George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Beyond Zero Tolerance: Achieving a Balance in School Discipline

February 24, 2014
Photo credit: Veer

Disruptive behavior continues to be one of the most challenging issues that schools face today. Even one seriously incompliant student can threaten teaching and learning for the rest of the class. And though exceedingly rare given the large number of schools throughout our country, incidents of deadly violence shake our confidence in school safety.

In the 1990s, amidst similar circumstances and fears, schools adopted "get tough" philosophies of discipline: increased suspensions, expulsions, school arrests and zero tolerance. By cracking down on all transgressions, school leaders hoped to send a message to students that misbehaviors would not be tolerated, and also make classrooms safer for learners that remained.

Disparities in How African American Students are Disciplined

Throughout the nation, the zero tolerance doctrine dramatically increased suspensions and expulsions. Disparities for students of color, especially African American students, continue to grow. While Black students were suspended twice as often as Caucasians in the early 1970s according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, today they are suspended three and a half times as often -- a disproportion that cannot be accounted for by poverty or by rates of student disruption.

Zero Tolerance is Ineffective

After 15 years, extensive reviews of the literature by researchers and professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association have found no evidence that increasing suspensions and expulsions improves student behavior or guarantees school safety. In fact, schools that employ more suspensions and expulsions have poorer ratings of school climate and school safety, higher rates of racial disparity in discipline, and lower scores on academic achievement tests.

Exclusionary discipline also creates serious risks for students. According to a groundbreaking report by the Council for State Governments, being suspended or expelled significantly increases the risk of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. These risks, often termed the school-to-prison pipeline, are magnified for students of color. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly argued that out-of-school suspension and expulsion should be used only as a last resort.

Fixing School Discipline

In response, districts across the nation have begun to reform their disciplinary codes, emphasizing strategies that build a positive school climate and minimize the use of school suspension and expulsion. States such as California, Texas, Connecticut and Maryland have begun to make changes in statewide policy regarding school discipline. At the federal level, the Departments of Education and Justice have joined together in the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, providing guidance on where the government will intervene to reduce racial disparities, and identifying promising alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

Some fear that removing suspension or expulsion as tools for maintaining order and discipline in our schools will allow disruptive students to run wild. But the point of disciplinary reform is not to deprive schools of strategies so much as to find the right tools -- those that are most effective in promoting safe, orderly and healthy learning environments.

Schools across the country have effectively reduced rates of disciplinary exclusion, implementing strategies that change behavior and improve school climate by teaching students appropriate and positive behavior. The Denver Public Schools implemented restorative conferences in schools throughout the district to rebuild relationships and repair the harm done by violence and disruption. Denver is among a growing number of districts working with an Educator's Toolkit to Fix School Discipline that describes how to facilitate a "conflict circle" and includes links to resources for implementing change at the classroom level.

By implementing social emotional learning and planning teams around school discipline, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District increased attendance while reducing suspensions by over 50 percent. In districts throughout the nation, schools are using Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports to shift disciplinary systems toward a system of shared values, recognition and rewards for students who act in accord with those values.

9 Alternative Approaches to Classroom Discipline

Zero tolerance is a failed experiment. Moreover, the accumulation of data across the nation is beginning to show that, by expanding our options and focusing on teaching behavior rather than simply punishing misbehavior, we can maintain safety and order in our schools without removing the opportunity to learn.

Change starts in the classroom, and the following list of discipline practices can serve to counter the school-to-prison pipeline:

  1. Talk to the student about the harm that his or her behavior has caused, rather than about the rules that were violated.
  2. As a consequence of misbehavior, make students responsible for repairing the damage.
  3. Use a non-threatening tone in private talks with the misbehaving student.
  4. Build relationships with disruptive students by asking about their out-of-school interests and what things they like to do in school.
  5. If bullying causes disruptions, watch Dr. Michele Borba's 20-minute video, "Six R's that Reduce Bullying."
  6. Provide students with specific feedback about their behaviors and social skills.
  7. Find out what resources your state has for fostering Dignity in Schools.
  8. Because misbehavior occurs in instances where students are bored or overwhelmed, differentiate instruction so that students feel appropriately challenged.
  9. Teach students peer mediation so that they can constructively manage their own conflicts.

What classroom management strategies work for your students? Please describe them in the comment section below.

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