Rethinking School Discipline

The days of corporal punishment in U.S. schools are over, but new discipline trends have school districts rethinking their policies, especially regarding exclusionary discipline. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled from school during the course of a school year has risen by forty percent over the last 40 years. This causes many to wonder: have kids simply become more badly behaved? At first, such an explanation may seem plausible. But a closer look at the data reveals that is not the case.

Differences in school discipline policies

A Civil Rights Data collection study is truly eye-opening: Recently, South Carolina school districts suspended 12.7% of students, while North Dakota school districts suspended only 2.2% of students. It’s difficult to conjure that students in North Dakota are simply better behaved. Rather, these differences can be accounted for in school policies and teacher training. 

Not only are certain school districts more likely to use exclusionary discipline on their students relative to the rest of the country, but teachers themselves are more likely to suspend and expel African American students and students with disabilities. In fact, African American students were almost four times as likely to be expelled than their white peers during the 2017-2018 school year. 

Across the country, more than 300 school districts suspend at least 25 percent of their students with disabilities, while over 600 school districts in the country suspend less than 3 percent of their students with disabilities.

Chronic absenteeism

Not even considering the ethical and moral implications of such racial and ability disparities in the exclusionary discipline data, the consequences of so much of the student population missing so many days of school are dire for the future of our nation’s youth. 

In a Rhode Island study, only 11 percent of chronically absent high school students completed their first year of college later in life. To make matters worse, students that are most often suspended or expelled are the same at-risk students that many school districts fail to support properly. 

When students are chronically absent, which oftentimes is a result of exclusionary discipline, they not only miss class instructional time but also opportunities to receive extra help for behavioral and academic issues that may otherwise persist through the rest of their lives.

Exclusionary discipline must be used as a last resort

Many school districts cite safety as a reason to rely on their use of exclusionary punishment. But, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 95% of suspensions nationwide are for nonviolent misbehaviors such as being disrespectful or not following the dress code. 

School suspensions are too often used as a crutch for inexperienced educators, when in fact they should be used as a last resort. Some school districts are attempting to exchange these bad habits for more restorative practices. During the 2015-2016 school year, 23 of the 100 largest U.S. school districts had implemented policies to limit the number and length of suspensions. 

One example is Hampstead Hill Academy in Baltimore. This school has begun the practice of restorative justice in which teachers, students, and administrators are required to talk through disciplinary issues with each other at least three times per week in individual classrooms, and as a whole school. This particular practice may not work for every school, but it will take every school district working towards a more holistic discipline system to shift America’s school discipline culture from one of exclusion to one of restoration.

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