New Trends in Reforming School Discipline


Author Deborah Fisher follows the newest trends and thinking on school discipline.  She looks at the Council of State Governments’ study, called Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement and discusses how it's findings are changing the way we think about the school-to-prison pipeline disparities. 

Topics Covered:

  • Role Models
  • Student-Teacher Relations
  • Staff Development
  • Engagement

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In the summer of 2011, teachers in schools across Texas were shocked to discover, along with the rest of the country, that 60% of middle and high school students in their classrooms were being suspended or expelled. An unprecedented Council of State Governments’ study, called Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, followed every incoming Texas seventh grader over three years through high school and sometimes beyond. Among the comprehensive findings covering nearly a million students was the suggestion that students subject to out-of-school suspension and expulsion were more likely to do poorly in school, drop out, or enter the juvenile justice system at higher rates than students who did not experience this exclusionary discipline.1  This study was instrumental in exposing what is now called the school-to-prison pipeline.

The study also found other disturbed trends. African-American and Latino students and those with particular disabilities were disciplined more often and more harshly than white students. And despite demographic similarities among many Texas schools, there was often wide variation in how schools made use of discipline. Although Texas law requires suspension or expulsion for only certain offenses, the study found that 97% of suspensions were discretionary and for offenses not defined by state law, indicating wide variation in how schools disciplined students and why.2

The study kicked off a wave of reaction. Reversing the trends cited in the report won’t happen overnight, but many new resources have emerged since the Texas study that schools and communities are now using to change their disciplinary practices.

Practical, promising strategies                  

In the wake of its Texas study, the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center convened a group of experts and opinion leaders to develop recommendations for policymakers and practitioners. The result was the release of The School Discipline Consensus Report: Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System. The comprehensive report provides a wealth of useful data, concise policy statements, and supporting recommendations in four areas – conditions for learning, targeted behavioral interventions, school-police partnerships, and courts and juvenile justice. Encouraging school districts to involve students, parents, and community members in working groups to examine their own experience, the report suggests starting with four baseline steps:3

1.    Determine how many students are removed from their classrooms for disciplinary reasons.

2.    Look at data beyond suspensions and expulsions to get to a wider array of school climate and other improvement strategies.

3.    Develop information-sharing agreements with other systems (health, juvenile justice, mental health, etc.) to better serve student needs.

4.    Define success and agree on how to measure it.

The report emphasizes practicality, providing numerous examples of communities already reforming school discipline practices and improving school climate.

Find the complete report at: https://csgjusticecenter.org/youth/school-discipline-consensus-report/

New, actionable research               

To better understand the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as the impact of discipline disparities by race, gender, and sexual orientation, one group formed the Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative, bringing together 26 nationally known researchers, educators, advocates, and policy analysts to meet with groups of stakeholders nationwide to develop new interventions and a policy agenda to improve equity in school discipline. In addition to briefing papers on policy, practice, and new research, the group’s most recent publication illuminates a topic found at the very heart of the discipline conversation --  You Can’t Fix What You Don’t Look At: Acknowledging Race in Addressing Racial Discipline Disparities.  The briefing paper offers suggestions for bringing race into conversations about disparities, including:4

1.    Opening conversations on racial inequality by examining actual discipline data in schools and districts.

2.    Creating safe, facilitated space for school personnel to talk about race.

3.    Broadening the scope of solutions to discipline disparities beyond just reducing numbers to building supportive relationships, supporting academic rigor, promoting culturally relevant and responsive instruction, and recognizing student and family voice.

To find all of the Collaborative’s reports, go to: http://rtpcollaborative.indiana.edu/

Federal leadership               

After collecting data on a slice of schools for many years, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2014 issued its first Data Snapshot on School Discipline based on information gathered from every school in the country. Not surprisingly, the nationwide data echoed the same kinds of disparities found in the Texas study. This Civil Rights Data Collection revealed, for example, that students of certain racial or ethnic groups and students with disabilities were disciplined at far higher rates than their peers, starting as early as preschool. The data highlighted racial, ethnic, gender, and disability bias leading to lost instructional time, high rates of school dropout, referrals to law enforcement and even school-related arrests.5

The data formed the foundation for the School Discipline Guidance Package, jointly released by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, to help schools not just reverse harmful trends in discipline practices, but build more positive school climates for all the nation’s students. The Guidance Package promotes three guiding principles, providing detailed applicable action steps, research, and resources for each to help schools:6

1.    Create positive climates and focus on prevention.

2.    Develop clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors.

3.    Ensure fairness, equity, and continuous improvement.

To find the complete School Discipline Guidance Package, go to: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html

Getting to root causes                    

To really do something about discipline disparities, schools and districts must first understand what their own data say. Working with the Departments of Education and Justice this past year, the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments released a free toolkit called Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide. The guide walks any school or district through a set of systematic steps for conducting a root cause analysis of its own data to get a clear picture of who is being disparately disciplined and what is happening to them. The analysis is meant to lead to an action plan for reducing and eventually eliminating discipline disparities.

