Traditional School Discipline No Longer Works

In the past, schools suspended students for such offenses as chewing gum, calling out, jeans, sneakers or wearing short skirts (females) or “inappropriate clothing”- tee shirts, cutoff pants, shorts. Schools have used a variety of techniques to control discipline. But just as society has changed so have the nature of students.  Traditional school discipline was based on a system of reward and punishment.  Based on the concept, “Respect me or I will hurt you. I will suspend you or expel you.”  But this has limited effect on students who have been abused, have seen the death or friends or family.  Rewards are effective incentives only if the person is interested in the reward or fears the punishment. Traditional discipline makes the school culture adversarial.

Two months after federal officials brought  attention to how students are discipline in the nation’s schools, a group of 26 researchers, educators and advocates released findings  that underscored racial disparities  in suspension. African Americans and students with disabilities are suspended at “hugely disproportionate rates,” said leaders of the group, called the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative. They also noted higher levels of suspension among Latinos and students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.“

The group cited work by Anne Gregory, of Rutgers University, which they said showed that a rigorous teacher training program intended to improve student engagement also had the added benefit of reducing disciplinary referrals and eliminating racial disparities in those referrals.

In the 1972-73 school year, suspension rates were 6 percent for whites and 12 percent for African Americans at the secondary school level. The most recent federal figures, for 2009-10, show rates of 7 percent for whites and 24 percent for African Americans in those grades. By comparison, 12 percent of Hispanics at the secondary level were suspended. A nationally representative population-based sample of adolescents indicates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are at greater risk of expulsion than their heterosexual peers, researchers said, citing a 2011 study. For some student groups, the rates are markedly higher. For example, among middle and high school students, 36 percent of black males with disabilities were suspended at least once in 2009-10.

Research shows that out-of-school suspensions are linked to academic disengagement, lower achievement and greater risks of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. The group noted discipline successes in a number of school systems, including Baltimore, where the group said graduation rates had improved as school officials overhauled discipline and cut back substantially on out-of-school suspensions.

African-American students are 1.78 times more likely to be suspended out of school, according to one study. But disparities aren’t just along racial and ethnic lines. Disabled students are suspended almost twice as often as non-disabled students. And students who reported same-sex attractions in surveys had higher odds of being expelled, even after controlling for factors such as poverty, race, and misbehavior.

The unevenness in discipline can’t be explained away by poverty or by higher rates of misbehavior. Instead, school factors, such as the principal’s attitude about discipline, have a stronger effect.

The collaborative highlighted a number of steps schools can take to improve climate and safety and reduce discipline disparities. Among them:

 Strengthen student-teacher relationships. Black, Latino, and LGBT students less often see school staff as supportive. But teachers who systematically get to know their students and reflect on how they interact can make a difference.

 Establish a respectful and bias-free environment.  Educators can also analyze their own discipline data to look for unfair patterns. One middle school principal showed the staff they were not enforcing rules against short skirts as much as they were against baggy pants, more typically worn by boys of color.

 Take a problem-solving approach. In contrast to a zero-tolerance approach, schools should look at the context around behavior problems and tailor their responses. Schools may discover, for instance, that a student breaking rules feels unsafe or has experienced trauma. Schools that trained staff in the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines to investigate underlying problems have been found to have a more positive climates and issue fewer suspensions. They have also reduced the black-white discipline gap.

 Reintegrate students after conflict. After long suspensions or stays in juvenile facilities, students can have trouble catching up and can feel stigmatized. Schools can offer support services, such as a transition center where community organizations provide an advocate for the student and can collaborate with teachers and probation officers.

There is a chapter on school discipline in my new book, “Creating Safe Schools: A Guide for School Leaders, Teachers, Counselors and Parents.”