Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Effects of Unequal School Discipline Strategies

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 01, 2018 5 min read
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We welcome back Amanda Ronan* the Austin-based educator and author as our guest blogger. For the second part of her post Amanda writes about the EFFECTS of inequitable school discipline. The first part focused on the data.

The Effects

Last week we explored the data around the harsh discipline policies that disproportionately target certain student populations such as students of colors and students with disabilities. What we’re focusing on this week are both the short-term and long-term consequences beyond the intended punishments.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association published the findings of the Zero Tolerance Task Force. The task force reviewed ten years worth of data about school discipline policies and found that the policies had a few negative effects, specifically, schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion had, “less satisfactory ratings of school climate, less satisfactory school governance structures, and spent a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters.” In addition, these practices lead to parents and the surrounding community to perceive that students’ rights to education are being threatened.”

The Immediate Consequences of Harsh Punishment Policies

The consequences of these policies aren’t just affecting school and community climates, though. A study published in 2016, focused on the effect of school discipline on the achievement gap. The findings show that suspensions account for one-fifth of Black and White differences in school achievement. The study suggested that removing students from the learning environment negatively impacts academic growth, leading to wider achievement differences across students of different races.

This makes sense intuitively, right? From the time-outs in preschool to the arrests in high school, students who aren’t in class, aren’t learning. They can’t compete academically with students who’ve received 100% of the instruction and have access to help because they’re allowed on school grounds. We know that students who are suspended or expelled are 10 times more likely to dropout of high school, get failing grades, be held back, dislike school, and face jail time. These results are directly related to missing enriching classroom experiences with peers and teachers.

The Lasting Effects of Low Expectations

In a perfect world, school climates would be accepting and nurturing of all students. The harsh reality, though, is that these discipline practices are the reflections of institutionalized racism and outward discrimination against people of color and other underserved communities. In a 2007 analysis of research, data showed that teachers hold lower expectations for American-American and Latino students, compared to those from European American backgrounds. This implicit bias from White teachers lead to less praise and more discipline for students of color in the classroom. And, as we’ve seen, Black students tend to receive more severe punishments more often.

Zero tolerance policies coupled with the internalized cycle of racial bias leading to unequal discipline has increased the police and security presence on campus. In fact, in three of the five largest schools districts, security officers outnumber counselors. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has long argued that these policies are creating “school-to-prison” pipelines. In 2008, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union spoke to the New York City Council, saying:

Suspensions, often the first stop along the pipeline, play a crucial role in pushing students from the school system and into the criminal justice system...Specifically, students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade than students who have never been suspended. Dropping out in turn triples the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated later in life. In 1997, 68 percent of state prison inmates were school dropouts.

So, when we ask if all these suspensions and expulsions really matter, the resounding answer is YES. According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites. Hispanic Americans and African Americans together make up 32% of the US population and, yet, make up 56% of all incarcerated people. These incarcerations lead to people of color having a more difficult time finding and keeping a job. See, the discrimination that starts in schools with unfair discipline policies, doesn’t end there. But it can.

What Can Be Done

As a school administrator, you must see that change needs to be made for the sake of all students, but especially those students of color most adversely impacted by severe discipline policies.

Many schools and districts have had results with restorative justice practices. These programs involve all stakeholders in the process of building an inclusive, safe, fair community. Restorative justice hopes to bring dialogue back between students and teachers to build shared respect. In addition, peer juries are often used to navigate discipline issues.

Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports is a multi-tiered, data drive program to improve social, emotional, and academic outcomes for all students. This program byt the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, especially includes students with disabilities and other marginalized groups.

Your unique student body may require a personalized discipline plan--one that you and your teachers can implement with the help of students. Emerging and experienced educational leaders are able to use research to drive organizational improvement and change. When you change the focus from discipline to “What can be done?” you’ll help your teachers to learn new skills and confront their own biases. As you create positive, multi-tiered, personalized approaches to combat both serious safety issues and discrimination, your staff and students will work as a cohesive, unified, and committed team.

In the end, you’ll make your school a safe place where discipline focuses on intervention and not discrimination. Where you prepare tomorrow’s leaders, rather than lead students toward negative academic and social outcomes.

*Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based educator and author. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since then, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to homeschooling moms, writing blogs, long-form articles, curricula, and educational guides. In addition, she is the author of the YA series, My Brother is a Robot, and an ebook for teachers, A Fresh Look at Formative Assessment.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.