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Minding the Discipline Gap in Education

This article was produced as part of Moment to Movement: Conversations on Race in America, New America’s ongoing collaborative partnership with Howard University.

The achievement gap doesn’t stand alone. Beside it is the discipline gap in American education that also needs our attention. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has acknowledged that “African American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled or suspended as their white peers.” For Black students with disabilities, the rates of suspension and expulsion are more than twice that of their White counterparts.

It’s a disparity with rippling and devastating impact—not only are Black and Latino students more likely to be suspended or expelled for less severe infractions, their misbehaviors are far more likely to be reported to the police.

This difference in discipline is often not attributed to racial bias among teachers and school leaders, but to problems with the students themselves. Black youth simply misbehave more and thus require more discipline they say. Empirical research continues to find no evidence for these claims. In fact, data shows that whether the behavioral infraction calls for subjective evaluation or sentencing under a zero tolerance policy, Black students are punished more severely than other groups.

Black students are suspended for less serious matters than White ones.  Where White students receive suspensions for possession of drugs or a weapon, Black students face the same punishment for more discretionary offenses like tardiness, insubordination, or simply being caught with a cell phone. Black students are even sent to the principal’s office for disciplinary reasons more often than their White classmates.

Storied academics, investigative reporters, and the federal government keep finding the same old thing. In her September 2012 Chicago Tribune report, investigative reporter Diana Rado found racial gaps in 58% of the schools reporting police referral data in the Chicago region. In a report released just last month , U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity found that “most states refer Black and Latino students to the police and courts disproportionately.”

The reality of the school-to-prison pipeline stinks like gangrene and will continue to fester—unless we cut it out where it stands. This lingering discipline gap cannot only matter to Black and Latino families. The criminalization of our youth and removal of masses from the classroom will contribute to an already monstrous achievement gap, which according to McKinsey & Company, will “impose the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession on America.” We have to change our policies. That is how we will change the pipeline’s trajectory in favor of more positive outcomes.

My work as a program manager for 826michigan has afforded me the opportunity to observe first-hand that these positive outcomes are within our reach, as the example of seven-year-old Jack* shows us. At Jack’s old school, in his words, “anytime you do something that you’re not supposed to, all they do is send you to the principal’s office over and over; that’s it. Just go to the principal’s office, go to the principal’s office.”  At his new school, Detroit’s Boggs School, “they let you talk stuff out.” Talking stuff out helps him understand the importance of making better decisions. Similar approaches, including mediation and counseling among others, are highly touted alternatives to suspending or expelling students for misbehavior—even when the misbehavior is severe.

In some cases, the use of the school community as a social corrective force can be particularly effective. Students who negatively impact the school environment at Boggs use special time in school meetings to apologize for disrupting the community, while students who embody the school’s values are publicly celebrated. Having the opportunity to “talk stuff out” in school can have a powerful and positive impact on the academic and psychological lives of a student, especially if the alternative is repeated school suspensions and criminalization of a special-needs child.

Julia Putnam, the Boggs School principal, has seen firsthand the results of such approaches. She recalled one young girl, Jenny*, who “was pulled out of the school at the end of the year last year because her mother was tired of getting calls from us about her behavior (mostly bullying and intimidating other children).” After an unsuccessful stint in a discipline academy, her mother brought her back to Boggs, where she’s had only one incident—“she got mad and threw a chair, which left a hole in our drywall.” Boggs required Jenny’s mother to pay for a Spackle kit that the school purchased so that Jenny could help patch the hole. “While they patched the wall,” Putnam remembered, “we expressed excitement with her that now she has a skill that almost nobody else in the building has and that she could Spackle anything she found needed repair.”

According to Putnam, suspending students is a short-term solution, if any solution at all. Making the choice to keep students in school rather than kick them out—even for serious offenses—is an intentional decision based on the realization that some students, particularly those with special needs, would be suspended from school nearly every day were they not given an opportunity to rectify their behavior.

The attitudes of school leadership remain vital to creating school-wide alternative policies that stick. Veteran school administrator Lanisha Spiller, for instance, is a pioneer in the use of restorative practices—those that “teach children and the community…that they’re human and they’re supposed to make mistakes.”

Spiller’s view is pragmatic and to-the-point. “We know that kids will make mistakes.  Our role is to help them learn from those mistakes and recognize that in learning from them…there are consequences to your actions.” We know that kids will make mistakes.

Spiller’s commitment to this position has led to a remarkable disciplinary turnaround on the campus of Linden Grove Middle School in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In the summer of 2013, her first year as assistant principal of the school, she took responsibility for the creation of a Student Success disciplinary model based on restorative practices. That first year, the school recorded 1300 student suspensions and disciplinary referrals. By the midpoint of this academic year—December 2014—the school had recorded less than one-fourth of that number.

Now, there is no doubt that employing restorative practices adds quite a bit of work to a teacher’s plate. But we know from data and reports on the ground that they work, period. A pair of researchers from Indiana University and the University of Kentucky found that in schools where principals view suspensions as a tool to use sparingly, students show higher test scores. Moreover, frequent rates of school suspension correlate with lower test scores or no academic benefits. In an era of high-stakes testing, that’s reason enough to give restorative practices a try.

Alternatives to suspensions and expulsions for behavioral offenses may look different from school to school. They may include the loss of privileges, working after school to “earn” the money necessary to repair something that was intentionally broken, parent-teacher conferences, counseling, or mediation. Whatever the thought about what they should include, the challenge now is to take the need for alternatives seriously and move forward to design and employ them creatively and effectively. Our nation’s future depends on it.

*Names have been changed.