Improving the Disciplinary Climate: More Options for Communities

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

A variety of approaches can be useful to communities to help improve the disciplinary climate of their schools.

Get Involved and Get Organized. Learn what state and local policies apply to school discipline. Does state policy recommend or require parent or community participation or input on disciplinary or dropout committees or in other processes? (See "Mississippi Communities Take Responsibility for School Discipline.") Does the state compel schools to take certain actions, for example, refer students to the courts or police for certain behaviors? Find out how other people view the situation. Join committees, serve on boards, get other people involved with you to create the kind of school where all students are safe, supported, and have opportunities to learn.

Get the Data. Learn everything you can about how your school approaches discipline. (See "Finding the Discipline Data.") Engage with school leaders and other residents to create a community-wide commitment to fair and productive school disciplinary practices. Some questions to consider as you look at data (adapted from "Education and Race," Applied Research Center, 1998).

  • Does the school district have a clear discipline code that is easily understood by students, parents, and community members?
  • Does the school district keep records of disciplinary action broken out by race/ethnicity, gender, disability, family income? If so, does any group receive a disproportionate number of severe sanctions such as suspension or expulsion? What, if any, efforts are being made to address any such disparity?
  • What kinds of offenses are most likely to bring serious sanctions? Are they objective offenses such as fighting, smoking, alcohol, or drug use? Are serious sanctions imposed for subjective offenses that are defined by teachers or administrators or are not in the disciplinary handbook, for example, "defiance" or "disturbing school?"
  • In individual schools, are records of disciplinary action kept by the issuing teacher as well as by student? Are there trends in the staff members who are issuing referrals or taking severe disciplinary actions for minor problems?
  • In individual schools, are records of behavior infractions kept by location, activity, or time of day? For example, are a disproportionate number of incidents occurring in one hallway or after a particular activity? How can the school address patterns that emerge?
  • What is the rate of special education referrals in the school? Which disabilities are identified there?
  • How many students have been referred to alternative schools or have enrolled in GRE programs from the school?
  • How does this school or district's discipline rates compare to similar schools and districts around the state?

Work Through the Legislative Process. Learn the policies and laws in your state that govern school disciplinary action and work to improve or create new ones as needed. For example, are there laws or state policies that allow students to be charged with a criminal offense for mild or typical child or adolescent misbehaviors (or misunderstandings) under umbrella headings like "disturbing school" or "disrespect?" These laws can be used in discretionary ways that result in students being placed in the juvenile justice system for minor offenses. Some juvenile justice system officials are frustrated at the increase in their resident population caused by these vague and overreaching laws and are willing to become involved in community-based efforts to develop more effective approaches.

Work Through the Legal Process. Concerned parents and community members have, in some cases, worked through legal action to stop or reverse inappropriate disciplinary policies and their negative outcomes for individual students, especially students with disabilities.

Although nationally, there are few attorneys in private practice handling education cases for students, many nonprofit providers make education a priority and are able to assist families in various ways. Protection and Advocacy organizations in each state can work with special education students and typically accept cases without income restrictions. Every state also has a Legal Services system that provides civil legal assistance to families who meet financial requirements. There may also be other advocacy organizations that can offer counseling and advice over the phone or help link students and families with attorneys who would be willing to work on a pro bono or reduced fee basis.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has developed a systemic approach to address what they and others refer to as the "schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline." Using various strategies, including lawsuits, they have successfully forced districts and states to follow federal law for dealing with students with disabilities who have behavior problems, to increase services to these students, and to implement PBIS. SPLC is working on these issues in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and elsewhere.

Read more:

  • Southern Poverty Law Center's Schoolhouse to Jailhouse project page.
  • Texas Appleseed, a legal advocacy center, released a report on the pipeline in their state that also provides a useful overview of the issues and an example of statistics that can be used to clearly illustrate the problems.
  • The Education Law Center has challenged zero tolerance policies in court and in policy arenas, and produced important legal research on how to challenge these laws.
  • The Advancement Project's report, "Education on Lockdown" provides a detailed look at three districts and provides insight from all stakeholders, including law enforcement.

Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.