School Discipline Policies Can Have a Major Impact on Students

School Discipline Policies Can Have a Major Impact on Students
Oct 09, 2018

School Discipline Policies Impact School Climate and Student Success

When it comes to student success, there are a variety of factors that contribute to or hurt that outcome, many of which fall under the umbrella of “school climate”. School climate refers to the quality and character of school life – academic opportunity, school safety, student health and happiness, organizational structure and policies, and so on. Organizational policies and the ways in which they’re enforced play a major role in determining the climate of a school. For now, we’re going to focus our attention on school discipline policies and how they affect students, teachers and the community as a whole.

Disciplinary policies in schools determine how the administration should respond to incidents, usually behavioral, among students and teachers – and they are in no way unanimous across the country. But, if we’re really going to put students first, and we should given they’re the future of our country, then schools across the board should seriously consider adopting a restorative approach to discipline. By doing so, they will improve school climate and give students a better chance for overall success.

Children learn from their mistakes…if they’re given the tools to do so.

We spend a majority of our childhood in school or interacting with our school community. This is at a time when kids are developing physically, emotionally and socially. The ways in which their surrounding environment — family, friends, teachers, schools — support them has a major impact on the rest of their lives. The experiences they have and lessons they learn during their school years are so important and many are learned from making mistakes and working through the consequences. Schools need to support these students through those lessons not by suspending or excluding them, but by offering restorative solutions and teaching them understanding and social and emotional intelligence.

Let’s take a look at school discipline throughout history.

The debate on school discipline has been a decades long controversy. As far back as the 1970’s, when the zero-tolerance policy was introduced in schools, communities have questioned whether aggressive disciplinary policies actually made school safer and helped students. Under a zero-tolerance policy, school districts mandated out-of-school suspensions or referral to law enforcement based on an array of school code violations. These ranged from school violence to dress code violations. The policies were completely punitive – intended as punishment – and did little to nothing to reinforce positive behaviors. Unfortunately, this approach only grew more popular in the 80’s and 90’s and between 1973 and 2006, suspension rates nearly doubled.

graph of suspension rates increasing
This graph demonstrates the growth in K-12 suspension rates by race between 1973 – 2006 taken from a report by Southern Poverty Law Center.

Action to combat these policies began as communities started realizing schools were not getting any safer and school climate was actually getting worse. Impacted most were students of color who were being suspended and referred to law enforcement at much higher rates than their peers. In 2014, the federal Departments of Education and Justice issued a letter to state education commissioners warning that districts continuing to have a pattern of disproportionate discipline risk federal civil rights action. In 2015, Randi Weingarten, president of American Federations of Teachers, rebutted her support of zero-tolerance policies saying, “when you see that you’re wrong, you have to say that your wrong and apologize for it.”

Why punitive discipline and the zero-tolerance policy don’t work in schools.

As mentioned above, punitive discipline is intended to punish. In schools this means suspension, expulsion, exclusion, physical restraint and sometimes arrest. Unfortunately, there are times when measures like these must be taken; however, the majority of behavioral incidents in school do not need to be met with discipline that diminishes students’ learning opportunities. According to many studies over the years, punitive discipline negatively affects students, and teachers, in various ways.

  • Loss of instructional time
  • Falling behind in class
  • Alienation from the school community
  • Distrust between teachers and students
  • Student dropout rates rise
  • Opens up the “school-to-prison pipeline
  • Increases chances of student being incarcerated as an adult

It is almost impossible to find data that shows out-of-school suspensions or expulsion reduces rates of disruptive behavior in school or improves school climate. Instead, there is more and more emerging evidence that punitive discipline appears to have negative effects on the learning climate and success of students.

School discipline reform is happening across the country, but what is the best alternative approach?

It is reassuring to know that schools across the country have implemented new discipline policies. According to Manhattan Institute, “27 states have revised their laws to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, and more than 50 of Americas largest school districts, serving over 6.35 million students, have implemented discipline reform.” Initially, many of these reforms prevented teachers from issuing suspensions for first-time, low-level offenses, while others required principals to seek permission from district administrators to suspend a student. However, reforms like these didn’t do enough to change school climate in NYC schools and actually made it worse at times. Teachers reported more disorder in their classroom and felt the learning ability for well-behaved students was deteriorating. Students reported more violence and less respect among peers. Why were these new policies still not working? The simple answer – the primary focus was on reducing rates of suspension and other punitive disciplines rather than focusing on implementing or improving restorative justice.

What is restorative justice?

There are many different approaches to conflict and behavioral issues. Many schools have begun phasing in restorative justice, trauma sensitivity, and social and emotional learning (SEL). Restorative justice helps the offender understand why they acted in a certain way, teaches them accountability for any harm they caused, and helps create a plan for repairing the hurt they caused. It encourages reconciliation and sets a plan to reintegrate the offender back into the community with the support needed to discourage the behavior from happening again. It also supports the victim with the restorative resources they need to safely reintegrate back into the school community. A restorative approach helps manifest a safe climate in schools because it addresses behavioral issues early on and in a manner that reduces the behaviors from spiraling out of control. Restorative discipline has a number of benefits for students and schools:

  • Students learn how to accept responsibility and change their behaviors
  • It teaches resiliency and how to overcome obstacles
  • Students learn decision-making skills
  • Encourages teachers and students to practice and enhance their social-emotional skills
  • Teachers and students learn how to address explicit biases
  • It creates a safe channel of communication between students and teachers
  • Trust builds within the school community
  • Behavioral issues are addressed, rather than punished, to break the cycle of them happening again
  • Suspension and expulsion rates decline
  • Students and teachers feel safe and school climate improves

How can schools implement restorative discipline to effectively change school climate?

Implementing restorative justice in schools is not a process that will happen overnight. Some research suggests it can take around three years, even when implemented staunchly and sustained financially. School leaders and teachers have to understand restorative justice and learn how to practice it with their students. Across the country, schools have taken different approaches. For example, Highline Public Schools, which is a racially diverse district near Seattle, has implemented a 20-minute discussion period to open each day encouraging conversation and building social skills. We at Bridg-it encourage activities like these and created our platform to help school leaders and teachers implement a restorative approach quickly and safely. Bridg-it’s incident management tools helps school leaders assign appropriate restorative discipline and restorative resources to both aggressors and victims and tracks the efficacy of the assigned follow up and resolution. Bridg-it’s curated digital Resource Center, created as a library of teachable moments, is accessible 24/7. It provides restorative activities, lesson plans, and resources that can be used in the classroom, at home, and for disciplinary purposes. The bottom line is that Bridg-it’s Resource Center helps align students, parents, teachers and school leaders to create their safest school climate.

Teachable Moments

  • Interested in learning more about restorative justice? The WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center highlights the research and evidence on the effects of disciplinary policies and programs in the areas of school safety, violence and crime prevention, juvenile and criminal justice, and public health. Read more.
Quote by Carl Jung

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