School Discipline Reform: Hard Lessons from the Front Lines

By: Maria Salciccioli, Senior Policy Analyst

Student discipline has been a hot topic in DC lately; Education Chair of the DC Council, David Grosso, proposed legislation that would ban non-violent infractions as a reason for suspension, which would lead to a decrease in school suspensions. He also held a hearing, inviting the public to testify on discipline policy, and roughly 90 witnesses signed up to testify[1].

In addition to Councilmember Grosso’s proposed legislation, there have been a few public events in DC about student discipline. SBOE Policy Fellow Kit Faiella wrote a blog post about one event at the Center for American Progress (CAP), “In Class Not Cuffs: Rethinking School Discipline.” Ombudsman Joyanna Smith was at the CAP event with Kit and noted that while the conversation was held in DC, none of the speakers or panelists addressed DC’s pending legislation or the multiple hearings Councilman Grosso has held on student discipline. I attended another event at the Fordham Institute entitled “School Discipline Reform: Hard Lessons from the Front Lines.” I was curious to see how this event might compare – would it make more connections to the DC context?

Fordham’s event opened with a poll; they asked what percent of the crowd was in favor of banning suspensions for low-level infractions. Roughly ¾ of those in attendance voted affirmatively. The event then moved into a panel discussion; Fordham’s Amber Northern interviewed two researchers who had conducted studies on discipline reform in Philadelphia. Their research was based on an intervention enacted in the 2012-13 school year, where the city banned suspensions for all low-level offenses and reduced the length of suspensions for more serious infractions. Their findings showed that truancy increased and math scores decreased, serious infractions increased, and while principals liked the policy change, teachers did not. These findings began to make more sense when the researchers noted that Philadelphia did not increase school-level supports in tandem with this reform, but instead simply removed a tool from teachers’ toolkits: Schools were not required to adhere to the policy, so fewer than ¼ of Philadelphia schools did so, making it more difficult to evaluate its impact. The researchers’ reports evaluated the same study, but while one researcher, Matthew Steinberg, interpreted the data to mean that banning suspensions is not productive, the other researcher, Abigail Gray, refused to say the same thing, even when repeatedly pressed to do so by Fordham’s moderator. Instead, she said that these policies can only be enacted if schools are given significant supports.

The second panel was energetic; and, as viewers noted on Twitter, it was a refreshing change of pace that this panel on urban education did not lack racial diversity. Cami Anderson, former superintendent of Newark public schools, talked about the way that current discipline policies negatively impact students of color, referencing research that shows that adults view black girls as less innocent than their white counterparts as early as kindergarten. She noted that allowing schools to suspend students for being disruptive means that children of color are disproportionally affected. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute said that teachers are told they have to deal with bad behavior and are branded racist if they don’t want to, adding that children in urban schools deserve the disruption-free classrooms their affluent counterparts enjoy. Laura Jimenez of CAP noted that Petrilli’s framing implied that children of color are less well behaved than white students. The biggest debate of the panel, though, was over Obama-era guidance which asked schools to decrease suspensions. Petrilli argued that it required schools to reduce suspensions without providing any supports, but Jimenez and Kristen Harper of Child Trends argued that it did not require any changes without supports, but instead called attention to a discipline crisis where students of color were punished more regularly and harshly than their white peers. The three proceeded to engage in a heated debate, concluding with Harper urging the audience to review the 2014 Dear Colleague letter themselves (my review suggests that Jimenez and Harper’s interpretation was the correct one).

The conversations were interesting, but they didn’t delve into DC’s context, instead staying at the national level, and I found Fordham’s stance – that it is too difficult to provide adequate supports to schools in lieu of suspension, so it is not worth raising the bar for what constitutes suspension – to be a frustrating one that does not sufficiently address disproportionality in suspensions by race and income level. I am eager to see how the conversation plays out in DC, and I hope that we are able to pair a decrease in suspensions with an increase in trauma-informed supports.

[1] A report from the DC Policy Center considers the positive impact of this legislation, as well as the potential negative unintended consequences, such as a corresponding increase in in-school suspension rates.

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