Last week I met José, who visited the U.S. Department of Education for a roundtable discussion on school discipline policies. He described experiences at his Chicago high school that left him with the uneasy feeling that he had to keep his “guard up” while trying to learn. José came to Washington for a congressional hearing on discipline, where I testified, and we invited him and other students from the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) project to come back to ED to talk more.
In our ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department, students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.
At last week’s session, the Chicago youth offered their ideas for improving school discipline practices and ending the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a widespread pattern of pushing students – particularly those who are disadvantaged – out of school and into the juvenile justice or prison systems.
While all educators strive to demonstrate positive, caring discipline practices in their classrooms, and a large number of schools and districts implement effective strategies for managing student behavior, far too many schools overly rely on discipline policies that remove students from the learning environment. Across the country, during the 2009-2010 academic year, upwards of three million students were suspended, nearly 110,000 were expelled, and more than 240,000 were referred to law enforcement.
I was heartened by the words of Tiara, a youth participant at the roundtable, when she described why she feels so strongly about stopping this trend. She said, “There is a racial issue here, too, when Black and Latino students are being punished more severely than their White peers and being incarcerated at higher rates.”
Recent data support Tiara’s observation. African-American students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than White students. Disparities in discipline rates are also apparent for students with disabilities, who are more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as their non-disabled peers. These disparities, which also exist between male and female students, raise concerns that some schools are not providing all youth with equal access to education, which potentially violates civil rights laws.
We also know that when students are removed from school as a disciplinary measure, the likelihood that they will drop out or become involved in the juvenile justice system dramatically increases. A 2011 longitudinal study of nearly one million students in Texas by the Council of State Governments revealed that about 15 percent were suspended or expelled 11 times or more and nearly half of those students also became involved in the juvenile justice system. During the roundtable, Brian, a graduate of Chicago’s Kelvyn Park High School, noted that teachers and principals can help to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline by learning how to implement discipline policies that respond to students’ needs and the root causes of their misbehavior.
I echoed Brian’s sentiment prior to my discussion with him and his peers during my testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on December 12. I appreciate that Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who represents the students from VOYCE, convened a hearing on school discipline, a topic that comes up often when Secretary Duncan and my colleagues at ED talk with students. I talked with the subcommittee about the importance of providing teachers and school leaders with appropriate alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. That work begins when we focus on helping educators to build the competencies and skills they need to maintain safe, engaging classrooms.
We also must increase capacity at the local level for developing positive school climates and supporting students through promising, evidence-based discipline practices. Currently, the Department is reviewing behavioral frameworks – including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports – to determine if such approaches might help ED better focus its technical assistance to schools. Encouraging states and districts to review their discipline policies also is critical to ensuring that every school has in place an equitable code of conduct that does not more frequently or more harshly impact particular student groups.
Partnerships across the education, health, child welfare, and justice sectors are vital to keep all students safe, in school, and learning. To find out more about the Department’s work in this area and how the agency is collaborating with other organizations and federal stakeholders, read my full Senate testimony here.
Deb Delisle is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.