School Discipline: Special Edition

Last Updated: January 03, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Across the country disturbing patterns are emerging in the ways schools deal with students on disciplinary issues. This special edition of RPM takes an in-depth look at some of these issues with emphasis on how communities can get involved to ensure that all students have the best educational opportunities in school environments that are safe and supportive.

When rural community groups work to improve education for local children, their efforts often include attempts to make school discipline appropriate, fair, and useful in helping students succeed. Nationally, rural schools and smaller public schools have fewer serious disciplinary disruptions and less violence than larger or more metropolitan schools.

Nevertheless, some rural schools are disruptive or chaotic and need community support or other interventions. And in some communities, particularly those with long histories of economic or racial injustice, many residents see a connection between the limited educational opportunities afforded their young people and patterns of harsh and inequitable school disciplinary action. National research bears out these observations.

On average, low-income students, students with disabilities, and students of color -- especially African-American males -- are more likely to be spanked at school, suspended, or expelled than other students and for more minor infractions.

In some states, schools have been legally compelled to turn students over to police or juvenile authorities for behavior that until very recently was handled at school. Some schools choose to involve the police or courts rather than establish in-school processes for addressing behavior that poses no real threat. In such situations, minor misbehavior, simple misunderstandings, or unsubstantiated allegations often become criminalized. Once in the system -- with the resulting juvenile record and many restrictions and stigmas that go along with it -- students and their families often find it difficult to get out. The result for too many students is a ticket on the school-to-prison pipeline that ruins young lives and costs taxpayers millions.

There is no question that schools must be safe for everyone, that threatening behavior should be addressed immediately, and that intervention should be provided for students who routinely disrupt the learning or security of their schoolmates. One of the ironies, however, of the current disciplinary climate is that violence and disruption in American schools has actually decreased since the mid-1980s. The rise in suspensions, expulsions, in-school arrests, and referrals to the criminal justice system does not reflect an increase in problem behavior in schools.

Nor does it reflect a general rise in juvenile crime. In fact, juvenile crime has also fallen in the last decade. Even so, the number of young people held in secure facilities for non-violent offenses has risen.

Several factors have converged in recent years to abet the crisis in disciplinary policy that many communities face. One is the wave of school shootings that prompted a toughening of disciplinary codes and adoption of zero tolerance policies. Communities support efforts to keep students safe and can find it difficult to respond when policies are applied unevenly or to behavior that poses no threat.

Other factors have more to do with larger public policies and circumstances. Pressures to raise test scores can lead schools to urge struggling students out the door. The release of hundreds of school districts (especially in the South) from court oversight of desegregation plans has left parents and plaintiff groups with far less legal recourse if grossly unfair patterns or harmful practices emerge. A nationwide decline in the number of teachers of color and an increase in the number of students of color can create a "culture gap" between teachers, students, and communities that sometimes leads to misunderstanding and results in inequitable discipline.

This special edition of RPM explores some of the school discipline challenges and options facing rural communities.

Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.