Feature                                                 Pages 45-47


Rethinking Our Approach to

School Discipline    

Alternatives to suspension and expulsion and the zero-tolerance practices of the past


In the wake of recent school tragedies, nobody understands better than school leaders the challenges in creating a welcoming and supportive learning environment while maintaining order and safety.

While more school districts look to move away from zero-tolerance policies of the past, educators continue to feel the pressure to remove disruptive students from the classroom. Yet disciplinary strategies that remove students from school have been shown to increase the likelihood of a host of negative outcomes, including dropping out of school and juvenile delinquency. Research also shows children of color and those with disabilities, particularly emotional and behavioral disorders, are disproportionately affected by exclusionary disciplinary actions and are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

As such, an increasing number of districts and schools are implementing alternatives to suspension and expulsion; improving resources for administrators, teachers and other school staff; and providing the supports and services to get students back on track.

Michael Thompson
Michael Thompson directs the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which is trying to improve behavioral support systems for students.

Recent Research
A 2013 report by the University of California, Los Angeles, Civil Rights Project found approximately 2 million, or one in nine, middle and high school students were suspended at least once in the 2009-10 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

The high rates of exclusionary actions are consistent with the 2011 Council of State Governments Justice Center’s “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, which followed nearly every 7th-grade public school student in Texas over a six-year period. The study found the majority of students — nearly 60 percent — had been suspended or expelled during that time. The overwhelming majority of suspensions resulted from actions that occur at the discretion of school leaders the latitude to deal with misbehavior (discretionary suspensions), not due to mandatory removals.

Furthermore, the study found that African-American students and students with special needs were disproportionately disciplined for discretionary violations, such as disrespect, tardiness and disruptions. Nearly three of four students who qualified for special education services during the study period were suspended or expelled at least once, with students whose record reflected they had been coded as emotionally disturbed having nearly a 24 percent higher probability of being suspended or expelled for a discretionary reason.

In addition to confirming the negative academic and juvenile justice-related outcomes associated with exclusionary disciplinary actions, the study also examined schools that had similar characteristics and student populations and found these schools varied significantly in how often they suspended or expelled students. (“Breaking Schools’ Rules” is available at http://csgjusticecenter.org/youth/breaking-schools-rules-report.)

The growing body of school discipline research makes a compelling case for school districts and individual schools having the ability to reduce their dependence on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions to manage student misbehavior. Many schools are implementing innovative strategies to create alternative options with promising results; yet significant barriers prevent these efforts from reaching scale. This is due, in part, because they require internal and external resources and collaboration from multiple systems, notably health and other social service providers, law enforcement, courts and probation departments.

Practitioner Needs
Educators long have recognized what research increasingly confirms: Students succeed in an environment where they feel safe, supported and connected to each other and the adults in the building. Likewise, when students are actively engaged in learning, they have improved academic, social and health outcomes and fewer behavioral problems. The safest schools are marked with high levels of student engagement and strong relationships among students, parents and educators.

Many educators agree suspensions and expulsions should be a last resort, reserved for the most serious offenses. The emphasis should be on preventing student misbehavior by pro-actively establishing structures and policies to improve school climate, encouraging positive student behavior and implementing targeted and intensive behavioral health strategies. School districts struggle, however, with finding the resources to address the range of students’ behavioral health needs. They are also often unaware of best practices and promising strategies for nonexclusionary interventions that can be tailored to the needs of their students and their district capacity.

In response, the Council of State Governments Justice Center is leading a consensus-building project that is convening experts in education, behavioral health, school safety, juvenile justice, social services, law enforcement and child welfare. Youth, parents, advocates and community partners also play a critical and active role in the project. The initiative will develop a comprehensive report with policy and practice recommendations and implementation guidance to minimize dependence on suspensions and expulsions to manage student behavior; improve students’ academic outcomes; reduce their involvement in the juvenile justice system (including alternative strategies to school-based arrests and direct court referrals when appropriate); and promote safe and productive learning environments. (More about the School Discipline Consensus Project is available at http://csgjusticecenter.org/youth/projects/school-discipline-consensus-project.)

Growing Spotlight
The good news is that school discipline issues never have been in a brighter spotlight nor have they had such extensive grassroots momentum. Even as the consensus project progresses, policymakers and practitioners are prioritizing school discipline as a key education, health and social justice issue. President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal includes several new investments related to school mental health, school climate improvement efforts and school security, which flow from the president’s post-Newtown, Conn.,“Now is the Time” report.

Further, as a result of the commitment and hard work of local communities, advocacy groups, educators and other agents of change, several states, districts and individual schools have undertaken significant improvements to school discipline systems with the goal of keeping students in the classroom, improving school climate and safety, and supporting behavioral health needs of all students.

Several states have convened legislative and stakeholder task forces to develop recommendations, and some have passed legislation or regulations revising school discipline policies or are providing additional support to educators to develop alternative strategies to suspensions and expulsions. Among the noteworthy:

  • The Colorado General Assembly passed legislation in 2012 amending grounds for suspensions and expulsions, requiring training for school resource officers and requiring school boards and districts to revise codes of conduct and disciplinary codes to keep kids in school.


  • The California Legislature passed five bills last year reforming school disciplinary policies. The legislation provides additional decision-making flexibility to school administrators authorizes the use of alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, and prohibits schools from denying enrollment to students who have had contact with the juvenile justice system.


  • Several other states, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington, have introduced or are considering legislation related to limiting the use of suspensions and expulsions, supporting students’ behavioral health needs, requiring the collection of discipline data and improving school safety measures. Some jurisdictions are addressing civil rights actions related to school discipline.

Local Developments
At the local level, promising approaches and practices are emerging. Among them:

  • Providing training and professional development to educators, specialized instructional support personnel and school resource officers related to alternatives to suspension and arrest, creating positive learning environments and providing supports to students with particular behavioral health needs;
  • Implementing alternative strategies to suspensions and expulsions, such as restorative justice, peer mediation and youth courts;
  • Establishing student support teams to identify students with acute behavioral health needs, provide necessary supports and monitor students’ progress;
  • Developing school-based health centers that provide mental and behavioral health and substance abuse services; and
  • Reforming truancy and ticketing policies and school policing protocols.

Additionally, over recent months, school districts including Buffalo, Denver, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles have revised their disciplinary policies and codes of conduct to provide administrators more flexibility in handling disciplinary matters, limiting the maximum length of time for suspensions and preventing some infractions from being punished by out-of-school suspensions.

School system leaders remain at the center of these activities and have an unparalleled opportunity to advance the national discussion about school discipline, school safety, climate and behavioral health, as well as move the field forward with the support of multiple stakeholders and the engagement of youth, families and communities.

Michael Thompson is director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York, N.Y. E-mail: mthompson@csg.org


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