Editor’s note: Once a month, this column will tackle broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity, especially for boys of color.
Schools should be held to higher standards than students. If schools irresponsibly impose discipline practices, then those rules (or leaders) should be expelled. However, when it comes to discipline, we give students the cane and schools a slap on the wrist.
“I’ll say up front: I am not here to offer any hard-and-fast rules or directives,” said Secretary of Education John King in prepared remarks for the National Charter Schools Conference. Careful not to offend the charter school community, which upholds autonomy as sacred, King added, “But I believe the goal for all schools should be to create a school culture that motivates students to want to do the best.”
Suspension and expulsion don’t work. Their elimination is the solution; all other “improvements” are effectively pain management. The racial disparities in school discipline reflect the cultural appetite to punish black children. The only way districts, schools, unions, charter leaders and Congress will find effective alternatives will be to take away those ineffective disciplinary practices.
King and the Obama administration must properly account for the deep belief society has in kicking students—particularly black students—out of school in order to increase graduation rates and reduce crime as part of the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative (pdf). A proper accounting means eliminating suspension and expulsion first. Mirroring the criminal-justice system, black youths are targets for punishment in school. Practices of expulsion and suspension are tightly stitched to zero-tolerance policing and to parents’ faith in corporal punishment. All are outmoded cultural practices that don’t work.
Our deep belief in punishing black students is the reason King must do more than make friendly suggestions to the charter sector and the rest of the nation’s public schools.
Blacks are more likely to be suspended for nebulous, nonviolent offenses like dress-code violations and tardiness. When students are punished for more objective, violent offenses, schools suspend black students 88 percent of the time, compared with 72 percent for white students, according to a 2009 study conducted in Missouri.
Even black toddlers aren’t safe. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black children (pdf) represented 18 percent of preschool enrollment in 2012, but 48 percent of preschoolers receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. As students move from elementary to middle school, the risk of suspension for blacks increases (pdf) by 18 points, compared with about 5 points for whites, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
When the Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 to states and districts to improve school climates, the Education Department and Department of Justice took aim at misuses of suspension and expulsion. “Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions,” said then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
In a joint statement by the Education and Justice departments, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder alluded to Department of Energy data (pdf) showing that while “black students represent 16 percent of student enrollment, they represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest. In comparison, white students represent 51 percent of enrollment, 41 percent of students referred to law enforcement, and 39 percent of those arrested.
“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct," Holder wrote.
Suspension and expulsion are patently bad for the individual as well as the community he or she is thrown out of. Out-of-school discipline takes away precious learning time, which reduces students’ chances of graduation. Expelling kids just moves students’ unresolved problems to another school (if they don’t end up dropping out).
In some cases, schools target students consciously: using out-of-school discipline as a nefarious means to filter students who need more academic, social and emotional supports, including children with special needs or those in foster care.
The argument that we need to kick out “bad” kids to protect the “well-behaved” is obviously still common.
But the negative consequences aren’t restricted to the kids removed from school. Research has shown that overwrought zero-tolerance policies also hurt academic achievement among students who aren’t suspended. Researchers theorize that harsh disciplinary practices disrupt the positive environments that are conducive for learning. In other words, you can’t scare and punish students toward achievement.
Isn’t discipline supposed to change behaviors to improve outcomes? Getting an education should be a right. Being black shouldn’t remove that right.
The bottom line is that schools must teach behavior with the same patience, discipline and creativity that educators employ in academic subjects. We don’t kick kids out for math mistakes. Effective teachers give struggling students additional lessons, homework and mentoring to improve competency. Removing students from the environment in which they’re expected to perform reduces the number of “at bats” to correct behaviors.
As a former charter school executive, I experienced how parents and principals alike would cut off real solutions at the pass. “Students need to learn consequences,” parents and teachers would say. Actually, students need to learn proper behavior.
There are alternatives to suspension and expulsion. Restorative-justice approaches “are processes and strategies to help people to cooperate, to take personal responsibility for their actions, and to resolve conflict.” Restorative practices have students repair the harm caused and build or strengthen relationships. Students are taught how to resolve problems so they are less likely to repeat them. Restorative practices are new, but research (pdf) suggests that the approach could reverse the ineffectiveness, bias and harm of harsh disciplinary systems.
Districts and states must give schools additional human power and training to educate students with behavior problems. Fighting, drug use, sexually inappropriate behaviors and back talk can certainly overwhelm teachers who are underprepared or ill-equipped. Expelling students doesn’t solve these capacity issues—it worsens them in the long run.
The only thing suspension teaches black children is how to give up on themselves. It’s been two years since the Obama administration issued its guidance on conventional disciplinary practices. The Education Department and Secretary King have seen an overall reduction in suspensions and expulsions in that time. But persistent racial gaps suggest that we actually need “hard-and-fast rules or directives.”
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.