Keeping Schools Safe While Reducing Suspensions and Expulsions

David Esquith There’s good news and bad news in the report “Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2015,” the most recent in an annual series produced jointly by the U.S. departments of education (ED) and justice (DOJ). Just as important, there’s help available to sustain the good news and tackle the bad.

The good news is that schools are safer than they have ever been, and that crime in the nation’s schools has declined during the past two decades. Two examples illustrate this recent trend.

  • In 2014, students ages 12 to 18 experienced 33 victimizations per 1,000 students at school, a decline of 82 percent from 181 per 1,000 in 1992.
  • Between the 1999-2000 and 2013-14 school years, the percentage of public schools who reported bullying occurred at school at least once per week decreased from 29 to 16 percent.

The bad news is that large numbers of students are losing precious instructional time because they are suspended or expelled, especially African- American and Hispanic students. Two examples illustrate these conditions.

  • Among students who were ninth-graders in fall 2009, about 19 percent had been suspended or expelled by the spring of their 11th-grade year. Not surprisingly, the percentage of these students who had been suspended or expelled was higher for those who did not complete high school than for those who did complete high school by 2013 (54 vs. 17 percent).
  • African-American and Hispanic students are suspended more often than their peers. In school year 2011-12, 6 percent of all public school students received an out-of-school suspension. The rate for African-American (15 percent) and Hispanic (6 percent) students was higher than it was for other racial or ethnic subgroups, such as white (4 percent) and Asian (1 percent) students.

How do we sustain the conditions of good news and turn around those of bad news? First of all, the fact that there is good news is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of educators at every level.

The ED has a number of resources that are free and readily available to educators that can help to sustain these improvements, and reduce suspensions and expulsions. One of those resources is the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) at safesupportivelearning. NCSSLE seeks to improve schools' conditions for learning by providing training and support to state administrators, school and district administrators, institutions of higher education, teachers, support staff at schools, communities and families and students.

In regard to reducing suspensions and expulsions, ED and DOJ have released a school discipline guidance package that can assist states, districts, and schools in developing practices and strategies to enhance school climate, with a goal of reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions. The package is available at By taking a positive approach to school discipline, schools can respond to misbehavior in a fair, non-discriminatory and effective manner.

Educators, students and parents face an increasingly complex set of technological and interpersonal challenges to maintain safe and supportive learning environments. I am often asked, “What are the biggest threats to school safety?” My response sometimes surprises people, but I expect it does not surprise youth workers. My answer is that some of the biggest threats to school safety are loneliness, fear and hopelessness. Loneliness can make a young person vulnerable to gang involvement or abusive relationships. Fear can trigger a fight-or-flight response. Hopelessness, perhaps the most perilous of the three, can lead a young person to drop out of school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and even commit suicide.

Youth workers often model the value of building trusting relationships with young people. To do that effectively, one has to find the good in everyone and nurture it, rather than “fix” the “problem” behavior. That is no small feat — one that takes insight and patience.

When one of my daughters was in third grade, I asked her who her favorite teacher had been since kindergarten. After she named the teacher, I asked her why this particular teacher was her favorite. She responded immediately, “Because she believes in everyone.” Those wonderful educators who believe in everyone are making our schools safer and creating positive school environments.

David Esquith is director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students.

Zero-Tolerance Policies in U.S. Schools are Ineffective and Unaffordable

Despite public concerns about youth crime, particularly in schools, research has shown that policies based on incapacitation theory have failed utterly to affect crime rates. In fact, while youth crime rates have fallen significantly over the last 30 years, they have continued to plummet despite recent trends towards community-based alternatives (e.g., the ‘Missouri Model’). The evidence suggests that not only do punitive disciplinary approaches often fail they are also unnecessary. It is particularly troubling, then, to consider the police presence and draconian disciplinary measures that have increasingly found their way into America’s schools.

Schools typically have rules forbidding mobile phone use, profanity and the like. Taken at face value, these rules seem sensible and necessary to ensure order. However, when combined with broad zero-tolerance policies that often mandate inordinately harsh punishments like suspension or even expulsion from school for trivial infractions, breaking such rules can have dire consequences.

For example, a student suspended from classes for several weeks as a result of disruptive behavior may have significant trouble completing missed coursework upon returning to school. Additionally, the youth may well be unsupervised during their suspension. Here, the possibility of gang involvement or exposure to other negative influences can be significant. Youth of color and/or lower socioeconomic status are at particularly high risk in this respect.

