Groups Address School Pushout Crisis

Last Updated: August 24, 2009

This article appeared in the August 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
Across the country community groups and others concerned about young people have begun to push back against the growing trend for schools to use severe and punitive discipline in response to non-violent student misbehavior.
It is even possible to use federal stimulus funding for a program to improve school climate and reduce discipline referrals (see links at the end of this article).
Suspensions, expulsions, referrals to the criminal justice system, and in some places corporal punishment are up, frequently implemented for violations of school rules that threaten no one. Students of color, especially African-American males, students with disabilities, and low-income students are much more likely than other students to receive extreme punishments for merely alleged or minor infractions.
A number of parents and community groups in the rural South have been deeply involved in efforts to reverse these trends and to create more appropriate overall school environments and disciplinary procedures. (See RPM, January 2009.)
In June a national conference sponsored by the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) brought together a variety of groups interested in finding ways to address the problem and make schools more effective, fair, and supportive. Amanda Adler, Director of the Rural Trust’s Rural Education Finance Center, participated.
The DSC’s approach is unique in its emphasis on human rights principles including the right to safety, mutual respect, and equality and the rights of students at school to human dignity, freedom from discrimination, and opportunities to participate — along with their parents and educators — in their educational process and decision-making.
The Pushout Crisis
Like other groups, DSC views the shift in disciplinary practice as part of an overall trend often referred to as school “pushout.” Pushout is any of the combination of factors that more or less subtly encourage certain students to leave school.
In addition to excessive or criminalizing disciplinary practices, pushout takes many forms including degrading, discriminatory, or indifferent treatment of individuals or groups of students; denial of students’ due process rights; failure to provide mandated services; intimidating, intrusive, or abusive security measures or police presence; and a range of systemic issues like a lack of qualified teachers and counselors and inadequate facilities, supplies, and co-curricular opportunities.
Zero tolerance policies, school re-segregation, and test-based accountability that incentivize the removal of low-performing students all contribute to school pushout. Pushout is also associated with schools with high percentages of students who qualify for free lunch, which is the biggest predictor, according to DSC conference presenters, of low test scores, inexperienced teachers, and inadequate school funding.
Better Options
For the past several years, community and civil rights activists, child advocates, concerned educators, and others have been working to identify strategies and policies that will keep schools safe and protect the educational opportunities and futures of all students. The DSC conference highlighted many of these best practices.
They include:
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): This program has received widespread endorsement from citizen and education groups as well as from the federal government. It emphasizes creating a positive school-wide environment through whole school programs and instruction. Targeted interventions are provided to groups of students who need additional support, guidance, or instruction. Additional intensive interventions and supports are provided individually to students for whom previous interventions have been insufficient. In these cases the goal is to teach students to repair the damage they have done and restore relationships. PBIS is associated with dramatic improvements in school climate and discipline rates. More information is available at Information about the program’s effectiveness in Texas and how to use stimulus funding to implement PBIS is available here.
Limit court referrals to criminal behavior and circumstances in which students are endangered.
Implement whole school approaches that focus on creating hospitable and fair learning and social environments. Involve students and communities in creating and implementing disciplinary policies.
End zero-tolerance and remove armed police presence except where necessary to protect student safety. Provide counseling and other services for individual students with behavior issues.
Develop disciplinary criteria that will eliminate discriminatory practices and outcomes. Keep detailed records of discipline activity and review them frequently to ensure that discipline is fair and non-discriminatory.
Enforce protections and services for special education students and meaningful due process rights for all students.
Expand training and resources for school staff on cultural sensitivity and appropriate responses to in-school misconduct and conflicts between students.
Monitor referrals to alternative schools to ensure they are rational and bias-free. Hold alternative schools accountable for providing meaningful educational services.
Incentivize keeping students in school in local, state, and federal policies, including NCLB and require thorough reporting of disciplinary data.
End practices that encourage or create racial/ethnic segregation or barriers to equitable opportunity, pay, and representation.
Federal Support Available
Schools and districts can use federal stimulus funding for implementing new discipline programs aimed at keeping students in school and ending disparate treatment of different groups of students.
For more information:
Read more from the August 2009 Rural Policy Matters.