New federal guidance should help slow the flow in “school-to-prison pipeline”, but much work remains

AzeroAdvocates for fair and effective school discipline practices received a boost from the federal government with new guidance issued by the Departments of Education and Justice on January 8.  The guidance instructs schools on how to administer school discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  In addition to the guidance, the Administration issued a package of resources to assist in the improvement of school climates and discipline, including key principles and action steps based on best practices and emerging research.

While the scope of the school discipline problem remains enormous (three million public school students received out-of-school suspensions and 100,000 were expelled during the 2011 school year, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan), real progress is being made to find constructive alternatives to suspensions, expulsions and incarceration.  A front page story in the December 2, 2013 New York Times  (“Seeing the Toll, Schools Revise Zero Tolerance”) reported on the significant progress being made around the country to reduce the destructive impact of the school-to-prison pipeline.  The story featured programs such as the one in Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale), Florida, that moved away from a “zero tolerance” policy to an alternative that keeps kids in school and offers counseling and other assistance to change behaviors.

Similar success stories are brought to life in Jane Stevens’s illuminating investigative series* that describes how schools are moving from punitive disciplinary approaches to those that are supportive and compassionate.  The takeaway from the series is that many schools are successfully implementing effective strategies to reduce suspensions and expulsions but also are dealing with obstacles to sustain the progress being made.  Methods such as trauma-informed practices, PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), restorative practices, Safe & Civil Schools, and CBITS (Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools) are being adopted and new interventions are being created and modified to meet local conditions, usually with the challenge of how to pay for them and sustain the funding over time.

The payoff for well-done efforts to reduce suspensions is enormous—improved graduation rates, achievement scores, and life outcomes while also decreasing the rate of incarceration for juveniles and adults, according to Daniel J. Losen and Tia Elena Martinez, leading researchers in the field.  They conclude in their report “Out of School and Off Track,” issued by The Civil Rights Project (CRP) at UCLA, that the creation of safe, healthy, and productive learning environments can be accomplished without frequent out-of-school suspensions.  Still, their research found that one out of nine students (well over two million) were suspended at least once during the 2009-2010 school year.  CRP’s umbrella organization, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, has summarized available research on the problem and solutions in a companion Summary of New Research

Out of School and Off Trackalso included research on the alarming rate of suspensions for African-Americans compared to whites (24.3 percent compared to 6 percent), representing an increase in the rate of suspensions since the 1970s for African-Americans of 12.5 percent compared to a rate of increase of 1.1 percent for whites.  Importantly, the authors highlight a finding from a major, longitudinal study in Texas that suspensions had more to do with school factors such as disciplinary practices than with race, poverty, student demographics, or students’ past behavior.

The analysis done in the UCLA study by Losen and Martinez also suggests that individual school factors drive suspension rates rather than race, poverty or other factors.  Within the same school districts, there are schools with high suspension rates where at least 25 percent of students were suspended in specific subgroups (ethnic minorities, English learners and students with disabilities) as well as schools with low suspension rates (10 percent or less) in these subgroups.  In her piece in the Huffington Post on the UCLA study, Jane Stevens says the schools in this study no longer have much reason or excuse to continue policies that result in out-of-control expulsion rates.

The alternative, according to Stevens, is to become part of the sea change that is “coursing slowly but resolutely through this nation’s K-12 education system.”  She summarizes some of the highlights from her series:

More than 23,000 schools out of 132,000 nationwide have or are discarding a highly punitive approach to school discipline in favor of supportive, compassionate, and solution-oriented methods. Those that take the slow-but-steady road can see a 20 percent to 40 percent drop in suspensions in their first year of transformation. Some — where the principal, all teachers and staff embrace an immediate overhaul — experience higher rates, as much as an 85 percent drop in suspensions and a 40 percent drop in expulsions. Bullying, truancy and tardiness are waning. Graduation rates, test scores, and grades are trending up.

The trend to keep kids in school and provide a supportive environment extends beyond reducing suspensions (most for behaviors that are deemed “willful” or “disruptive” according to the UCLA study) and expulsions for more serious behavior.  As reported in the New York Times, Broward County has targeted school-based arrests (down 41 percent) as well as suspensions (down 66 percent) in 2012.  First-time offenders committing any of 11 misdemeanors are not arrested but are required to attend counseling and perform community service.

A report, “The-Comeback-and-Coming-from-Behind States, issued by the National Juvenile Justice Network and The Texas Public Policy Foundation, calls for additional action to reduce youth incarceration even though significant progress was made between 2001 and 2011:  “The number of confined youth declined by 41% nationwide, or an annual average decline of 4.1% — a dramatic drop since 2000, when a record-setting 108,802 youth were held in detention centers awaiting trial or confined by the courts in juvenile facilities in the U.S.”  While trending in the right direction, 61,423 youth were still confined in 2011.

A New York Times editorial in May called on Mayor Bloomberg’s successor to act on the recommendations made in a report on New York City’s massive problem with high rates of suspensions, expulsions and arrests.  The editorial called for convening an interagency team of educators, court and social services officials and others to address the problem and examine successful strategies used in some New York City schools and in other locales that have experienced successful reductions, including Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Clayton County, Ga.

Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive of The California Endowment (funder of the series by Jane Stevens), drew a similar conclusion in his letter to the editor in response to the December 2 New York Times article:

Too often, children come to school troubled by things happening in their homes or communities, and the responsibility for addressing these issues shouldn’t fall only on teachers.  We need community-school partnerships and more caring adults at schools, especially counselors and mental health professionals, to give children and educators the best chance to succeed.

Much of the trouble children experience at home and in their communities have their origins in adverse childhood experiences, bringing us back to the urgent need to prevent them in the first place and to build resiliency in children and families so they can survive the traumas of life when they do occur.  The lessons to be mined from successes in reducing school suspensions, expulsions, and incarceration are basic and invaluable:  upstream solutions are more effective than remedial actions; data is essential to understand the real impact of policies and practices; and solutions often require collaboration among parties with different perspectives, experiences, and expertise.

* Part of the investigative series addresses how some schools, mostly in California, are moving from a punitive to a supportive, compassionate approach to school discipline.  The series includes profiles of schools in Concord, Le Grand, Reedley, Fresno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vallejo, and San Diego, CA; and Spokane, WA, and Brockton, MA.  The California Endowment funds the series.

4 responses

  1. I love when I wake up in the morning and writings like these are in my ‘inbox’. Thank you for writing about when the world is warm, finding it’s patience and support for some of the weakest members of our society. Lifts my spirits and my will to carry on for the sake of our kids !!


  2. I spoke with someone once about childhood traumas, and asked about school trauma inflicted by the experience of being in school with dysfunctional teachers, and other dysfunctional students. She said that other than bullying it isn’t really explored as a “trauma.”

    It’s hard to imagine any place less nurturing and loving and caring than big public schools – especially middle schools and high schools. Undoubtedly, some teachers manage to connect and exhibit humane behavior, but a good percentage of teachers are toxic and should never be around vulnerable children. They are simply too cynical, bitter, hostile, etc.


    • I agree ZEPHYRBREEZE, high schools are hard tough places these days. My own adolescent kids talk of how different they are in school than at home. ” Mom we can’t wear our hearts on our sleeves. They’ll chew us up and spit us out all the time while laughing” they say. They shop for the high end clothes, learn the swag talk and hide some of their good grades so as to fit in and not be ostracized. Sad but true. Good thing these types of kids can have a ‘soft place to land’ at the end of the day….I only hope for the same for all students AND TEACHERS the same personal lives. :0)


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