Critically, there is often little investigation of causal factors behind students’ “aberrant” behaviors. Many youth act out as a response to previous trauma — sometimes within their families — or as a result of undiagnosed learning disabilities. In such instances, sending them home and keeping them from their studies for weeks at a time seems entirely counterproductive, aggravating rather than mitigating the problems at hand.

Even more disturbing, children are now sometimes subjected to arrest, physical restraint, and even the use of tear gas and pepper spray by police officers and security guards in schools. Media and researchers have identified these trends and the related school-to-prison pipeline, in which troubled and disadvantaged youth are singled out and schooled for a future in prison rather than university or the trades. Actions once viewed as minor transgressions—normal, if annoying, examples of adolescent socialization—have now been criminalized.

Given this untenable situation, it is imperative that other less punitive and more effective strategies for dealing with troubled (or merely troublesome) youth be explored and implemented.  These strategies should aim to explicitly benefit students, their schools, and their communities in the long term.

For example:

  • Less formal mediation is a practical alternative to law enforcement involvement or strict, zero-tolerance responses to misbehavior.
  • Academic evaluations should be used to generate individualized plans to address students’ unique needs (e.g., learning disabilities or developmental deficiencies.)
  • In addition to identifying students struggling with mental health issues, school social workers and psychologists can work to unmask and address conflicts or instabilities in students’ homes. Recent studies of trauma-informed care support such efforts.

In line with this thinking, California has made significant progress this year with the passage of four bills aimed primarily at keeping at-risk youth in school and out of the criminal justice system. Notably, the legislation calls for community service and other restorative disciplinary tactics to be tried before administrators may suspend students. As well, schools will no longer be able to routinely deny enrollment to youth who have had previous trouble with the law.

While suspension and expulsion can appeal to harried administrators and teachers as “quick fixes” for visible disciplinary problems, the potential collateral negative consequences and costs of these sanctions are clear. It is common knowledge that the less education a person has, the less money that person is likely to earn over their lifetime. Where unaddressed social or psychological co-factors exist, the probability of lower wages—and potential reliance on public funds—seems even greater as troubled youth transition to adulthood.

Finally, consider the expense of incarcerating someone over time versus providing them with needed support early on that could very well keep them out of the criminal justice system to begin with. Clearly, the smart money is on keeping kids—even troubled ones—in class and ensuring they graduate. It is imperative, then, to reframe students’ negative behaviors as just that: childish behaviors that can be addressed, changed, and grown out of; not crimes that must be punished.

School Discipline Study Finds Disparities

Picture this: Students lay out their school initials in bricks on the outfield of a rival team’s baseball field so the grass underneath dies, leaving a long-term imprint.  If the culprits are caught, their punishment could range from a wink and a reprimand to a criminal charge of vandalism. The difference depends on where in Georgia the prank occurs.

Some schools and districts punish much more frequently and more severely than others, according to “Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class,” a report released in June by the non-profit Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. Some districts, for example, impose out-of-school-suspension at a rate 10 to 20 times higher than others.

“Perhaps the overarching theme of Georgia’s student discipline law is the strong reliance on local control in the development of overall discipline policies,” says the report, subtitled, “An Assessment of Georgia’s Public School Disciplinary Policies, Practices and Outcomes.” The June release is Phase One of a project expected to be completed in late 2010 in association with JustGeorgia, a statewide juvenile justice coalition formed in 2006.

Data in the report compiled by the Georgia Department of Education shows that the total incidence of disciplinary actions seemed to decrease from  2003-2009, but some severe forms of punishment increased. Expulsions were up by 19 percent, for example, and assignments to alternative schools grew by a whopping 40 percent.

The report, which looks at discipline in grades K-12 in Georgia public schools, found that African-American students, special education students, and those receiving free or reduced lunches were disciplined at a greater rate than other students.

  • African-American students, who made up 37.7 percent of the student body in 2008-2009 received 58.9 percent of the disciplinary actions.
  • Special education students, who made up 11 percent of all students, received 18.2 percent of the out of school suspensions and 23.7 percent of expulsions.
  • And the 53 percent of students who were eligible for free or reduced lunches made up 73 percent of the out of school suspensions.

The findings reaffirm those in an earlier study by the Georgia Department of Education, says Rob Rhodes, Georgia Appleseed’s Director of Legal Affairs and the primary author of the June report.  As the organization prepares a Phase Two report due out late this year, “we’re going to look at this very rigorously,” Rhodes says. In discussions with stakeholders in the state’s public schools, Georgia Appleseed will examine whether discipline policies need to be changed to correct unfair disparities, or whether counseling or other support might be needed, he says.

