It’s time to fix school discipline practices and policies

Sarah OmojolaMay 20, 2013Sarah OmojolaAll students can learn. That’s a simple but profound starting place for talking about changing school discipline policies. As a former teacher in New Orleans public schools, I am well aware of the difficulty of teaching students who have varying backgrounds, abilities and learning styles in an ever-changing school system, inundated with countless internal and external pressures.
However, research has shown that students are frequently suspended on grounds such as “willful defiance” for behavior that is often related to having a disability, being culturally different from teachers or administrators, or because they are still learning how to respect themselves and others.
Unlike suspension for safety reasons, suspending students for “willful defiance” is an unsound educational policy that ultimately results in students losing valuable educational time. A recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows that high school suspension rates have risen dramatically in the past 30 years without actually improving school climates. Notably, the American Psychological Association found that schools with higher rates of suspensions have lower academic quality and school climate ratings.
This year Assemblymember Roger Dickinson has introduced AB 420, which would eliminate “willful defiance” as grounds for suspension in grades K-5, where students are in early stages of development and, therefore, should be kept in school to receive the education and services that they need instead of a fast track to the juvenile justice system. The bill leaves in place more than 20 other grounds for suspension. These small changes will go a long way to reducing suspensions and, therefore, the negative impact that suspensions have on students’ education and futures.
Already, educators across California are shifting the culture in their schools and districts by pioneering research-based approaches such as restorative justice, social-emotional learning and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). These approaches use different ways of holding students accountable, but all have proven results. Contrary to what many people believe, these strategies often cost little or nothing, can be funded with existing sources and increase achievement scores. As a former teacher in a school with a chaotic environment, I was frequently dealing with student misbehavior instead of teaching. Without the full support of the administration, I – in collaboration with teachers teaching the same grades and subject – made some headway with proactive, positive discipline practices in my classroom. But I know that it is much easier to teach in a school where there is a calm environment throughout and everyone is on the same page about how to help students struggling with behavior. For that reason and more, we at Public Counsel have created a free guide to accessing these alternatives, learning from other successful educators, and obtaining the training you need to implement them at your school.
These toolkits contain interviews with educators who are actively changing the culture and improving discipline practices in their schools. During one such interview, Sacramento elementary school Principal Billy Aydlett told me, “The traditional model says, ‘Throw kids out for refusing to listen to you.’ What I learned is that what our students need the most is not negative consequences and zero-tolerance policies. What our students need is absolutely consistent and urgent support around maintaining appropriate behavior.”
Through observations at various schools and conversations with educators and community organizations, we have seen that alternate discipline strategies focus on teaching appropriate behavior and accountability, thereby allowing classrooms and schools to run much more smoothly. A San Francisco elementary school teacher who experienced this kind of improvement firsthand said, “I have been teaching for 10 years, the last five of which have been here at Rosa Parks. This is our second year with Restorative Practices and the climate here is much better. There is a lot less screaming and fighting from the kids. I also see a lot fewer ‘frequent fliers,’ who usually are repeatedly referred to the office. Now we go through a restorative conference and that’s it. I think that the students feel like their voices are being heard so they are less angry and less likely to act out.”
A Restorative Practices trainer in Richmond told Public Counsel, “[In] addition to the sharp decrease in suspensions (53%), the change in overall school climate was palpable and observable. The year prior, you would not have wanted to walk through the halls during a class change. Students were jostling, bumping and running into each other and administrators were having a hard time clearing the halls.” Now students get to class on time and administrators report fewer behavior issues overall.
You can read interviews with these educators and many others at our website.
Schools that take this research-based approach and put an end to knee-jerk suspensions have experienced increases in student achievement in addition to improved school climate. James A. Garfield Senior High School in Los Angeles serves a population in which 90% of its students are eligible for free/reduced price meals. After adopting a school-wide positive behavioral interventions & supports approach, the school not only reduced suspensions from more than 600 down to just one, it also increased its score on the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s measure of academic achievement.
These results are not isolated; for example, Pioneer High School in Woodland has experienced similar improvements, including consistent, significant API growth for the entire school and each subgroup. These California results have been borne out in statewide and national studies, which show that implementing alternative discipline practices also results in improved academic achievement, reduced dropout rates, higher teacher retention and a more positive school culture.
For schools and districts that are concerned about the cost of implementing such alternatives, each of the educators that we interviewed said that the costs were nominal or something that they could fund from existing sources. Principal Aydlett explained, “Anyone who says money is a factor or a barrier to implementing an alternative discipline practice doesn’t want to change.”
I challenge schools and districts struggling with student behavior and school climate to fix their discipline practices and policies, but this challenge comes with the promise of support for educators who want to embrace it. Instead of hoping and praying for solutions, schools and districts can adopt research-based alternatives and look for guidance in similar places across California that are already seeing results.
Visit to learn more, get access to resources and contact me for free technical assistance and support.
Sarah Omojola is statewide education advocate for Public Counsel Law Center, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. She is a former English teacher and co-founder of Stand Up For Each Other!, an organization that provides advocacy services for students facing disciplinary action in New Orleans. She now works with Public Counsel and Fix School Discipline on policy and advocacy relating to stopping the school-to-prison pipeline.
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