In Class, Not Cuffs: A Discussion about Rethinking School Discipline

By: Kit Faiella, Policy Fellow

The Center for American Progress hosted an intriguing panel on January 17th discussing the role of over-punishment in our schools and how it can lead to negative outcomes over time. This is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and is a disturbing, ongoing trend affecting many Districts, LEAs, and schools across the country. Unfortunately these well-researched occurrences disproportionately impact minority, low-income, and disabled students. Some research cited from the presentation:

  • Black students are suspended and expelled three times the rate of white students
  • Disabled students are suspended and expelled two times the rate of non-disabled students
  • Higher funding for mental health professionals in districts and schools can lead to better student outcomes
  • Suspension is correlated with almost all negative achievement outcomes (prison, low grades, low socio-economic status later in life)
  • Moving to a new location, a trauma a child has experienced, or a major life event impacts the chances of a child being suspended

Opening Remarks: Senator Chris Murphy, (D-CT)

In Senator Murphy’s opening remarks, he discussed how the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 refocused accountability standards to ensure schools were not pushing students out; an unfortunate byproduct of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era was to remove children from schools in order to hit achievement targets. However, overdiscipline was not just a phenomenon of the NCLB era; data gathered from Senator Murphy’s home state of Connecticut showed a large number of suspensions and expulsions resulting from simple infractions such as cutting class or use of swear words by students over the years. He postulated that this was not a phenomenon confined to his state alone.

Overdiscipline is a problem that requires attention. Too much discipline can snowball a student towards bad outcomes: a suspension from acting out in class can lead to feelings of being an outcast, which could reinforce the behavior, which then leads to further suspensions, and finally expulsion. As students settle into a learned helplessness, the school-to-pipeline prison is strengthened further, as students begin filtering into the juvenile and court systems. Positive school climates can counteract these issues; research shows a positive school climate (compared to a punitive one) can drive better outcomes for students and can ultimately reduce the overdiscipline and suspension/expulsion issue at the core of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Panel and Discussion

After Senator Murphy’s remarks, a panel of practitioners, policymakers, and a researcher discussed how they have seen ways to combat overdiscipline in their respective areas. The panel consisted of:

  • Moderator: Evan Stone, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Educators for Excellence
  • Bren Elliot, Chief of Equity at DC Public Schools (DCPS)
  • Abigail Gray, Senior Researcher, Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania
  • Brittany Packnett, Vice President for National Community Alliances, Teach for America
  • Scott Pearson, Executive Director, DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB)

Leading the panel, Ms. Packnett kicked off the discussion with a provocative quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates: “does school promote my curiosity or my compliance?” In Ms. Gray’s response, she cited that compliance has been the overarching theme in schools dating back to 1994 and the ascension of zero tolerance policies. Research conducted since the advent of these policies has consistently shown suspension is not a good disciplinary mechanism, and is correlated with almost all bad achievement outcomes for students.

How have practitioners been combating these issues of overdiscipline? Ms. Elliot cited her work in Guilford, North Carolina: when deciding whether to issue a suspension, she recommended schools gather their leadership teams and compare past student infractions to the current infraction at hand. This allowed for consistency, equitable discipline, and ensured consequences for students of all races were comparable, and that disproportionate punishments were not being handed out. Mr. Pearson cited a different strategy, a data-driven approach. He noted that data shows charter schools suspend and expel students at a higher rate than their traditional public school counterparts. To tackle this issue, he improved data collection within the DC Public Charter School system to gain further insight into suspension decisions. The data was then fed into cloud-based dashboards utilized by heads of charter schools. In this case, the data began to speak for itself. With no further directive from the PCSB, suspensions and expulsions in the system declined.


It’s positive to know that many practitioners and policymakers are focusing on this issue, and they are devising thoughtful and clever solutions to tackle the problem of students exiting academics and filtering into the justice system. As success stories spread, it’s important to note that positive reinforcement comes from all angles: the way policies are designed, the support teachers have in the classroom, the environment the students are in. It’s also important to note that the justice system does not spell an end for a student; research cited in the presentation shows when juvenile detention centers are designed to look less like prisons, students have better outcomes in their return to academics. Positive environments and positive support are what students need, and it takes a collective effort from all involved with education to ensure that every student has the ability and backing to succeed.

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