The toolkit includes, along with many useful resources, a Microsoft Excel-based assessment tool that guides users through what data to collect, how to enter it and answer key questions that will result in auto-generated graphic displays of results.

To download the guide and resources, go to: http://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/addressing-root-causes-disparities-school-discipline.

What you can do

Any of these resources can be useful to schools, districts, and communities wishing to understand what’s happening to students through school discipline strategies and how to address disparities. These strategies are important to any effort:

  • Start the conversation – It will be uncomfortable, but beginning a conversation about race, gender, and sexual orientation in your school is a crucial first step in truly addressing underlying issues that lead to disparities in discipline. Opening the lines of communication will set the stage for a safe space for students, families, and staff to feel and be heard. A widely recognized resource for facilitating these conversations is Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.
  • Include students – A theme that cuts across all of the resources cited above is how crucial is it to include students (and their families) in the discipline conversation. Data will only tell part of the story while listening to students share their own stories of how discipline actually affects them will help develop action for change. And students need to remain part of the change implementation process. 
  • Take action – Understanding what’s really going on in your school or district is the first step to creating a meaningful action plan. Download, read through, and decide how to use Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide to conduct your own root cause analysis of discipline disparities in your own school or district.
  • Think outside the box - Many schools have already put a moratorium on some kinds of suspensions and expulsions – especially with younger children – until they can get a handle on what’s going on with discipline practices in their own schools. Follow the lead of schools in California and Seattle, WA that have moved to end out-of-school suspensions for non-violent and minor offenses.7 Review the Department of Education’s Guidance Package for meaningful alternatives like restorative justice practices (http://www.iirp.edu/), which is being more widely used across the country.

Resources & Notes:

1.     Fabelo, T., Thompson, M., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M., and Booth, E. (2011). Breaking School’s Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. Council of State Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute (Texas A&M University). Retrieved Oct. 27, 2015 at https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Breaking_Schools_Rules_Report_Final.pdf.

2.     Schwarz, A. (July 19, 2011). “School Discipline Study Raise Fresh Questions.” The New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2011 at www.nytimes.com/2011/07/09education/19discipline.html.

3.     Morgan, E., Salomon, N., Plotkin, M. and Cohen, R. (2014). Executive Summary, The School Discipline Consensus Report. The Council of State Governments Justice Center. Retrieved Oct. 27, 2015 at https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/SDCPExecutiveSummary.pdf.

4.     Carter, P., Skiba, R., Arrendondo, M., and Pollock, M. (2014). You Can’t Fix What You Don’t Look At: Acknowledging Race in Addressing Racial Discipline Disparities. The Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative. Retrieved Oct. 27, 2015 at http://www.indiana.edu/~atlantic/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Acknowledging-Race_121514.pdf.

5.     U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (March 2014). Issue Brief No. 1 Civil Rights Data Collection. Data Snapshot: School Discipline. Retrieved Oct. 27, 2015 at http://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/CRDC-School-Discipline-Snapshot.pdf.

6.     U.S. Department of Education (2014). Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. Retrieved Jan. 2014 at http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html.

7.     Taylor, M. (Sept. 23, 2015). “Seattle School Board bans elementary school suspensions.” Aljazeera America. Retrieved Nov. 12th, 2015 at http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/9/23/seattle-school-board-to-vote-on-suspension-ban.html.

Writer: Deborah Fisher is a former award-winning legal affairs reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and National Public Radio contributor. Specializing in positive youth development, her work includes prevention guides, manuals, and curricula written for the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Education's National Center on Safe, Supportive Learning Environments, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health. She is a co-author of Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide.

This brief is one in a series describing new knowledge and innovative research emerging from the field of youth development. The briefs are intended to inform parents, professionals, and volunteers in education, youth development, and related fields; and to contribute to a heightened national awareness of


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