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.

Students Disciplined in Texas Public Schools More Likely to Enter Juvenile Justice System

Educators are reacting to a recent study of Texas public schools that found students who were disciplined were more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system and do poorly academically. The study, by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, also found that 60 percent of Texas public school students received some form of punishment at least once between seventh and 12th grades.

“Policymakers should be asking if the school discipline system is getting the outcomes they want it to get,” Michael Thompson, director of the center, told The Washington Post. The study was co-authored by Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute.

Researchers collected data from about 1 million public school students who began seventh grade in 2000, 2001 or 2002. Nearly 15 percent were involved in some way with the juvenile justice system.

“That’s astronomical,” Joe Erhardt, a science teacher at Kingwood Park High School in the Houston suburb of Humble, Tex., told The New York Times. “I’m at a loss.”

While the report doesn’t claim to prove a direct causal relationship between school discipline and involvement in the justice system, “it’s fair to say that school discipline is highly related to these outcomes and strongly predicts these results,” the study said.

In an interview with The Times, Doug Otto, superintendent of the Plano Independent School District, said the data showed that “suspensions are a little too easy.”

“Once they become automatic, we’ve really hurt that child’s chances to receive a high school diploma,” he added.

The study also found that nearly 15 percent of students were suspended or expelled 11 times or more. Of those suspended at least 11 times, nearly half were involved with the juvenile justice system.


Benjamin Chambers on Reducing School Violence and Suspensions with Restorative Justice

The bad news: recent research indicates that schools suspend far more kids than they need to, and youth – especially youth of color, though not always -- suffer unfairly for it.

The good news? Sure, zero-tolerance school discipline policies need revision. But there's another solution to the problem: changing school culture by implementing mediation and "restorative justice" techniques in schools.

First, the background. "Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis," by Daniel J. Losen and Russell J. Skiba, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, makes for fascinating and depressing reading. After reviewing more than 30 years of data from nearly 10,000 middle schools nationwide, it concludes that suspension is over-used as a disciplinary tool, and that youth of color -- black males especially -- are suspended far out of proportion to their numbers.

The authors looked specifically at types of suspensions where school staff could exercise discretion -- incidents of fighting, disruptive behavior and so on. They analyzed how many youth were suspended and broke down differences by race/ethnicity, and gender.

What they learned was appalling: suspension rates have nearly doubled for students of all races/ethnicities since 1973; African American, Latino, and American Indian youth were suspended at higher rates than white youth; 6 percent of all black students were suspended in 1973, compared with 15 percent in 2006; and a breathtaking 28.3 percent of black males were suspended in 2006, compared with 10 percent of white males.

When researchers looked at the 18 largest urban school districts, they found that most "had several schools that suspended more than 50 percent of a given racial/gender group." They even found schools that suspended more than half of their white and Hispanic female students.

Seriously. 50 percent.

Worse, the authors point out that the federal data they used only counts students who've been suspended at least once -- it doesn't actually count the number of suspensions. So their conclusions probably underestimate the frequency of suspensions, and the impact on these students' classroom time (which is linked to their likelihood of dropping out and, of course, their chances of ending up in the juvenile justice system).

You might be shrugging your shoulders and saying, "Well, if it makes the school safer and helps other students learn better ..." Here's what the authors have to say about that:

[D]espite nearly two decades of implementation of zero tolerance disciplinary policies and their application to mundane and non-violent misbehavior, there is no evidence that frequent reliance on removing misbehaving students improves school safety or student behavior.

In fact, frequent use of suspension and expulsion as disciplinary tools doesn't seem to help other students do better:

[E]merging data indicate that schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion have poorer outcomes on standardized achievement tests, regardless of the economic level or demographics of their students. It is difficult to argue that disciplinary removals result in improvements to the school learning climate when schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates average lower test scores than do schools with lower suspension and expulsion rates.

Since research suggests that instructional time is strongly related to achievement outcomes, a policy shift is necessary:

It is critical to note that schools with very high suspension rates (e.g., suspending one-third or more of the student body at least once) are not receiving the kind of public attention or regular exposure that schools with low test scores receive.

