The pendulum in school discipline has swung far to the side of zero tolerance – you know, the sorts of blunt, inflexible policies intended to keep kids safe that can result in the threat of, or actual, suspensions for kids like one nine-year-old who had a Lego policeman holding a miniature toy gun in his backpack. In New York City, suspensions of kids ages 4 – 10 years old have increased over 75% since 2003. These policies can be more than just inflexible: they can result in unjust disparities that one New York Times editorial says run the risk of violating children’s civil rights.
Some of the data:
Students with disabilities make up 12% of pupils, but are 25% of the students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions.
Students of color are disproportionally affected: 15% of students are African-American, but they make up 35% of students suspended once and 36% of those expelled.
The New York Times continues that, “Investigations in this area have found two kinds of discrimination: cases in which African-American students are treated more harshly and disciplined more frequently than white students who engage in similar misbehavior; and cases where policies – like mandatory suspension…. – are administered in a race-neutral manner but have a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”
The federal government now recommends ending zero tolerance policies that can have such negative (and often avoidable) impacts on kids, especially minority students, and encourages schools to take other steps before getting the police involved or suspending children.
Luckily, there are programs that have a positive impact on student behaviors and keep kids in school, learning, instead of sending them home or, worse, needlessly into the criminal justice system. These efforts are not loose, ineffective things that create a chaotic school environment; rather, they are evidence-based programs that help make school a positive, safe place to be for students and faculty while also giving teachers the flexibility and tools to manage the classroom and deal with behaviors without too many suspensions or unnecessary police involvement. Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports (PBIS), for example, is a program that emphasizes recognizing good behavior and, according to one principal, makes it “cool to be good.” What’s more, it reduces discipline rates and the time teachers and principals spend on discipline.
Here’s what you can do to help:
Support positive behavior programs and those that strengthen a school’s climate, and the staff at your school in implementing these approaches. These can be programs that strengthen classroom management or provide help for hard-working teachers to do that sometimes challenging job.
Advocate for an end to zero-tolerance policies and more sensible, flexible policies. You can learn more about such work at Dignity In Schools, an organization dedicated to ending the policies and practices that push kids out of school. Or, look at these resources offered by the California State PTA.