Implications for School Discipline
In creating positive school climates for all students, educators may face the challenging task of reconciling various priorities. On one hand, schools must create safe environments that are free of bullying, harassment, violence, threats, and disruptive behaviors that interrupt learning. When students engage in threatening and disruptive behaviors, schools must hold students accountable for their actions and prevent future incidents. At the same time, educators must create supportive environments that foster learning for all students, provide youth with room to make mistakes and learn from them, and keep students on campus and engaged in classroom instruction.
However, too many schools are struggling to create positive school climates, and, in the process, are over-relying on suspensions, expulsions, and court referrals, with devastating consequences for students of color and students with disabilities. Research shows that a significant number of students are removed from class each year — even for minor infractions of school rules — due to exclusionary discipline practices, which disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities:
- Nationwide, data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) show that youths of color and youths with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions and expulsions. For example, data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although students who receive special education services represent 12 percent of students in the country, they make up 19 percent of students suspended in school, 20 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspension once, 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 19 percent of students expelled, 23 percent of students referred to law enforcement, and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.1
- In Texas, a groundbreaking longitudinal study of nearly 1 million students found that nearly six in 10 public school students studied were suspended or expelled at least once over a six-year period during their 7th to 12th-grade years; 15 percent of those students were disciplined 11 or more separate times.2
- One study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.3
The widespread overuse of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs. Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions, and adult mentorship offered in class and in school. Suspending students also often fails to help them develop the skills and strategies they need to improve their behavior and avoid future problems. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.
To help educators to create safe and supportive school climates for all students, while avoiding excessive or disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline, the U.S. Department of Education recommends that schools take the following actions:
Take deliberate steps to create the positive school climates that can help prevent and change inappropriate behaviors. Such steps include training staff, engaging families and community partners, and deploying resources to help students develop the social, emotional, and conflict resolution skills needed to avoid and de-escalate problems. Targeting student supports also helps students address the underlying causes of misbehavior, such as trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues.
Ensure that clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences are in place to prevent and address misbehavior. By holding students accountable for their actions in developmentally appropriate ways, students learn responsibility, respect, and the bounds of acceptable behavior in our schools and society. This also means relying on suspension and expulsion only as a last resort and for appropriately serious infractions, and equipping staff with alternative strategies to address problem behaviors while keeping all students engaged in instruction to the greatest extent possible.
Ensure fairness and equity through continuous improvement. Schools must understand their civil rights obligations and strive to ensure fairness and equity for all students by continuously evaluating the impact of their discipline policies and practices on all students using data and analysis.
School Discipline Guidance Package
The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released in January 2014 a School Discipline Guidance Package to assist states, districts, and schools to craft local solutions to enhance school safety and improve school discipline. The package includes the documents below:
Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline (PDF, 32 pages)
The Dear Colleague Letter, prepared by both the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, describes how schools can meet their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (PDF, 37 pages)
This resource guide, from the U.S. Department of Education, draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that can help guide state- and locally controlled efforts to improve school climate and school discipline.
Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources (PDF, 77 pages)
This Directory is an extensive index of federal technical assistance and other resources on school discipline and climate available to schools and districts.
Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations
This online database catalogues the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and compares laws across states and jurisdictions.
Overview of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (PDF, 5 pages)
This appendix to the guidance package outlines achievements of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, the partnership between the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice launched in 2011 to address overuse and disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline.
Supportive School Discipline Webinar Series
To increase awareness and understanding of the issue and provide practical examples of school discipline practices that maintain school and classroom safety while ensuring academic engagement and success for all students, we are pleased to announce the Supportive School Discipline (SSD) Webinar Series. Webinars in the series are open to anyone and will explore numerous topics, including current school discipline philosophies, policies, and practices, and emerging alternatives; addressing truancy and absenteeism; infusing restorative justice principles; the role of school resource officers (SROs) in supportive school discipline; the promise of trauma-informed practices; the importance of youth, family, and community engagement; and the need for professional development across all stakeholders.
Supportive School Discipline Communities of Practice
The Supportive School Discipline Communities of Practice (SSDCoP) brings together a network of education and justice leaders with diverse skills and experiences within and across states to (1) share experiences, (2) get information and tools, (3) learn with and from each other, and (4) contribute to their jurisdiction’s effort to eliminate the “school-to-prison pipeline” and promote graduation.
Supportive School Discipline E-Digest
This monthly newsletter addresses school discipline issues that touch not only schools, but communities, courts and law enforcement. Regular contents include news from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice and other partner agencies, salient research summaries, examples of effective field practices, announcements submitted by subscribers, and relevant upcoming events. The SSD e-Digest also highlights SSDCoP resources and the availability of ongoing services, including technical assistance, products, and tools.
1 Statistics are drawn from unpublished (as of January 8, 2014) data collected by the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2011-12 school year. Additional information and publicly available data from the CRDC can be found at http://ocrdata.ed.gov.
2 Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P. III, and Booth E. A. (2011).
3 Boccanfuso, C. and Kuhfeld M. (2011).