The disparate impact on youth of color, and black youth in particular, makes this a civil rights issue, the authors say. Here's why:

Research on student behavior, race, and discipline has found no evidence that African-American over-representation in school suspension is due to higher rates of misbehavior (McCarthy and Hoge, 1987; McFadden et al., 1992; Shaw & Braden, 1990; Wu et al., 1982). Skiba et al. (2002) reviewed racial and gender disparities in school punishments in an urban setting, and found that white students were referred to the office significantly more frequently for offenses that appear more capable of objective documentation (e.g., smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission and obscene language). African-American students, however, were referred more often for disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering -- behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent. In short, there is no evidence that racial disparities in school discipline can be explained through higher rates of disruption among African-American students.

What can be done?

One solution: mediation. And here's evidence from two Connecticut schools that mediation lowers suspension and expulsion rates.

For stronger evidence, check out this international report, "Improving School Climate: Findings from Schools Implementing Restorative Justice," showing that restorative justice and mediation in the schools has a significant positive impact on student behavior. (Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm done to the victim, and is usually accomplished in a cooperative process with all relevant stakeholders.)

When these techniques were implemented in 10 schools in the U.S. and Canada, large drops occurred in suspensions and "behavioral incidents." Results varied by school, but reviewing the data and the comments from school teachers and administrators is inspiring.

Given the data uncovered by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it's obvious that school administrators are reaching for the suspension hammer too often. In most cases, it's safe to assume that they probably didn't feel that they had another option.

Now, they do. It's time to start using them.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Survey for Georgia Teens and Parents: Your Views On School Discipline

A new survey to gauge what parents and students think about  public school discipline is being fielded right now by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

The non profit group is analyzing student discipline issues across the state. They're looking at student discipline data and interviewing a wide range of people connected with schools and courts, including principles, teachers, school probation officers, attorneys and juvenile court judges. Twelve school districts representing a range of geography and economics are currently participating and have been promised anonymity.  JUSTGeorgia and the Barton Center are helping get the word out to families.

“We want a broad based and diverse group of parents and students to respond.  We’ve asked a number of stakeholder groups around the state to forward surveys to their mailing list so we can get as many views as possible,“ said Rob Rhodes, Director of Legal Affairs at Georgia Appleseed.

There are separate surveys for parents and students in grades 8 - 12, targeting questions about fairness and effectiveness in school discipline. Topics include:

  • Do you believe your child was treated fairly when it came to administering student discipline?
  • In what way do you feel the student discipline system or safety programs could be improved?
  • Is it a good idea to have a school resource officer?
  • Do kids feels safe in school?

Georgia Appleseed has been working on a comprehensive study of school discipline for months. has been watching the research unfold, as we reported on Phase I findings in July and a more recent look at data in October, when Rhodes shared his findings with reporter Chandra Thomas at the Georgia Truancy and Delinquency Prevention Conference.  The preliminary report called Effective School Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class, looked at data from 60 schools collected by the state Department of Education.  Early findings showed:

  • Some schools punish much more frequently and more severely than others
  • African-American students, special education students and those receiving free or reduced lunches were disciplined more than others
  • Many school systems with the highest rates of out-of-school suspensions had graduation rates below the state average

Rhodes addressed the difficulties that teachers and principals face every day to make sure students feel safe and get a quality education. “On the one hand there’s an absolute imperative that our schools be safe and that all students have an effective learning environment.  The other side of the balance is that each individual student has a reasonable opportunity to obtain a quality high school education, even those students that misbehave,“ said Rhodes.

The new study should be finished in early 2011, in time for findings to be shared with lawmakers before the next legislative session gets underway. “We hope to issue a report in advance of the convening of the Georgia General Assembly, so lawmakers and other stakeholders can use [it] as a resource if there’s any new legislation dealing with zero tolerance or student discipline,” said Rhodes.

Parents who would like to be part of the survey may contact Rob Rhodes directly at:

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