 percent. With school resource officers responsible for safety, not discipline, students felt safer, too.

  • When two Illinois schools were combined to form Alton Middle School in 2006, the school’s discipline rates spiked. Alton now implements “positive behavior interventions and supports,” or PBIS—a practice shown to reduce disciplinary referrals while supporting gains in achievement, attendance, and perceptions of safety. PBIS schools teach and encourage positive student behavior, regularly monitor and address trends in disciplinary data, and provide individualized behavioral supports to students who need them most. Alton blended its PBIS effort with training to understand and address racial bias and inequality, reducing its suspensions by 25 percent—with the most significant drop for African-American students.

See Also

What is the most effective approach for maintaining discipline and a positive climate in the public schools?

Education Week Commentary asked six thought leaders to share their answer to this question in Quality Counts 2013. Read the other responses.

None of these approaches is a by-the-book program, but all rely on replicable frameworks based on the following principles:

  1. Meaningful involvement of students and parents in developing, implementing, and monitoring discipline. The Dignity in Schools Campaign’s model code on education and dignity is an excellent resource on community involvement and each of the following matters.
  2. Regular review of disciplinary data by race, gender, and disability. Programs like School-Wide Information System, or SWIS, can track the time, location, and type of disciplinary referral, providing a who, what, when, where, and why on discipline.
  3. Establishing common expectations and common language on discipline, from principal to custodian.
  4. Supporting teachers, not just in managing classrooms, but also in making room for hard conversations about race and bias (an area in which we all could do better).
  5. Reserving suspension, expulsion, arrest, and alternative school placement for the most serious offenses.
  6. Not treating discipline as divorced from instruction. If you had to trade recess and art for test prep, you would’ve had trouble staying in your seat, too.

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