Is School-Discipline Reform Moving Too Fast?

The Atlantic

By Wayne D’Orio

One of the more radical transformations in public education today begins with a simple greeting each morning among second-graders.

“Good morning, Mahlet,” says one student to another at McMicken Heights Elementary School in SeaTac, Washington. “Good morning, Liliana,” the second student responds.

The exercise continues briskly until all 23 students seated in a circle have been recognized; then the children stand and greet three classmates each with handshakes and solid eye contact. Next, a handful of students are chosen to ask questions of their peers. While the query can be basic, such as “What kinds of movies do you like?,” some of the seven-year-olds struggle to formulate a question and ask it with a strong voice. “I’m not comfortable with that question,” one girl says after she receives a vague inquiry about her feelings. When another student is asked about her favorite color, she politely says, “Can you ask me a harder question?”

This activity, part of a Yale-designed program to build students’ social skills, usually runs for at least 20 minutes each day in all 18 elementary schools in Highline Public Schools, a racially diverse district just south of Seattle.

“Teachers say, ‘I know more about my students than ever before,’” says Alexandria Haas, the principal of this pre-K-6 school. And that knowledge, she believes—combined with new strategies to help students regulate their emotions—has contributed to a 43 percent drop in the number of children referred for discipline from 2014 to 2016, according to school data.

This morning exercise is just one small part of Highline’s ambitious transformation from a district that embraced strict discipline to one noted for its efforts to reduce suspensions. According to administrators, between 2013 and 2016, the district of about 19,000 students slashed its number of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions from 1,628 to 475. (The number edged back up in 2016-17 to 682 incidents.)

Highline’s efforts come as the country appears poised to dive back into a national discussion about school discipline. During the 1990s, amid rising fears of youth violence, many districts adopted zero-tolerance policies mandating suspensions for certain offenses, including relatively minor infractions such as shoving other students or cursing. Suspension rates nearly doubled between 1973 and 2006. Racial disparities in school discipline, meanwhile, are stark: Black students are roughly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, according to 2014 data from the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

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