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It's time to fix school discipline practices and policies


Sarah Omojola

Sarah Omojola

All students can learn. That’s a simple but profound starting place for talking about changing school discipline policies. As a former teacher in New Orleans public schools, I am well aware of the difficulty of teaching students who have varying backgrounds, abilities and learning styles in an ever-changing school system, inundated with countless internal and external pressures.

However, research has shown that students are frequently suspended on grounds such as “willful defiance” for behavior that is often related to having a disability, being culturally different from teachers or administrators, or because they are still learning how to respect themselves and others.

Unlike suspension for safety reasons, suspending students for “willful defiance” is an unsound educational policy that ultimately results in students losing valuable educational time. A recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows that high school suspension rates have risen dramatically in the past 30 years without actually improving school climates. Notably, the American Psychological Association found that schools with higher rates of suspensions have lower academic quality and school climate ratings.

This year Assemblymember Roger Dickinson has introduced AB 420, which would eliminate “willful defiance” as grounds for suspension in grades K-5, where students are in early stages of development and, therefore, should be kept in school to receive the education and services that they need instead of a fast track to the juvenile justice system. The bill leaves in place more than 20 other grounds for suspension. These small changes will go a long way to reducing suspensions and, therefore, the negative impact that suspensions have on students’ education and futures.

Already, educators across California are shifting the culture in their schools and districts by pioneering research-based approaches such as restorative justice, social-emotional learning and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). These approaches use different ways of holding students accountable, but all have proven results. Contrary to what many people believe, these strategies often cost little or nothing, can be funded with existing sources and increase achievement scores. As a former teacher in a school with a chaotic environment, I was frequently dealing with student misbehavior instead of teaching. Without the full support of the administration, I – in collaboration with teachers teaching the same grades and subject – made some headway with proactive, positive discipline practices in my classroom. But I know that it is much easier to teach in a school where there is a calm environment throughout and everyone is on the same page about how to help students struggling with behavior. For that reason and more, we at Public Counsel have created a free guide to accessing these alternatives, learning from other successful educators, and obtaining the training you need to implement them at your school.

These toolkits contain interviews with educators who are actively changing the culture and improving discipline practices in their schools. During one such interview, Sacramento elementary school Principal Billy Aydlett told me, “The traditional model says, ‘Throw kids out for refusing to listen to you.’ What I learned is that what our students need the most is not negative consequences and zero-tolerance policies. What our students need is absolutely consistent and urgent support around maintaining appropriate behavior.”

Through observations at various schools and conversations with educators and community organizations, we have seen that alternate discipline strategies focus on teaching appropriate behavior and accountability, thereby allowing classrooms and schools to run much more smoothly. A San Francisco elementary school teacher who experienced this kind of improvement firsthand said, “I have been teaching for 10 years, the last five of which have been here at Rosa Parks. This is our second year with Restorative Practices and the climate here is much better. There is a lot less screaming and fighting from the kids. I also see a lot fewer ‘frequent fliers,’ who usually are repeatedly referred to the office. Now we go through a restorative conference and that’s it. I think that the students feel like their voices are being heard so they are less angry and less likely to act out.”

A Restorative Practices trainer in Richmond told Public Counsel, “[In] addition to the sharp decrease in suspensions (53%), the change in overall school climate was palpable and observable. The year prior, you would not have wanted to walk through the halls during a class change. Students were jostling, bumping and running into each other and administrators were having a hard time clearing the halls.” Now students get to class on time and administrators report fewer behavior issues overall.

You can read interviews with these educators and many others at our website.

Schools that take this research-based approach and put an end to knee-jerk suspensions have experienced increases in student achievement in addition to improved school climate. James A. Garfield Senior High School in Los Angeles serves a population in which 90% of its students are eligible for free/reduced price meals. After adopting a school-wide positive behavioral interventions & supports approach, the school not only reduced suspensions from more than 600 down to just one, it also increased its score on the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s measure of academic achievement.

These results are not isolated; for example, Pioneer High School in Woodland has experienced similar improvements, including consistent, significant API growth for the entire school and each subgroup. These California results have been borne out in statewide and national studies, which show that implementing alternative discipline practices also results in improved academic achievement, reduced dropout rates, higher teacher retention and a more positive school culture.

