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The Case for Action

What are punitive discipline policies? 

There are several approaches to school discipline. The most widely used, and most controversial, is the punitive approach— negative consequences for the student because of negative behavior. Losing recess, sitting in the corner, suspension, and expulsion are all types of punitive policies. Of the 49 million students enrolled in public schools in 2011-2012:

  • 3.5 million students were suspended in-school;
  • 3.45 million students were suspended out-of-school;
  • 130,000 students were expelled.

How are these policies supposed to work? 

Punitive policies are based on the idea that students will remember the negative consequence the next time they are tempted to break a rule, and that they will avoid it. Additionally, some believe that harshly punishing smaller infractions will prevent escalation of behavior and more serious infractions.

Do they work? 

These policies were intended to make schools safer places to learn. However, there is no conclusive evidence that these policies have been effective at doing that. 

Evidence does not show that discipline practices that remove students from instruction—such as suspensions and expulsions—help to improve either student behavior or school climate. Rather, they have negative consequences for all students. When schools attempt to hold students publicly accountable for their behavior, it can render them compliant, but can also make them feel anger, humiliation, and a range of other negative emotions that serve to shut down learning. (Source, source, source, source)

What about zero-tolerance policies? Are they different?

Zero-tolerance policies are punitive policies that apply harsh punishment regardless of the circumstances, the reasons for the behavior (like self-defense), or the student’s history of discipline problems. Some critics call these policies “one strike and you’re out.”

This specific type of policy was developed in the 1990s, in response to school shootings and general fears about crime. 

Are these approaches applied equitably? 

Various data sources show clearly that students with disabilities and students of color are disproportionately impacted by such practices. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, while students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their non-disabled peers. (Source)

What is the effect on long-term learning?

Suspensions are associated with negative student outcomes such as lower academic performance, lower on-time graduation rates, higher dropout rates, decreased academic engagement, and future disciplinary exclusion. Moreover, recent data found that schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion have poorer outcomes on standardized achievement tests, regardless of the economic level or demographics of their students. (Source, source)

Additionally, suspensions and exclusionary discipline can negatively impact achievement of an entire classroom and/or school. In fact, a recent study which tracked the effect of high suspension rates on 17,000 individual students who were never themselves suspended found that, over three years, high suspension rates in their school appeared to lower their math and reading scores. (Source, source)

Do punitive practices affect other areas of students’ lives?

Students exposed to punitive discipline policies are more likely to drop out or have contact with the criminal justice system. Dropping out of high school is associated with a nine-year dip in life expectancy, and even decades after release from prison, 75 percent of ex-inmates remain in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. 

Suspensions also lead to unsupervised time at home, which in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods can mean increased exposure to policing and community violence. (Source)

Are high discipline rates an indication that the school is less safe? 

Punitive and exclusionary discipline disproportionately affects students of color, students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and LGBT students. Evidence shows that this is not a reflection of worse behavior among these students, but that they are often removed from the classroom for similar or lesser offenses compared to their peers. (Source, source)

Promising Practices

In light of this research, some school districts are instituting more flexible practices like “restorative justice,” which focus on repairing harm, restoring relationships, and helping students become accountable for their actions. Here’s an overview of a few of them. 

Strong student-teacher relationships

Multiple studies highlight the importance of a strong and positive student-teacher relationship for student achievement and behavior. Student-teacher conflict has been shown to increase high-risk behaviors in students. However, high-quality student-teacher relationships are associated with less risky student behavior, schools that feel safer, and can even buffer students from the negative effects of other relationships on achievement. (Source, source, source, source)

High quality social-emotional learning

Incorporating social-emotional learning in the classroom teaches students how to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Students who receive quality social-emotional learning instruction have a better academic performance, improved attitudes and behaviors, fewer negative behaviors, and reduced emotional distress. Every dollar invested in social-emotional learning programming yields $11 in long-term benefits, including reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and better mental and physical health. (Source, source)

Training teachers on race and bias

Those preparing to become teachers should be trained on racial issues instead of being allowed to slip into the harmful mindset of “colorblindness.” Simply teaching in a diverse classroom is not enough to make teachers aware of institutional racism and other blatant racial issues. More must be done during the training phase for new teachers so they continually reflect on race issues and how their own race plays a role in their interactions with students. (Source)

Diversify the teacher workforce 

Students benefit from seeing teachers who look like them in the position of a positive role model. Black students who have just one black teacher in elementary school are less likely to drop out and significantly more likely to graduate high school. The effects are even greater on boys from persistently low-income families. (Source

Employ empathetic discipline policies 

Adjusting discipline policies can be as simple as training teachers to adopt empathetic discipline policies that strengthen the student-teacher relationship at critical junctures. A brief, online intervention to encourage teachers to adopt an empathetic mindset about discipline halved yearlong student suspension rates and made at-risk students perceive a greater level of respect from their teachers. (Source)