Disciplinary policies in K-12 schools are meant to help teachers maintain order and deter students from misbehavior. But the tendency for disciplinary policies to become exclusionary policies can restrict children from their right to education and cause significant long-term damage.
Exclusionary policies include arrests, suspensions, expulsions, and any other punishments that restrict a student’s access to their educational environment.
Suspensions and expulsions
The number of suspensions and expulsions has more than doubled since 1974 and has been increasing at an alarming rate in the past decade.
Over 3.3 million students were suspended at least once in 2006, and over 100,000 were expelled. Between 2002 and 2006, suspensions increased by 250,000 and expulsions by 15 percent.
Most suspensions are for minor and vaguely cited incidents like “disruptive behavior,” “insubordination” or school fights. In the 2007-08 school year, almost half of all serious disciplinary actions were due to “insubordination.”
The real cost of exclusionary discipline
While it is obvious that expulsions completely cut off a child from education, suspensions also have a much more significant impact on a child’s education than many realize.
A report this year by University of California’s Civil Rights Project found that suspensions make a student much more likely to drop out of school, which not only cuts them off from education but also severely impacts their later lives. As adults, they are less likely to have health insurance, more likely to be on public assistance and face lower average incomes.
Ultimately, students who drop out of school are much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than those who stay. So, between the added costs of governmental programs and criminal justice system, the report asserted that suspensions “conservatively” cost the country 35 billion a year.
Disproportionately impacting minorities
Black students are four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers countrywide.
And a report last year by University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education revealed that Black students in the Southern states are treated even less equally, making up half of all of the suspensions and expulsions.
Our review of racial disparities in educational discipline discusses the issue and the many studies that have concluded that minority students are punished more severely than their white peers who emit the same behavior.
As exclusionary discipline becomes a more widely recognized issue, research centers and governmental bodies are releasing strategies to all schools for how to reduce exclusionary and ineffective discipline. Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy released a report outlining 11 alternative strategies for discipline; including reducing the reliance on school resource officers, establishing restorative justice programs, requiring community service and intervening in the case of substance abuse.
Many school districts – including Los Angeles, Baltimore, Buffalo and Denver – have already put policies in place in recent years that mandate alternatives to suspension and expulsion when possible. A common strategy has been to adopt a practice called “restorative justice,” which brings together all involved parties in an incident to discuss what happened and how the student can resolve the situation.
When Richmond High School in San Francisco adopted restorative justice, their number of suspensions dropped 47 percent over the next three years. Down in Los Angeles, Garfield High School used other strategies, like bringing parents into the school, as well as instituting drug counseling and conflict-resolution training for their faculty. Suspensions dropped from 510 in 2008 to just two in the past two years.
In Baltimore, schools added safety measures while modifying codes of conduct to increase consequences based on the age of the student. Some schools took on unique tactics like buying a washer and dryer for students to clean their uniform. After these changes, suspensions in Baltimore schools were cut by almost half.
Disciplinary policies cannot continue relying on ostracizing students in order to maintain classroom discipline. Not only does this policy restrict the right students’ right to education, but it has serious long-term consequences for student, communities and the overall health of the country.
More school districts should take steps to ban suspension and expulsion in minor incidents in order to save them for truly necessary situations. Students need to be kept in school in order to be kept out of the criminal justice system later in life, and exclusionary discipline needs to be limited in order to do this.
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