Skip to main content

Want Safe Schools? Start With Research-Based School Discipline Policies

Blog: Want Safe Schools? Start With Research-Based School Discipline Policies

This post was originally published on May 16, 2019 by Forbes.

In response to school shootings in recent years, states, districts and schools have made investments to beef up school security systems and increase armed security personnel on campuses. In addition, at least 28 states are considering bills to place additional armed personnel, including teachers, in schools including Florida, which just passed legislation to arm teachers.

These approaches are strongly opposed by most teachers, parents, students and law enforcement—and for good reason. Ample research shows that bringing guns into schools, whether they are carried by teachers or by security officers, makes them less safe.

One recent report found 60 reported incidents of adults mishandling guns in schools in the last five years. These included multiple cases of guns being left unattended in elementary and middle school restrooms and in other locations where they were often found by children, including some cases of guns accidentally discharged by children in different contexts.

There were also at least 13 cases in which loaded guns were accidentally or deliberately discharged by adults in schools, several leading to injuries: One teacher accidentally discharged a gun in class injuring a 17-year old boy when fragments from the bullet ricocheted off the ceiling and lodged into his neck. Another unintentionally discharged a gun in a first-grade classroom and injured a student who was struck by a fragment. A parent fired a gun at an elementary school, and the bullet ricocheted, striking a woman. In two incidents where there were physical struggles between a student and an officer, the officer’s gun discharged, one resulting in injury to the student. In several other incidents, school resource officers discharged guns on school grounds, shooting themselves or others. In still others, school staff or resource officers threatened to shoot students with whom they were angry while brandishing guns. These approaches to school safety, which emphasize “security,” can, paradoxically, make schools less safe.

Aside from arming adults, many schools have adopted “zero tolerance” policies that emphasize suspending or expelling students for even minor infractions—another approach that can create unintended consequences. On the one hand, students who are suspended can return to school even more angry and further behind academically, exacerbating poor behavior and accelerating school failure, unless other supports are put in place. And expulsions do not solve the problem: Nicolas Cruz for example, the Parkland shooter, had been expelled and returned to the school to take out his frustrations in an act of violence. Indeed, more than 90% of school shootings have been perpetrated by current or former students, most of whom feel they have been bullied or mistreated in some way within the school.

At the same time these policies can be turned against children in unfortunate ways. Even minor infractions can become criminalized. For example, a study on the impact of Zero Tolerance policies in the School District of Philadelphia tells stories of students like the fifth grader who was arrested, suspended and transferred to a disciplinary school when a Boy Scout pocket knife he forgot about fell out of his pocket, and the ninth grader who was handcuffed to a chair, arrested, suspended and sent to an alternative education program because he came to school with a butter knife in his backpack.

Harsh punishments, including suspensions and expulsions, increase the chances of students dropping out and feed the school-to-prison pipeline. They can also undermine children’s attachment to school and can potentially put them on a path that leads them out of school and into poverty and incarceration.

Harsh punishments, including suspensions and expulsions, increase the chances of students dropping out and feed the school-to-prison pipeline. They can also undermine children’s attachment to school and can potentially put them on a path that leads them out of school and into poverty and incarceration.

Even one suspension can double the odds of a student dropping out. This can have sweeping effects. For example, a study that followed 10th-grade California students for three years while the state’s zero-tolerance policy was in effect found that, after controlling for other major dropout factors, suspensions in California lowered graduation rates by nearly 7 percentage points.

This costs society as much as it does individual young people, as each dropout can cost taxpayers more than $500,000 on over the course of their lifetimes in the form of lost wages and taxes, criminal justice expenses  welfare, and increased health costs.

Harsh punishments in school also disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. Black students comprise 40% of students who are suspended, but make up only about 16% of all public school students. The statistics are similar for students with disabilities, who comprise 12% of public-school students but account for 25% of students who receive harsh punishments. Evidence shows that this is not because of worse behavior but because of harsher treatment for minor offenses, such as tardiness, talking in class, and other nonviolent behavior.

A recent body of research shows that a better way to make schools truly safe is to invest in student supports, including social and emotional learning and mental health supports; community involvement, including access for children to health and social services supports that address the trauma many experience; and professional development for teachers and school staff.

