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School Discipline Policies Can Backfire

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If tough school discipline measures are meant to maintain stability in the classroom, then a new definition of stable might be in order: A new study argues high use of suspensions and expulsions brings down all students – even the ones who behave well.

A researcher with the Albert Shanker Institute flagged the study, which was published this month in the American Sociological Review. Here’s more on the paper from the Shanker Institute scholar Esther Quintero:

“The researchers point to two underlying mechanisms that may explain these results. First, at the individual level, a high suspension environment can create a heightened sense of anxiety. Second, at the school level, suspensions disrupt student communities, creating unstable, socially fragmented environments, which undermine the social bonds that undergird positive outcomes.

To be clear, safe and orderly school environment is a necessary precondition for academic achievement, and this study demonstrates that suspension, used in moderation, does not have an adverse impact on non-suspended students. However, the authors conclude, ‘effective school discipline is not achieved simply thorough punishment and exclusion.’”

School discipline issues have been a major education topic this year, in part because many school districts, and a few states, are moving away from practices that lead to the suspension of students for minor infractions – penalties that appear to be applied with disproportionate frequency to students who are black or Hispanic. In August, I wrote a story that surveyed some of the proposed reforms that are underway and also glanced at the research on the effects suspensions and expulsions have on students:

“In the penal system and in the nation’s schools, an outsize share of minority males and females are punished.

One in 15 black males is imprisoned, while the same is true for one in every 105 white males, the ACLU in 2011 reported. Among Hispanic males, one in every 36 is incarcerated.

Compare those rates to school discipline statistics. A consortium of 26 researchers spent four years crunching data on suspensions and expulsions, finding that one in five black male students was suspended in 2010 – more than three times the national average. Latinos and students with disabilities were also overrepresented in the discipline data.”

Other large-scale studies find a strong link between school suspensions and prison sentencing. Students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school, and that in turn increases the odds of serving time in jail. In Texas, more than 80 percent of the prison population comprised inmates who dropped out of school, according to a 2007 analysis.

Not all teachers support going easy on students who misbehave. The California Federation of Teachers opposed, then moved to neutral, on a state bill that banned suspensions and expulsions for ‘willful defiance’ in select grades after the proposed law was revised. Willful defiance is a catch-all term that describes instances of when students don’t adhere to school official commands. The union’s spokesperson told The Sacramento Bee that while it recognizes certain districts suspend some students more than others, “if one student consistently prevents students from learning, there has to be a remedy available.”

Shanker Institute’s Quintero described one intervention designed as an alternative to suspensions, called the Good Behavior Game, which has shown some success in addressing student aggression and noncompliance.

EWA’s Emily Richmond and I interviewed San Antonio Express-News reporter Francisco Vara-Orta on another intervention  – “restorative justice” – that calls for misbehaving students to talk out their frustrations with other peers and a few teachers in lieu of missing school as a punishment. He provides numerous recommendations for reporters on gaining school trust to report his story, which took months, and how to interact with students on sensitive subjects.

Restorative justice was the focus of this two-part NPR story that ran yesterday.