For schools and districts that are concerned about the cost of implementing such alternatives, each of the educators that we interviewed said that the costs were nominal or something that they could fund from existing sources. Principal Aydlett explained, “Anyone who says money is a factor or a barrier to implementing an alternative discipline practice doesn’t want to change.”

I challenge schools and districts struggling with student behavior and school climate to fix their discipline practices and policies, but this challenge comes with the promise of support for educators who want to embrace it. Instead of hoping and praying for solutions, schools and districts can adopt research-based alternatives and look for guidance in similar places across California that are already seeing results.

Visit www.fixschooldiscipline.org to learn more, get access to resources and contact me for free technical assistance and support.

•••

Sarah Omojola is statewide education advocate for Public Counsel Law Center, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. She is a former English teacher and co-founder of Stand Up For Each Other!, an organization that provides advocacy services for students facing disciplinary action in New Orleans. She now works with Public Counsel and Fix School Discipline on policy and advocacy relating to stopping the school-to-prison pipeline.

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32 Responses to “It's time to fix school discipline practices and policies”

  1. Vito said

    on May 21, 2013 at 8:32 am

    How do Asians manage to get suspended at lower rate than whites if these policies hurt minorities?

    • navigio replied

      on May 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

      Didn’t you ask this once before? ‘Minority’ is a political/social, not ethnic or demographic term.

  2. KS said

    on May 21, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Excellent article! Highlights the need to teach what we preach — help students achieve, instead of kicking them out.

  3. Tiffany Mok said

    on May 21, 2013 at 9:59 am

    AB420 is a great to way to make our schools better. Keeping kids in school results in high returns. It has a real economic impact on the health and safety of our communities in decreased crime and vandalism and increased chance that our young people will become wage earners. Society and the State of California will continue to pay higher costs in remedial education, clinical treatment, public assistance, and incarceration when we remove students from school as a savings measure.

  4. Vito said

    on May 21, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Actually according to the dictionary, Asians are a minority.

    • navigio replied

      on May 21, 2013 at 11:25 am

      Try a social sciences dictionary:

      MINORITY GROUP
      A group distinguished by being on the margins of power, status or the allocation of resources within the society. ‘Visible minority’ refer to those racial or ethnic groups in a society which are marginal from the power and economic structure of society, not to those which are few in number. In South Africa, Blacks are the statistical majority but were for countless decades a social minority. Women can also be identified as a social minority group.

  5. Vito said

    on May 21, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Aren’t parents supposed to teach their kids to respect the authority of teachers?

  6. Vito said

    on May 21, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Um, Asians fit perfectly in the social sciences definition of a minority. How many Asians are in power in government? How many Asian CEOs are there? You want me to go on?

      • Vito replied

        on May 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm

        Wow keep moving the goalposts on the term “minority”. First you say it’s based on power which I proved to you that Asians don’t have. And now since Asians have a high household income, that doesn’ make Asians a minority. So did LeBron James cease being a minority when he signed his first NBA deal?

        It’s so ironic that this discussions is about education since you clearly lack it. In California in the late 1800s it was not illegal to kill a Chinese person hence the term “not a Chinaman’s chance”. In California, Japanese-Americans had their property stolen from them by the government and locked up in internment camps simply because of their race. And you’re going to tell me Asians are not a minority.

        The only reason you are so adamant that they are not minorities is because they don’t fit in the “modern education system is bias against minorities” narrative that is pushed.

        • navigio replied

          on May 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm

          Vito, my point was that the term minority, like so many of our other political terms, has lost much of its ‘literal’ meaning because its come to mean different things in different contexts. An attempt to conflate or blur those distinctions is a common ‘argument’, but it does not give such stances any more meaning. (I’m actually confused why you brought it up as it’s not even used in the article, or in the report cited.)

          Anyway regarding your last sentence, thank you for finally understanding that different ‘statistical minorities’ can have wildly different social and economic realities within our society. This of course makes them unique, irrespective of what term we might want to use to make them the same.

  7. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman said

    on May 21, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Please note Ms. Omojola has migrated from education to the law. That pretty much says it all.

    Furthermore, starting her commentary with a condescending truism annoys the reader and is
    irrelevant to what is actually a tremendous problem in the public schools of this country. We do not universally acknowledge the classroom as a sacred space; we have failed to agree upon what constitutes the “culture” of school in which “all students can learn;” we will not fund expensive alternatives; and so we reap the whirlwind.