Teaching students how to recognize and manage their emotions, access help when they need it, and learn problem solving and conflict resolution skills can make a huge difference in school safety. A meta-analysis of more than 200 studies found that schools using social-emotional learning programs focused on these skills make schools decidedly safer, reducing bullying and poor behavior, as well as supporting increased school achievement. A second meta-analysis found that these benefits are sustained over time, positioning students and their schools for greater success.

These evidence-based practices were incorporated into guidance on school safety from the Obama administration.

The nonbinding guidance, issued in 2014, reflected a wide body of research about effective practices. This research identifies a number of strategies states and districts can adopt to improve school climate, make schools safer, and reduce excessive and discriminatory discipline practices. These include:

  • Creating relationship-centered schools that support strong family and community engagement.
  • Replacing zero-tolerance policies for low-level offenses with approaches that help students develop social-emotional skills.
  • Providing targeted support for educators to foster caring teacher-student relationships that can effectively shift students’ immediate and long-term behaviors.
  • Eliminating disproportionate and discriminatory student discipline by providing training on implicit bias and asset-based youth development for all teachers and administrators, school resource officers, police, juvenile court judges, and others dealing with youth.
  • Developing and employing model school discipline policy and agreements that clarify when educator discipline versus law enforcement discipline is warranted.
  • Considering ways to prevent negative consequences when designing and implementing policies, including better training law enforcement officers in schools so that they do not create more violence than they prevent.

This guidance appeared to be making a positive difference. As a result of school discipline reform, school violence decreased significantly in recent years. In fact, in 2015–16, the percentage of public schools reporting one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes to the police (47%) was lower than it had ever been since 1999–2000 and about half of the rates in 2000–2010.

As just one example, California began by repealing its zero-tolerance policies, instead establishing social-emotional supports for students, as well as restorative justice practices centered on promoting respect, taking responsibility, and strengthening relationships. State law prohibits suspensions and expulsions for disruptive behavior in grades k–3 and has established school climate as a top educational priority. As part of its new accountability and improvement system under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), California also tracks school suspension rates and supports teachers and administrators to develop competencies in teaching social-emotional skills and using restorative practices. When the state passed a new Local Control Funding Formula, which changes how schools are governed and funded, school climate was included in the state’s eight priorities.

As a result, between 2011 and 2016, California saw a 33.6% decrease in suspension rates (driven by a 77% decline in suspensions for “willful defiance”) and a 40.4% decrease in expulsion rates. According to national data, school-based firearm incidents in the state, which were well above the national average from 2009–10, were far below the national average by 2015–16, declining by more than 50% in the 7-year period. Significant decreases also occurred in rates of school-based fights, bullying incidents, and classroom disruptions over that period. Since the 2011–12 academic year, California has had fewer suspensions and expulsions in comparison to the national average, and the sheer number of exclusionary discipline incidents has declined overall. Researchers found that these declines have held true for all racial and socioeconomic groups and school levels, narrowing disciplinary gaps among racial and ethnic groups across the state. High school graduation rates, now at 83%, have also increased in California since 2010, when they were 74%.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration chose to rescind the federal guidance, recommending instead that schools arm teachers, add armed “school security officers,” and increase the use of metal detectors—approaches that make our schools more like prisons and less like centers of learning, and ultimately far less safe.

Happily, despite this move, ESSA provides a pathway for states to support districts and schools in using research-based best practices for school discipline.

ESSA provides funding for states, districts, and schools to invest in school climate and student well-being. To that end, many state plans include policies that replace punitive practices like suspensions, expulsions, and the use of law enforcement for non-criminal behavior with social-emotional learning and restorative justice practices. Some states have also implemented planning and reporting requirements to collect data on how the practices are used and the outcomes.

Until recently, states had the support they needed to adopt policies proven to improve student behavior, reduce disparities, make schools safer, and support student success. We’re at a crossroads now—will states rely on the harsh discipline practices that bring guns into schools while pushing students out, or will they implement the research-based restorative justice and positive discipline practices that enable students to grow, thrive and contribute to society?