School discipline is one of the most difficult problems facing public schools. Many private, parochial, and charter schools control enrollment, and choose not to work with students exhibiting disciplinary problems.
Public schools should be given credit for working with all students. However, public schools have not always done what’s right when it comes to discipline.
A new Government Accountability Office report shows that low-income students, minority students, and students with disabilities are still being disciplined disproportionately. These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.
Along with this report, fears surround what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will do about school discipline. In her interview with CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, she showed little understanding about discipline disparities involving students, which could lead to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Last November, she met with a panel of other controversial individuals to discuss this issue. They listened to teachers who had been attacked by students—always scary. But the panel discussion seemed one-sided.
At that time, they were also critical of President Obama’s 2014 discipline directive—a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education called the “Dear Colleague” letter to support preventive action dealing with behavior problems instead of suspension and expulsion.
Last Wednesday, DeVos met with civil rights leaders, parents, and teachers and she once again discussed rescinding Obama’s guidance which includes civil rights law violations. Many leaders are against this.
Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio recently criticized the Obama guidance as problematic in the Parkland shooting.
Rubio said the 2014 guidance “discouraged schools from referring students to local law enforcement,” leading educators, rather than school resource officers or other law enforcement personnel, to take charge of discipline. Harsh federal penalties for high suspension rates, he said, have “arguably made it easier for schools to not report students to law enforcement.”
Of course, this should be examined, but it is important to read Rubio’s remarks understanding he is a proponent of the NRA. The idea of law enforcement taking over school discipline is hugely controversial.
The problem of suspensions and expulsions is central to discipline concerns. Teachers and school administrators don’t want students who act out to remain in class or school—especially when they disrupt the learning of other students, or worse, present a danger.
But when students are suspended they are not being helped either. Suspended students tend to drop out of school, wind up getting into serious trouble in the communities, and could end up incarcerated. Suspending students only pushes their problems into society.
So, the big question that DeVos should be working on is how schools can decrease school suspension without endangering students and teachers.
How can we end the disparity involving low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities, effectively deal with any troubled students, while keeping children safe in their schools?
As officials debate this important issue, I gathered a few ideas. Feel free to suggest more. I will add them.
- Staff Preparation. Teachers and administrators should understand the district and school rules. They must also get instruction as to how to react in a fair and equitable manner when students break those rules. The disparity issue must be discussed openly. It might help to role play various scenarios of students acting out, before such events actually occur.
- Racially Diverse Teachers. We must increase the number of well-prepared minority teachers, both men and women.
- The Arts and Extracurricular Activities. Everyone wants to feel they do well at something. Schools devoid of the arts (with real art teachers) and a variety of extracurricular activities are dull and uninteresting. Students who struggle with academics have nothing else to look forward to.
- School Environment. Students thrive in a warm psychosocial environment. We can’t expect children to take pride in a rundown school. Broken recess equipment, old science lab materials, dirty bathrooms, et cetera, tell students that adults don’t think they’re worth the investment.
- Smaller Class Sizes. It is unrealistic to believe teachers can manage 30 students in a class with even one student who repeatedly acts out. Class sizes should be small enough for teachers to get to know their students and their families.
- Students with Disabilities. Teachers must be given information about students with behavioral disabilities who will be part of their class, or in contact with other students. Teachers should understand what might trigger a negative behavioral reaction. There are also situations, where a student may appear to be acting out, or unresponsive, when they are only responding due to their disability. Disciplinary problems that occur within inclusion settings must be addressed.
- Data. It is sometimes necessary to monitor how a student reacts in school, in order to determine how they might best be served. But care should be taken that this information is not misused, or given to third parties, without parental consent.
- Counselors. Schools must hire more counselors to address the emotional and behavioral issues facing students. Counselors should not have to split their time between test administration and providing college advisement.
- School District Staff. Schools should employ enough support staff like school psychologists, nurses, and be in close contact with good social workers. Teachers should not have to struggle for weeks, and other students should not have their learning impaired, due to students who act out in class.
- After school programs. Students who get help with their classes and support from trusted adults are more likely to feel better about themselves and school.
- Classroom Rules. Classroom rules should reflect the overall school rules, but be fewer and simpler to understand. Give students warnings for minor offenses. And include them in designing the rules if possible.
- Continuum of Services. After thorough documentation and assistance from support staff, like the school psychologist, students who act out should have alternative settings where they can be placed and get help. This includes residential placement. Some students and families need more support than the school can provide. Such placements should be fluid.
- Student/Adult Connection. Every student should have a teacher or administrator who they can visit to get help for problems. Homeroom teachers often serve this purpose. Class sizes must be reasonable for this to occur.
- Resource Officers. Resource officers must understand the behavioral development of the students in the schools where they are employed. They should also understand the development needs of students with disabilities, and work closely with counselors and special education teachers. They should like kids. Schools should not be run like prisons.
- Student Youth Courts. Youth-centered courts concerning minor infractions can be effective. Including students in the creation of rules and consequences can also help.
- Reassess Zero Tolerance. Thankfully, many schools have turned away from this punitive action that denies students any defense of a broken rule.