  8. Gary Ravani said

    on May 21, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    In my 35 years of classroom experience I can honestly say I never had a student suspended for “willful defiance” unless, of course, they were willfully defiant.

  9. Carl Cohn said

    on May 21, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I’m intrigued as to why some advocacy and civil rights groups argue that we should raise the bar when it comes to kids of color and academics, but we should lower the bar when it comes to behavior…What parent wants their kid in the “low” behavior standards school?

    • Skeptic replied

      on May 21, 2013 at 2:59 pm

      “What parent wants their kid in the “low” behavior standards school?” … how long until charter schools start to use this tagline as a recruiting tool?

      • navigio replied

        on May 23, 2013 at 11:06 pm

        Surprised no one jumped on this comment. Skeptic is right though. Charters already use this line… and act accordingly.

  10. Maurice Gibson said

    on May 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    It’s a good thing we have APA doing research to discover things like “Notably, the American Psychological Association found that schools with higher rates of suspensions have lower academic quality and school climate ratings.” Imagine that… A school full of bad kids has a bad education rate… What else did they discover, the internet? Great job citing worthless information to back your atricle.
    The issue with discipline is schools is simple, the kids no longer fear the consequences. You can’t make them do anything anymore, so your only choice is to send them home. You want to fix discipline, put a pricetag on offenses! Like a ticket! When a kid is suspended put a fine on it say $50 per day. You want to see a parent get riled into action and make them do thier job real fast tell them that they owe a $500 fine for thier kid starting a fight at school! If you don’t pay your fines you don’t graduate!
    Now they are accountable and you haven’t hurt thier feelings, and you havent physically haven’t hurt them!

  11. Sophie said

    on May 21, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Raise the bar when it comes to academics but lower the bar when it comes to behavior.

    This is a pretty loaded statement. Behavior and attitudes aren’t a black and white issue, there are many sides to a situation. What adults in a school may see as defiant behavior, could mean something different to a student. The author isn’t saying that we should permit that student’s view to be unchecked, but instead argues that options other than suspension are more appropriate. As a former special education teacher I must say I agree that suspensions are over used and can be detrimental for students.

    There are many policies and programs schools can put into place that reinforce the behaviors schools and teacher want to see while giving consequences for unwanted behaviors. These programs reduce the types of “defiant” behaviors for which students are often suspended.

    No one is arguing for student misbehaviors to go unchecked nor removal of suspensions all together. This seems like a thoughtful call to action for teachers and administrators.

    • CarolineSF replied

      on May 21, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      What are some examples?

      There are many policies and programs schools can put into place that reinforce the behaviors schools and teacher want to see while giving consequences for unwanted behaviors. These programs reduce the types of “defiant” behaviors for which students are often suspended.

      • Sophie replied

        on May 22, 2013 at 8:21 am

        Generally the practices I am most familiar with are called Positive Behavior Support. This comes out of the Response to Intervention policies if I am not mistaken.

        I didn’t dig very deep into the website for the organization the author linked to but it looks like they have some more concrete examples there.

  12. el said

    on May 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    If the kids in question have a terrible home environment and apparently terrible parents, as most of the commenters here are assuming, how exactly would sending them home for a day or two be likely to improve their behavior?

    (Note also that the legislation mentioned covers grades K-5.)

  13. Manuel said

    on May 21, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    I am suspicious of anyone who starts their argument with “as a former teacher” and then I find they did it for a short period of time, in this case only two years. These two years could be a Teach for America stint. Or worse, it is often the length of time required by a teacher to get “tenure.” Or the person could have had a terrible experience and simply move on. Neither of these cases confers much credence on their experience as teachers.

    So why is Ms. Omojola the point person for this push by Public Counsel to advocate for alternatives to suspension? After all, she has been out of law school for hardly a year. According to her LinkedIn page, Ms. Omojola was involved in advocating for juveniles while attending Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. That is commendable and perhaps makes her qualified to participate in this legislative push for fewer suspensions.

