School Discipline

Reclaiming the Promise: A new path forward on school discipline practices

Education has the power and potential to transform lives. However, nearly six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 prohibited segregation of public schools, too many children still struggle in low-performing and under-resourced schools. And the struggle for these children and youth is exacerbated by school discipline policies and practices that contribute to the disruption of teaching and learning opportunities for school staff and students.

While student codes of conduct are important and necessary, disparate administration of consequences for violation of these codes, resulting in suspension, creates a vicious cycle in which students miss critical access to direct instruction that cannot be recaptured once they return to school. Often students return even further behind than they were, and they have little or no support to catch up.

Also, during a removal from school, students often engage in even more negative behavior, which results in contact with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system. Once a youth has had contact with law enforcement or has been placed into a juvenile justice facility, the stigma cannot be erased; this sets the trajectory for ongoing negative and disruptive contact with school personnel, law enforcement, peers and families.

Suspensions are also a predictor of students’ risk for dropping out. New research has shown that even a single suspension increases the likelihood of low achievement and of dropping out of school altogether. African-American and Latino males are far more likely to receive more-punitive consequences for school behavior infractions. In addition, they are more frequently subjected to suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrest, or transferred to alternative education settings, than their white counterparts. Far too frequently, these punishments are for nonviolent, noncriminal behavior that could have been addressed or remedied within the school community. Yet, research shows that African-American and Latino students, particularly males, are more likely to be suspended for subjective violations, like disrespect, insubordination or willful defiance, that require interpretation and often receive disparate administration of consequences.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, reveals the impact of the disparate treatment received by youth of color. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 3.3 million students were issued out-of-school suspensions in the 2009-2010 school year. Of those 3.3 million students, African-American students were found to be three times as likely as their peers to be issued an out-of-school suspension, along with nearly 1 in 13 Latinos.

The AFT believes that the following changes are necessary and would have a positive impact on school discipline disparities:

  1. Provide ongoing professional development and training, aligned with school and district reform goals, to all school staff, with a focus on evidenced-based positive school discipline, conflict resolution, cultural relevancy and responsiveness, behavior management, social justice and equity.
  2. Earmark funding specifically for states to provide necessary training, to develop or revamp data collection and analysis, and to support alignment of mental health services, community intervention systems, and children and youth services, to sustain a comprehensive system of interventions and supports.
  3. Increase districtwide and statewide investments in social-emotional learning and student-support teams, focusing on academic engagement, equitable access to rigorous coursework and developmentally appropriate behavioral instruction.
  4. Include time to collaboratively analyze and address school discipline data as part of any school and district reform process.
  5. Review and monitor existing discipline codes to ensure they are developmentally appropriate and effective. Routinely monitor implementation to ensure equitable administration of the codes.
  6. Restore critical school personnel—counselors, psychologists, nurses and school social workers, who have the knowledge and expertise to appropriately address student behavior.
  7. Restore and provide training to essential paraprofessional and school-related support personnel—including instructional aides, bus drivers, security and school resources officers, cafeteria staff and custodial staff, who engage with students across multiple school environments and have the capacity to develop and sustain healthy school and community relationships beyond the classroom.
  8. Include students, families, educators and support personnel, juvenile justice professionals, law enforcement officers, child welfare workers and other community members in the development and implementation of school improvement or reform plans. Focus on improving physical conditions, communication between stakeholders, and structures that affect school climate.
  9. Implement alternatives to suspension and expulsion to manage student behavior. Establish criteria for high-quality alternative education settings and develop transition protocols for students who are returning to their community schools.