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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Schools Must Abandon Zero-Tolerance Discipline

By Kavitha Mediratta — July 24, 2014 4 min read
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In 2007, the high school graduation rate in Baltimore, a city where the school system serves 85,000 mostly African-American and low-income students, was an abysmal 34 percent. Then Andrés A. Alonso, the chief executive for the city’s schools, took action. He revised the code of discipline to prevent suspensions for less serious offenses and instituted targeted counseling, after-school programs, and academic interventions to help students succeed.

Four years later, the dropout rate had been reduced by more than half. Eighty-seven percent of Baltimore students who began high school the year the reforms were implemented had either graduated or were completing their studies.

Baltimore’s success story, and others like it in California and Colorado, offer concrete evidence of effective alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline policies, which hurt students’ ability to learn and thrive and too often push them out of school. By helping principals and teachers address the underlying causes of misconduct—and giving them options other than suspension and expulsion—forward-thinking school districts across the nation are demonstrating how positive discipline can improve educational outcomes.

But more school systems need to follow the lead of these innovative districts and move away from an overreliance on suspensions and expulsions. “The School Discipline Consensus Report,” published last month by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, can help districts do just that. It provides a catalog of effective strategies and recommendations for reforming school disciplinary practices nationwide.

Although many school districts use early-warning data systems to identify students at risk of not graduating, few use them to also track disciplinary data."

The report, which draws on research and interviews of more than 700 experts in education, justice, health, and the behavioral sciences, presents a host of strategies to help schools and districts create positive climates for teaching and learning. These include improving educators’ skills for managing student behavior in the classroom, using school safety measures that support collaborative problem-solving, and strengthening educational services for students placed in alternative education and juvenile-justice settings so that they can transition successfully back to school.

The report is a response to a problem that has derailed educational opportunities for far too many young people in the United States. Each year, millions of students are removed from their classrooms, frequently for minor infractions. A common misconception is that zero-tolerance discipline is necessary to prevent violence in schools. However, federal and state data show these policies have led to suspensions and expulsions for even the most minor misbehaviors, such as talking back to a teacher or not complying with the dress code.

Rather than improving safety in schools, harsh zero-tolerance discipline has far-reaching negative consequences—dramatically increasing the risk of failure, dropping out, and involvement with the justice system. Even worse, these types of severe punishments disproportionately fall on children of color, particularly African-American students, who are three times more likely than white students to be suspended, even for similar types of misbehavior.

The new discipline consensus report offers schools a road map for change. It provides specific tools to better address students’ behavioral and emotional needs, pointing to the positive experiences of districts that have implemented reforms.

Schools in Austin, Texas, for example, reduced in-school police citations for student misbehavior by 29 percent from one school year to the next by using early-warning systems and other interventions to identify students who were repeatedly disciplined and would benefit from additional social support. In that same period, discretionary removals, in which children are moved to another classroom, suspended, or sent to alternative educational programs, fell by 60 percent.

Although many districts use early-warning data systems to identify students at risk of not graduating, few use them to also track disciplinary data. Expanding these systems to track office referrals and other disciplinary actions can help minimize classroom disruption for children who need extra support.

In Denver, concerns over the growing involvement of school police in minor behavioral matters led the school district and the police department to develop an agreement that carefully defines the roles of school-based officers, emphasizing safety and de-escalation rather than involvement in school discipline matters.

And in Clayton County, Ga., a juvenile-justice collaborative established clear protocols for referring school discipline cases to juvenile court. The result was a 73 percent drop in school-based referrals between 2003 and 2011.

These and other reforms are imminently doable in every district. They also reflect practical steps schools can take at a time when a growing chorus of educators, policymakers, and advocates is calling for reforms to overly harsh discipline practices. Most recently, President Barack Obama’s My Brothers’ Keeper initiative urged school districts to address the damaging impact of suspensions and expulsions on boys and young men of color.

The “consensus report” on school discipline provides strategies that can help schools respond to the president’s call for action and help more students succeed. Leaders at all levels of the education system should come together to implement these comprehensive, data-driven strategies to improve the climate for learning and ensure that all students can learn and thrive.

The Atlantic Philanthropies supports coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement in Education Week and on edweek.org.

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