    However, her arguments about no longer applying suspensions to K-5 students imply to me that a suspensions in secondary schools are directly related to suspensions in K-5. A quick check I did on suspensions at LAUSD schools (and posted on a previous article on suspensions) indicates that elementary schools have very few suspensions. How can these handful of suspensions per elementary mushroom to the 100 to 200 per high school? Given that most elementaries have 700 students and high schools about 2000, this makes no sense numerically. To me, this seems like a solution in search of a problem.

    The revision to Ed Code 48900(k) states that it is the intent of the Legislature to minimize excessive use of willful defiance as a reason to impose suspensions and to encourage other means of correction. Nothing in here defines what is excessive. Nothing in here tells me what the penalties will be if the encouragement is not followed. Besides, “willful defiance” will simply be redefined. After all, a student can be suspended for habitual profanity or vulgarity [48900(i)], threatening bodily harm [48900(a)(1)], or the many acts that are under the definition of bullying [48900(r)]. The goal posts will be moved and it will all go back to “normal.”

    Public Counsel would do much more good if it spent its limited resources on, for example, forcing school districts to provide funding to all poor children under Title I, not just those attending schools with a 75%-or-above poverty rating. Or, even better, conduct school inspections to enforce the Williams settlement. For example, many schools in LAUSD still lack safe schools.

  14. Paul Muench said

    on May 21, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    Dan Willingham has posted an article to his blog about encouraging moral behavior. The topic is more about what not do than what to do.

  15. Meghan M said

    on May 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    No one wants to “lower the bar” when it comes to school discipline. But it is safer – and more cost effective – to keep kids in the classroom than to leave them unsupervised on the streets. Studies show that suspended or expelled students are 5 times more likely to drop out of school. They are also 3 times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system within one year, compared to similar students. And children who drop out cost the state $46 billion a year, including $12 billion in crime costs alone.

    Keeping students in school, and thus helping prevent high school dropout, is perhaps one of the most effective strategies to reduce violence and criminal activity from happening in our communities, which is why many law enforcements leaders throughout California support this legislation.

    The reality is that there are better ways to address disruption or willful defiance without removing kids from school. Many schools have adopted evidence-based, alternative discipline policies which appropriately address poor behavior without removing students from their learning environments. Hopefully, AB 420 will encourage more schools to do the same.

  16. Paul said

    on May 23, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    This author, like so many others, throws out the baby with the bathwater. Frankly, a lawyer should know better.

    Striking 48900(k) blocks in-school as well as out-of-school suspensions for “defiance/disruption”, making it illegal for teachers to remove students from their classrooms for any offense other than the remaining, more specific offenses, such as weapons and drugs. (As Manuel says, the categories of threats, bullying and profanity are still subjective, but they are less flexible than “willful defiance/disruption”. As I say, where does a third-grader who reverses a table fit?)

    Even sending a defiant/disruptive student to the friendly vice-principal for a snack and a pat on the back (i.e., “restorative justice” dialogue) would be illegal.

    “48910. (a) A teacher may suspend any pupil from class, for any of the acts ENUMERATED IN SECTION 48900, for the day of the suspension and the day following. The teacher shall immediately report the suspension to the principal of the school and send the pupil to the principal or the designee of the principal for appropriate action. If that action requires the continued presence of the pupil at the schoolsite, the pupil shall be under appropriate supervision, as defined in policies and related regulations adopted by the governing board of the school district. As soon as possible, the teacher shall ask the parent or guardian of the pupil to attend a parent-teacher conference regarding the suspension. If practicable, a school counselor or a school psychologist may attend the conference. A school administrator shall attend the conference if the teacher or the parent or guardian so requests. The pupil shall not be returned to the class from which he or she was suspended, during the period of the suspension, without the concurrence of the teacher of the class and the principal.” [Emphasis added.]

    As you can see, the in-school suspension provision has many constructive procedural safeguards.

    I will say that it isn’t fair to criticize the author for leaving the classroom, which is the only rational choice when one considers workload, earnings potential, and career prospects. While she’s not a bad person for leaving, she clearly lacks the experience and knowledge to make general claims about student discipline.

    • navigio replied

      on May 24, 2013 at 10:55 am

      Yes, I remember that story. I have also heard that teachers/admins say they are less willing to discipline Asian students because they are more willing to get into severe trouble at home as a result.

      I’m not sure whether that’s what you’re getting at though..

      • navigio replied

        on May 24, 2013 at 11:00 am

        I meant ‘more likely’ not ‘more willing’.

