States Urged to Embrace Alternatives to School Discipline Criminalizing Kids

The Center for Public Integrity

By Susan Ferriss

A prominent state lawmakers’ advisory group issued a major report Tuesday warning of the “school to prison” pipeline and offering multiple alternatives to harsh school discipline and police crackdowns on students.

Released by the Council of State Governments — a nonpartisan national research group that advises legislators — the “School Discipline Consensus Report” encourages schools and lawmakers to embrace ideas such as conflict resolution and counseling — rather than suspensions, expulsions and forcing kids into juvenile court for infractions as minor as cursing or shoving matches.

“When suspended, these students are at significantly higher risk of falling behind academically, dropping out of school and coming into contact with the juvenile justice system,” says the report. “A disproportionately large percentage of disciplined students are youth of color, students with disabilities and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, a Republican Tennessee state Senate leader — Sen. Mark Norris — spoke out in favor of the report’s recommendations in his role as the elected chairman of the council.

“This is a wake up regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on,” said Norris, who hails from Collierville, a Memphis suburb. “We’re very worried about that pipeline to court.”

Norris’ own state has come under scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department for prosecuting and jailing accused truants — including kids with mental-health difficulties — whose parents say they were not afforded appointed attorneys in juvenile court in Knox County, as the Center for Public Integrity recently reported.

If kids are derailed from school by harsh reactions to minor misbehavior, Norris said, they won’t become productive members of a community and contribute to its economic well-being.

He said communities need a “bright light” on counterproductive discipline, including issues raised in the Center’s report, such as accused truants facing prosecution in court without the appointment of legal counsel.

The School Discipline Consensus Report calls on state, community and school leaders to help reduce suspensions, expulsions and arrests of students and “provide conditions for learning wherein all students feel safe, welcome and supported.”

A national network called Dignity in Schools — which has helped shape discipline reform in many cities — said interested educators can find viable alternatives in the report: “The strategies in the report are practical, innovative and are based on successful efforts that have been made in schools all across the country from Denver to Austin to Baltimore.”

In 2011, the Council of State Governments released a longitudinal study finding that 60 percent of all Texas students had been suspended at least once, with punishment falling particularly harshly on black and Latino male students.

The vast majority of suspensions and expulsions — 97 percent — were due to discretionary or local “zero tolerance” policies, not federal policies mandating removal of students. Compared to peers, students with multiple suspensions disproportionately went on to get into trouble with the criminal justice system — not straighten out and get engaged in school.