School Discipline Reform: A Model For Bottom-Up Improvement

Jeff Bryant

In the education policy arena, the whole idea of “reform” has tended to be a pursuit from the top down – imposing standards and “accountability” from Washington, D.C. and state capitals and ramping up competitive providers with big money from private foundations and Wall Street.

The mandate-driven method has resulted in very little, if any, progress, and indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that a great deal of harm has been done to school children and their families and the institution of American public education.

No wonder this approach is increasingly alienating broad segments of the American populace, especially communities of urban black and brown citizens who “reform” is purported to serve.

However, much more quietly and inexorably, another form of reform has been bubbling from the ground up – emanating from the intended beneficiaries of the reform, and with much more direct positive results to show for it.

Strategies For School Discipline Reform

The latest fruit from this ground-up effort emerged this week with a report from The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center. The “School Discipline Consensus Report” is a massive catalog of promising strategies for reforming school discipline policies.

According to a write-up for US News & World Report by Allie Bidwell, the new report “puts forth more than 60 recommendations drawn from more than 700 interviews spanning three years. Those recommendations encourage school leaders to reduce the use of ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies in favor of data-driven responses, such as early warning systems to help with students at risk of failing or dropping out of school, and more training for educators to help de-escalate conflicts.”

Bidwell noted, “Students who are suspended and expelled are less likely to graduate from high school, the report says … While some suspensions and expulsions are responses to serious misconduct, the majority are for minor offenses, such as disruption of class, disorderly conduct or not knowing students had cold medication in their backpacks, the report says.”

Susan Ferriss at The Center for Public Integrity noted the report “encourages schools and lawmakers to embrace ideas such as conflict resolution and counseling – rather than suspensions, expulsions and forcing kids into juvenile court for infractions as minor as cursing or shoving matches.”

She reminded readers of a longitudinal study from Texas that found 60 percent of all students had been suspended at least once, “with punishment falling particularly harshly on black and Latino male students. The vast majority of suspensions and expulsions – 97 percent – were due to discretionary or local ‘zero tolerance’ policies.”

Praising the report is worthy for sure, but it may be even more important to recognize how the new direction in policy came about.

Not The Usual Suspects

As Ferriss noted in her review, many of the report’s recommendations derive from the work of “a national network called Dignity in Schools – which has helped shape discipline reform in many schools.”

The Dignity in Schools website lists its current membership as mostly nonprofit and community-based, grassroots groups with missions devoted to civil rights and human rights, including the Southern Policy Law Center, state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, youth justice activists and public education advocates.

The groups have come together around their interest in “alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment and removal in our schools.” They list “numerous and systemic factors” they seek to challenge, which include “over-reliance on zero-tolerance practices and punitive measures such as suspensions and expulsions.”

The groups that form Dignity in Schools are hardly alone in this mission.

Over four years ago, a joint effort by the NAACP, The Advancement Project, the Education Law Center, and civil rights and education groups resulted in a groundbreaking position paper “Federal Policy, ESEA Reauthorization, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which documented how zero-tolerance measures and “get-tough” policies for both discipline and academic problems feed a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The collective efforts of these groups fed off of and helped fuel youth activism against school discipline policies across the country, including protests in New York, Michigan, Florida, Illinois, and Minnesota. And about a year ago, youth activists from across the nation descended on Washington, D.C. in a rally to call on Congress and the Obama administration to take action to end zero tolerance and other policies that push them out of school.

Notice that nowhere in any of these efforts do you see the usual suspects in what is normally referred to as the “education reform movement” – no well endowed Beltway think tanks, no charter school advocates funded with hedge fund money, no Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who believe they have found “what works” for education.

Real Change, For A Change

What’s more, these efforts have been very effective in creating positive change for the least served students in our schools.

As the Advancement Project reported from its own website, “State by state, county by county, school districts are ending the use of overly harsh discipline practices,” naming Philadelphia, Colorado, Florida, and Chicago as examples of positive change.

Elsewhere, in New York, state officials ended suspensions for one-time, low-level infractions. School leaders in Los Angeles ended suspensions for capricious and subjective “willful defiance” reasons. And in Maryland, education policy leaders established a more “rehabilitative philosophy” and ensured the harshest penalties would remain only for the most severe offenses.

Then earlier this year, the Obama administration took an important step by issuing new guidelines that make it a violation of the Civil Rights Act for schools to “draft policies that unfairly target specific student groups in word or in application.”

These policy changes are proving to be effective. School discipline reform in Colorado has resulted in “huge drops” in suspensions and expulsions in that state.

In an op-ed for the San Antonio Express-News, John Whitmire and Michael Williams recalled that shocking 60 percent statistic that Ferriss referred to, and they wrote, “Since then, significant policies have been enacted that set our schools on a path toward creating climates more conducive to learning and teaching, including passage of legislation that prohibits practices such as ticketing students for minor offenses. … Such measures have helped reduce in-school suspensions by 10 percent, out-of-school suspensions by 5 percent, and expulsions by 28 percent since 2011.”

The two authors praised the new Justice Center report and concluded, “Too many students still are left behind. Continuing to improve our approach to disciplining students is one of the most effective ways to close achievement gaps and ensure all students have a chance to learn, graduate and lead productive lives.”

Making Reform Real

Authors of the Justice Center report cite that much of its findings stem from “trailblazing student and parent groups, advocacy organizations, researchers, professional associations, and school districts” that have “raised the visibility of exclusionary discipline practices across the nation. In response, individual schools, districts, and state education systems have implemented research-based approaches.”

“Student and parent groups … school districts … research-based approaches”? Since when have these been the sources of policy ideas from the Department of Education and state governors’ offices? Maybe more reports such as this, with continued agitation from the ground up from those who are most affected by the policy decisions, will start to change that.

Comments