Compass: Smart School Discipline Can Help Alaska Reach Its Education Goals and Save Money

Anchorage Daily News

By Dean Williams

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” We’ve all heard this cautionary warning about get-rich schemes or fool-proof diets. Let’s suspend the “too good to be true” fear and accept that good policy and practice can equal good results without costing anyone extra money.

School discipline is rarely debated in the public forums here in Alaska as much as “school choice” or the “base student allocation” are. Arguing about how much should be spent on schools or where the money goes commonly draws attention for a host of reasons. What’s good for the kids often becomes intertwined with what’s good for _______ (fill in the blank with pet projects, agency agendas, etc.). I suggest we hold in abeyance these debates so we can focus on the work that has already been done on improving graduation rates and school performance through the use of sensible school discipline.

The Council of State Governments issued its School Discipline Consensus Report last week. It comes on the heels of a mountain of research on the “school to prison pipeline.” It is one more significant step in clarifying the practice of school discipline. The report provides a framework for transparency, consistency, and fairness when making the decision to kick students out of school.

The challenge as I have seen it here in Alaska is the lack of will or perhaps awareness, not the lack of research or evidence. School discipline matters a great deal, and it’s the reason why scores of states, cities, and school districts have made dramatic changes to their discipline policies. They know what seems to be taking us a long time to learn; improve school discipline and you improve schools. And here’s a bonus to all the research, smart school discipline also makes schools safer. While cost savings were not directly analyzed in the report, we know beyond any doubt that dropout youth (an unfair term) cost all of us money in terms of taxes and social welfare dollars.

As a former juvenile justice superintendent and a retired 31-year state employee, the most significant and sometimes hotly debated work I did was addressing school discipline and the delinquency connection. Two years of work lead to the development of Step Up, the expulsion/suspension school (jointly operated by Anchorage School District and McLaughlin Youth Center) now finishing its fifth year of operation.

I realized then, and it’s still true now, that every youth suspended or expelled from school faces a moment of crisis. What parents might call “growing pains” or a case of “hanging out with the wrong kids,” now puts their child’s future on the line. The rates of nationwide suspension and expulsion are off the chart when compared to previous generations, but the implications become very real for a family when one of their own becomes suspended for the first time.

Do we have a problem here in Alaska? Data “shopping” is almost an art form in terms of supporting positions or arguments, but with that caveat I’ll include just one for the sake of brevity. The total suspension/expulsion incidents in Alaska went from 22,540 in 2009-2010 to 30,177 in 2010-2011, an approximate 33 percent increase. That one year increase (with prior years at about 25,000 incidents) should underscore the need for an analysis of school discipline policy.

The real work in developing smart public policy is challenging the history and practice without inflaming defensiveness in leaders. As a former superintendent of a juvenile facility, I sometimes found myself in charge of a facility policy or practice that made no sense. There’s a choice then: do something about it or don’t.

School discipline is not just a school administration issue. The state, city, and community (parents, concerned citizens) have a role to improve school discipline. Solutions, not blame, should be the goal. Literally, our children’s future depends upon it.

The CSG School Discipline Consensus Report can be found online at

Dean Williams is former superintendent at McLaughlin Youth Center and chair of the team that developed Step Up. He was a contributing member to the Council of State Government’s School Discipline Consensus Report.