By Nikki Krug
Harsh “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies at public schools across the country have produced unnecessary student suspensions for even the slightest violations of conduct, leading to higher risk of failing, dropping out and criminal prosecution for minors, according to a comprehensive new survey released Tuesday.
The zero-tolerance approach and heavy reliance on suspensions are detrimental to the futures of students, according to the “School Discipline Consensus Report,” a three-year survey compiled by the Council of State Governments‘ (CSG) Justice Center, which included dozens of recommendations. The study found that suspension policies rarely make exceptions for children needing special assistance, and that suspensions disproportionately affect racial minorities, students with social or mental health problems, and students who identify as gay or transgender.
More than 700 educators, social workers, health care providers, law enforcement officers and juvenile justice system officials were interviewed to gauge the effectiveness of current discipline policies in public secondary schools and provide guidelines for altering policies to ensure that misconduct is handled appropriately by school teachers and staff.
Authors of the 461-page study said that mishandling discipline problems for student in school can have profound effects for society in the years to come.
It’s “pay now or pay later,” said Texas state Senator John Whitmire in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday.
Without a change of discipline policy in many schools, efforts to keep more children in the classroom and out of the juvenile justice system will fail, the report predicted. Suspensions for minor infractions do nothing to right the misbehavior or help the student who may be struggling.
“Everyone agrees that schools should provide an environment where students and staff feel physically and emotionally safe, connected, fairly treated, and valued,” the report said. “… Unfortunately, promoting a positive school climate often takes a back seat to educators’ and administrators’ efforts to address mandates to improve test scores and graduation rates, even though strong conditions for learning have been shown to help improve academic achievement.”
Mark Norris, chairman of the CSG and the Republican majority leader of the Tennessee state Senate, said school policies that rely heavily on suspensions serve as nothing more than pipelines from classrooms to courts.
Among the report’s recommendations: ongoing training for school staff, investment in health services, seeking disciplinary alternatives to suspensions, and access to trained counselors and nurses.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers union, emphasized the importance of having school staff trained in conflict resolution and classroom management, as well as replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school mediation and access to on-site social workers, counselors and nurses.
Schools that have adopted positive-reinforcement approaches found that fewer students were suspended and more graduated. In 2008, Baltimore City Public Schools had a 41 percent reduction rate of suspensions and a 12 percent increase in black graduates, according to Ms. Weingarten.
National education initiatives have proven to be unexpectedly controversial in recent years, sparking political backlashes against such efforts as the Common Core curriculum reforms and first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign for more nutritious school lunches.
They are intended, he said, to initiate discussion and provide guidance for schools in the process of creating their own policies, while reflecting an unusually broad consensus among multiple stakeholders in the process. Every local school district makes the decisions based on the individual needs and capabilities of the school, CSG officials said.