Report: Time to End Harmful, Exclusionary School Discipline Policies

It’s beyond time to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, concludes an authoritative report released this week by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, in collaboration with NEA and hundreds of other student advocacy groups, professional organizations, and practitioners.

Millions of students are removed from their classrooms every year, and overwhelmingly for minor disciplinary infractions.  Those students are far more likely to fall behind, drop out, and eventually land in the juvenile justice system—and they’re also disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities, or students who identify as LGBT.

These harmful, exclusionary practices must end, according to “The School Discipline Consensus Report,” released Tuesday by the CSG Justice Center, which offers a roadmap of recommendations to reduce student suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, and provide “conditions for learning wherein all students feel safe, welcome, and supported.”

“We applaud the CSG Justice Center for its leadership in tackling the school discipline and school-to-prison problems,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “If coupled with the tools and resources educators need to get the job done, many of these recommendations can move us towards improving graduation rates, closing the achievement gaps, and keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system.”

The data shows clearly that change is needed: Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students are suspended at sometimes double the rate of their White peers; 20 percent of students with disabilities were suspended in a single school year, compared to 10 percent of students without disabilities; and LGBT students are three times more likely to be harshly disciplined than their heterosexual peers, according to the report.

To create a welcoming and secure learning environment for all students, the report offers more than 50 recommendations to support change efforts. Chief among them is that exclusionary practices, like student suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement agencies, should be reserved for major misconduct that threatens the safety of students and staff.

For other, more minor offenses, like theft or disorderly conduct, or even some cases of damage to school property, the report suggests a school’s disciplinary response should address the harm caused, consider the factors that may have contributed to the problem, and encourage students to take responsibility for changing their behavior.

“Our hope is that this report will provide a foundation for diverse groups of stakeholders at the state, district, and local levels to develop a comprehensive plan for improving school discipline, climate and safety that can be tailored to the needs of particular schools and districts,” said NEA Executive Committee member Kevin Gilbert. “The report is field-driven and contains practical examples to help give educators on-the-ground, promising strategies that are already being implemented by their colleagues across the country.”

This is not easy work—and it will require policymakers to invest in new training and additional resources for educators.  The culture of “zero tolerance” has been fostered and fed in schools for decades. Making the necessary switch for students to a more inclusive school culture will take time and money. The report notes that decades of school budget cuts have contributed to reductions in school behavioral health and support staff: the very people who could help support and engage young people to identify alternative solutions and change behaviors.

“Significant change cannot rest solely with teachers,” said Gilbert. “Schools must have psychologists, counselors, support teams, and other professionals who can help address students’ needs.”

Despite the challenges ahead, with the stakes so high for students, change is necessary, and it’s already underway in many school districts. In Colorado, where state law has required alternative responses to discipline infractions, NEA members are regularly investing time in restorative practices.

“I have a picture on my wall of a huge tree with its roots. The point of restorative practices is to get to the roots,” says Rita Danna, restorative justice facilitator for Littleton, Colo., schools. “These kiddos you see in your office all the time— you lecture them, you suspend them, and then they come back and you do it all over again. But the restorative process yanks at the root. It helps students realize they have the power to do things differently.”

NEA also has partnered with the Advancement Project and others to provide resources to members, including a new online toolkit, on how to incorporate restorative practices in their classrooms and schools. For more, visit nea.org/hcr.