Rethinking School Discipline

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By Laura Robinson

When you walk into the honors and advanced placement classes at my Seattle alma mater you see predominantly white faces. Garfield High School is located in the middle of Seattle’s Central District and has a very diverse and talented student population, but its diversity was not and is not reflected in its highest achieving classrooms. Garfield is a fantastic school with many academic and extracurricular activities, but those activities don’t always serve the full student population inside its walls. Whyis this? And can we change it?

“The achievement gap is a moot point if you don’t address the discipline gap.” This statement opened the recent panel presentation and discussion hosted by Seattle Councilmember Bruce Harrell concerning the racial discipline gap in Seattle Public Schools. To fix the achievement gap in test scores, graduation rates and college acceptance between students of color and white students, we need to look further upstream. When we look at the earlier educational patterns, we quickly run into the disturbing reports about our racially skewed discipline gap.

What is the discipline gap?

The discipline gap arises out of the reliance on student exclusion to resolve classroom conflict in our public school system. In short when a student misbehaves or acts out, the most common solution is to send that student out of the classroom. Research shows that students of color are excluded at a disproportionately high rate compared to their white peers.

Teachers have a great deal of discretion when it comes to student discipline. For example, as reported by the Seattle Times, there were 8,716 students up to the 6th grade suspended or expelled statewide during the 2012-13 school year. Only 119 of these suspensions were for objective violations like alcohol, tobacco or drugs, while 7,479 suspensions had “other behavior” cited for the exclusion.

As students are excluded from the classroom, it is no surprise that their educational outcomes fall behind as well. The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) found that discipline based on exclusion was resulting in nearly 6,000 days of lost instruction for African-American students for the school year of 2010-2011. That’s the discipline gap leading straight to the achievement gap. Children can’t learn if they aren’t in class.

The Seattle Times article and report on the discipline gap in Seattle Public Schools is well worth the read. Check out the article and statistics here.

Why does racially biased discipline happen?

Teachers and students are in a tough spot in our schools. A useful graphic below shows the pressure teachers face when classroom success is defined by high stakes testing, which has been adopted as the national education standard. Teachers are pressured to get the largest percentage of their classroom fulfilling testing requirements, thereby making discipline by exclusion an obvious strategy and consequence.

When we discipline by exclusion, it paves the way for certain students to be labeled as troublemakers who are regularly sent out of the classroom. And students of color are disproportionately disciplined.

What are the consequences of a racially biased discipline gap?

As this graphic shows, high stakes testing and discipline by exclusion can directly feed the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers want disruptive students out of their classroom so they can effectively teach the others, which leads to higher suspensions and drop-outs. Excluded students School to prison pipelineare increasingly alienated from their school community.

The afore-mentioned article by the Seattle Times also outlines the experience of Seattle’s Garfield High School principal Ted Howard when he visited Monroe Correctional Complex. Speaking with one inmate, Mr. Howard listened to his description of the isolation and lack of care he felt as student in the Seattle Public Schools. “No one came looking for him when he was sent from the classroom. Nor when he wandered the hallways. Nor when he walked right out the schoolhouse door. ‘It was like they’d said ‘good riddance.”

If no one in schools provides care or support to students who act out, we implicitly endorse the idea that the lives of these young people don’t matter. This is the perception that must be dismantled.

What has Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) done to eliminate racially biased discipline?

In 2012, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) began programs targeting the disproportionate discipline of young African American males in their schools. To change the cultural narrative of African American young men as trouble makers, gang members, and eventual prisoners, the OUSD determined they need to change their disciplinary policies.

OUSD is implementing four best practices throughout their schools.

1. Positive behavioral support: Supporting positive behavioral change through increased interaction and care as opposed to exclusion.
2. Manhood development classes: The African-American Male Achievement program launched in 2010 addresses the dominant negative narrative about African American men and seeks to overthrow that narrative by providing support, mentorship and positive feedback.
3. Trauma informed practices: Teachers and police are trained in practices that provide behavioral support (not punishment) for children who have experienced trauma.
4. Restorative justice: A process of finding solutions for conflict that promotes healing for all involved, perpetrator and victim, as opposed to isolation.

The early results from their program are impressive:
• 40% drop in suspensions for African American students from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013
• 79% of students involved in the Manhood Development Class have satisfactory or improved disciplinary records
• The black/white discipline gap went from 25 in 2011-2012 to 19 in 2012-2013
• Arrests on school grounds dropped from 43 in 2012-2013 to 8 in 2013-2014
• The four year graduation rate has increased 60% for school employing the Restorative Justice method as opposed to 7% for Non-RJ schools.

What impact would eliminating racially biased discipline from our schools have on our community?

If we are able to eliminate racially biased discipline, the positive effects are numerous. More students in school, more graduating with degrees and going onto college or entering our workforce. As one OUSD representative put it: we could pay money to keep our young people in school or we could pay money to keep them in prison. It’s a decision each community has to make for themselves and it’s a decision that the nation will have to grapple with. Funding for education is consistently a struggle.

For students who are perpetually disciplined, school is a place where they don’t belong and they don’t care to belong. Classrooms should be a place of safety, security and community. School should be a place where every young person is educated and cared for emotionally and physically. By prioritizing the care and support students are shown in our schools, we are showing that their lives matter and are worth the investment of teacher time and energy. If we invest in children and keep them in their classrooms, they will be significantly more likely to pay back that investment in their future.

Can the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools eliminate racially biased discipline?

The racially biased discipline gap is a complex and entrenched issue, but the strategy Oakland has taken is creative and innovative. It reframes the discussion around discipline in schools and takes a more holistic, supportive approach around caring for students who are struggling most.

The energy and dedication visible in the packed City Hall event room proves how many Seattle educators and community members are ready to take action. Seattle may choose to create its own path forward for tackling this issue, but the OUSD presentation will provide opportunity for collaboration and data-sharing that will make Seattle’s strategies stronger. Every student who succeeds under new strategies is a success story and every inch we close the discipline gap is an important one.

The big question of fully eliminating the discipline gap still remains: can we do it? I don’t know. But taking no action entrenches the problem and in many ways validates the system. I am hopeful that we are starting to find strategies and solutions that will make a significant difference in the futures of all of our young people and that will truly be success.

How can I learn more about the work Oakland has done to eliminate racially biased discipline in schools?

Check out OUSD’s presentation. A full video of hour long presentation, or just the slides, can be found here under special presentations.

Other interesting reads on this topic:

“Holder, Duncan announce national guidelines on school discipline” Washington Post, January 8, 2014, Donna St. George.

“What if everything you knew about disciplining kids was wrong?” Mother Jones, July/August 2015 Issue, Kathryn Reynolds Lewis.