Some of the impetus for the discipline study resulted from stringent policies adopted in the wake of widely reported incidents of school violence.  “This nation was shocked by the tragedy of student violence at Columbine High School in Colorado in the spring of 1999,” says the preface to the report. “One month later, six students at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, suffered injury at the hands of a fifteen-year-old classmate. Understandably, school administrators around the country have searched for ways to assure that their students can come to school and learn in a safe environment.”

These events lead to “zero tolerance” policies in many school districts, requiring severe sanctions for some offenses, regardless of the circumstances.   “Some observers have argued that these more rigorous approaches to student discipline have overreached, resulting in unintended consequences,” the report says. “Incidents of severe punishment for minor or inadvertent violations of student codes of conduct have been reported from around the country and in Georgia. These include the ten-day suspension of an eleven-year-old in Cobb County, Georgia, for her possession of a Tweety Bird key chain and the arrest and suspension of a ten-year-old Newton County boy who brought a small cap gun to a ‘show-and-tell’ about the civil war.”

Discipline is necessary to make sure students, faculty and staff are safe in schools, Rhodes says, but schools are also mandated to educate students. When discipline results in extended suspension or expulsion, the opportunity to educate is lost.   “There’s a need for balance between potentially conflicting goals and objectives,” he says. “Some studies have shown that since the 1990s, the pendulum has swung toward ensuring a safe environment at the expense of excluding too many kids.”

Different school districts in Georgia seem to see the balance differently.

Georgia Appleseed examined in detail the policies of fifteen school systems across the state. The districts varied significantly in their approaches to zero tolerance, which Georgia Appleseed defined as mandatory out-of-school suspension for ten or more days, expulsion, referral to an alternative educational setting, or referral to juvenile court for violation of a provision of a code, “regardless of intent or extenuating circumstances.”

State law requires zero tolerance in certain cases, such as bringing a gun to school, but some districts have adopted the same policy for other behavior.  The state requires that students be expelled for physically injuring school faculty or staff members. However, there is no such requirement for punishing student-on-student acts. “Nevertheless,” says an appendix to the report, “most districts have zero tolerance policies for fighting, battery, and assault committed by one student against another or even, dangerous behavior committed against oneself.”

DeKalb County, whose policies are among the strictest of the 15 districts, imposes zero tolerance for a string of offenses including smoking, using an unauthorized computer ID or password, and vandalism of property valued at more than $100.    Some people believe zero tolerance has gotten out of hand.

One Georgia incident got so much attention, it spurred changes in state law during the last legislative session.

When Eli Mohone, 14, couldn’t find his backpack one morning, his mother handed him another bag. At school, Eli found a fishing knife inadvertently left in it.  Even though he turned in the knife at his Morgan County middle school, he was  handcuffed, expelled, convicted of a felony and sent to an alternative school.  Morgan County school board member Dave Belton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “our hands were tied because it was state law...It’s not only zero tolerance. It’s zero common sense.”

In response to the Morgan County case, Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) introduced a bill that allows school officials to consider intent and circumstances in imposing discipline.  The bill passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed by Governor Sonny Perdue, who called it “common sense legislation.”   “We hope schools will now go in and change their policies,” Jones says in a recent telephone interview.

Overly stringent discipline may have long-term implications for students.  Appleseed found that many of the school districts with the highest rates of out-of-school suspension had graduation rates below the state average.  Conversely, districts with the lowest rates of out-of-school suspensions generally had above-average graduation rates.   The Appleseed report draws no conclusion about the relationship between the figures, Rhodes says, but raises the matter as a potential topic for further investigation.

Effective, fair discipline requires common sense and mutual respect among teachers, administrators and students, says Dr. Jim Arnold, Superintendent of Pelham City Schools. Until June 30, Arnold was principal of Shaw High School in Columbus and President of the Georgia Association of Secondary School Principals.  “Our school administrators understand that a kid that works at Publix and forgets to take his box-cutter out of his pocket is not same as another who threatens somebody with a knife,” Arnold says.

Shaw uses Monday Evening School as an alternative to suspension.  At Monday Evening School, students must study definitions from the SAT word list.

Arnold says he has a rule for discipline: It can’t be personal.  “We don’t criminalize the person,” he says, “only the behavior.”

He also believes in not overreacting to what may be a practical joke or a prank.

It was on the baseball field at Shaw a couple of weeks ago, where he was principal, that students from rival Hardaway High School laid out the bricks in an HHS pattern.  Some administrators might have called it vandalism.  Arnold had a good chuckle.

“I thought that was pretty clever,” he says. “Of course I wish our grass wasn’t dead.”

There won’t be an investigation to apprehend and punish the culprits.

Shaw will just cut the grass, fertilize it and let it grow back.

Read more:  Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class


Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts