Rethinking School Discipline, At Last

Courtesy Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education / U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks with third-grader Gabrielle (Gabby) Immissa Cornell, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, during a session of the School Environment Listening Tour.

The boarding school era was a monument to brutal treatment of American Indian and Alaska Native children.

One legacy of that era has been the unequal treatment of those students in today’s public schools. But a new guide, “Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide,” written by the American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education, may help change that by presenting practical step-by-step strategies to help schools begin to reduce disparities in school discipline.

American Indian and Alaska Native students, parents and community members have told the Obama administration that racial and ethnic inequities in school discipline are among their greatest educational concerns. For example, one student who participated in the listening tour conducted by the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights last fall said, “When I was in 10th grade, I got randomly pulled out of class because [the teacher] thought I was high. They scared me and brought [me] to the nurse’s office. I asked what was going on, and it was awful because I’m not one of the kids who causes trouble. They searched my bag and emptied my pockets…. I was transferred to an alternative school and wasn’t notified. My mom had to get an attorney to get me back into school. It shut me down and threw my year off.”

Courtesy Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education / A young student prepares testimony for a session of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education/U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights School Environment Listening Tour.

Data analyzed last year by the Office for Civil Rights showed that minority children in public schools are punished more frequently and more harshly than are white students, according to the report, “School Discipline, Restraint, & Seclusion.” For example, analysis showed that AI/AN children, who comprised 0.5 percent of the 49 million pre-K through grade 12 students in the sample, accounted for 2 percent of single and multiple out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions. The vast majority of AI/AN students are educated in public schools.

A report just released by the Center for American Progress, “Point of Entry: The Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline,” shows that the damage caused by such actions against children can be long-lasting. The report comes to the disturbing conclusion that “the practice of suspending and expelling children—particularly those younger than age 5—from early childhood settings can have profound consequences. Research shows that when young students are suspended or expelled from school, they are several times more likely to experience disciplinary action later in their academic career; drop out or fail out of high school; report feeling disconnected from school; and be incarcerated later in life.”

David Osher, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and the lead author of the disparities guide, tells ICTMN that this is not a one-solution-fits-all guide. It is intended as a tool to show people how to begin to look at what factors are causing the disparities in their own schools.

Courtesy American Institutes for Research / David Osher is an American Institutes for Research vice president and was lead author of the “Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide.”

This analysis begins with identifying who is being disciplined and what is happening to them. Second, a root cause analysis looks at the systemic causes of disparities and why they occur. Then schools can begin to make and implement an action plan to reduce those disparities.

This approach, says Osher, has at its core some basic assumptions.

“The first core assumption is the fact that disparities in discipline are systemic. They’re not just the product of any one action or activity,” he says.

“The second assumption is that it is possible to do something to address those disparities.

“The third assumption is that people are not going to be able to successfully address those disparities if you do not identify and then address the root causes that can be addressed within the school context.

“The fourth assumption is that if you are dealing with disparities that are related to some issue of prejudice or disparate treatment, whether it is disparities that are due to race or ethnicity or they are disparities that are due to disability or disparities that are due to gender or social/economic circumstances, you’re not going to be able to successfully address those disparities without recognizing the issues of implicit bias or explicit bias that may be involved in the process.”

Another assumption is that this is hard work. “Even if people have good will and they want to do the work, unless there is some structure and support [such as this guide] to enable them to do the work, they may not be able to do it effectively,” says Osher.

The guide itself contains a number of assessment tools, including a discipline data checklist, a data mining decision tree tip sheet, an action plan template, and a root cause diagnostic tree.

Other resources are also available, says Osher. Those include the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments and the National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline, which includes a discipline disparities risk assessment tool.

Comments