    • Gary Ravani replied

      on May 24, 2013 at 3:39 pm

      Well, Vito the simple answer isAsians and Latinos don’t have the same SES backgrounds. Taken from a report based on the 2010 Census data:

      “Overall, AA [Asian] ethnic groups tended to have higher annual incomes than the overall U.S. population (Table 7). The two ethnic groups with the highest median household and family, as well as per capita incomes, were Asian Indian and Taiwanese, but other groups such as Filipino, Sri Lankan, Japanese, Chinese, and Malaysian also had consistently high median household, median family, and per capita incomes—far higher than the national figures. As expected, these same groups had the lowest percentages of families and children living below the federal poverty line (Table8). ”

      As is always the case statistically school achievement, including issues related to discipline, track to parental income and education levels. That being said there are always “outliers.” Think of immigration. Latinos often just come across the border while Asians have to come across an ocean after meeting stringent qualification requirements. The continent from which immigrants come with the highest levels of education is…wait for it…Africa. With US history being what it is re race, why do you think that would be true?

  17. Laura Kanter said

    on May 30, 2013 at 11:56 am

    As the Director of Youth Services at The Orange County Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, I am hopeful that AB 420 will be signed into law. The use of “willful defiance” to remove students from school has far-reaching negative consequences not only for the youth who are suspended, but for all of California’s youth who are learning that discrimination is acceptable, people who different or who struggle are expendable and that simply getting rid of “troublemakers” is the way to solve problems.

    School-based rule-breaking is often a reflection of challenges related to behavior and impulsivity that is exacerbated as children enter the challenge-laden developmental stage of adolescence. While behavior should not be divorced from responsibility, numerous studies confirm that child and adolescent development can be derailed by exposure to adversity and trauma. Based on the data we have about who gets suspended, we know that students who are suspended for willful defiance are also more likely to have experienced trauma related to familial, social and economic problems. Trauma can also result from being bullied, shamed, and alienated in school. Many LGBT students face systemic hostility including shaming, rejection, and violence on a day to basis at school and at home.

    How can teachers and school administrators justify shaming and rejecting youth who are crying out for help? Instead of recognizing the additional challenges faced by minority and marginalized youth, schools are further stigmatizing and alienating these students through harsh and punitive school discipline policies.

    A thoughtful, whole-student, data-informed and compassionate disciplinary system can turn problems into opportunities for learning and growth can promote positive youth development and skills that will help students in the classroom and beyond.

  18. Sarah Omojola said

    on May 31, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    I want to respond to a few things raised in the responses to my commentary. First, I want to reiterate a few facts:

    1. “Willful defiance” is a broad, nebulous catch-all grounds for suspension.

    2. Suspension is an outdated, ineffective method of addressing student behavior which has the opposite effect than intended.

    3. The landscape, demographics and learning styles of our children have changed drastically since current harsh school discipline policies were introduced two decades ago.
    Educators across California have already started to respond to this new reality with innovative strategies. You can read interviews with many of them at FixSchoolDiscipline.org/Toolkits.

    These educators focus on proactive, cost effective solutions for improving student behavior and school climate. I mean the term “school climate” to include staff morale and student-teacher/student-administration relationships. Schools work more smoothly when there is a plan in place, before unwanted behavior or incidents occur, for teaching appropriate behavior and creating a respectful school community, where all students are able to learn.

    Yes, I believe that students have a right to learn in schools and classrooms that are free of major distractions. However, arguments that use that statement as a support for relying on ineffective discipline methods like suspension and expulsion miss the point (mine and the APA’s) entirely: suspension and expulsion have not been proven to make schools safer or improve the achievement of the students who remain in the school.

    I continue to stand by my opening statement, “All students can learn.” This statement is by no means meant to be condescending or patronizing. It is meant as a response to the people who think that students who misbehave in the classroom are unwilling or unable to learn and succeed. I believe that we always need to start discussions from that place, as reinforced by a number of the comments I see above.

    Are you an educator, parent or student who has experience with new, alternative approaches or wants to learn more? Please feel free to contact me directly. I am always eager to hear about successful strategies to reduce out-of-school suspensions, increase achievement and graduation rates, and improve school climates. http://www.fixschooldiscipline.org/contact/

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