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This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
On a Friday morning in early September, all the middle school students at Hampstead Hill Academy, a pre-K–8 school in Baltimore, filed into the gym. The Ravens were playing on Sunday, which meant that students could take a day off from wearing their navy-blue collared uniforms if they wanted to dress in purple in support of the city’s football team.
The roughly 240 students sat on the gym floor, forming a big circle. Each week, all sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders come together for this half-hour event—to formally recognize the good deeds of their peers and teachers, to offer apologies to those they had wronged, and to share upcoming personal announcements. Matthew Cobb, an eighth-grade science teacher, helped facilitate the morning’s community circle. Encouraging students to make eye contact with one another and to project their voices, it was an exercise in public speaking as much as it was in relationship-building.
Matthew Hornbeck, the school’s principal, has been leading Hampstead Hill for 14 years. For the past nine, he and his staff have actively incorporated “restorative justice” into their school’s culture, a model that involves holding structured conversations to facilitate relationships and reconciliation. While Hampstead Hill still has suspensions and detentions, Hornbeck says restorative justice has dramatically reduced the need for them. Hampstead Hill holds school-wide circles, class-wide circles, and when someone misbehaves, teachers hold circles that include the offending student, the victim, and anyone else who may have been affected. “It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s a huge piece of the puzzle and I think principals would be crazy not to check it out and take it seriously,” Hornbeck says. “It’s not a fad.”
Every teacher at Hampstead Hill is required to lead at least three class-wide circles per week. These don’t take very long, perhaps 10 to 12 minutes, but the idea is to regularly create the space for students to share their feelings, ask each other questions, and build trust.
A Welcoming Environment: Between 1996 and 2008, the number of public high schools with full-time security guards tripled.
Later that Friday morning, Mr. Cobb led a restorative circle for the 20 students in his science class. The day’s question was a silly one: Would you eat a worm sandwich if you could meet your favorite TV star or musician? One by one, each student went around the room and answered the question. “No way,” Nyya told her classmates. “It would depend on how much time I’d have with the stars, but I would probably do it if I could meet the Dolan twins,” said Hannah. Taras said he’d eat a worm sandwich if Drake were waiting for him at the end.
“I would eat a worm sandwich to meet who, class?” Mr. Cobb asked his students.
“Beyoncé!!!!” they all yelled back, laughing.
IN THE ERA OF BLACK LIVES MATTER, the movement that has spotlighted racist policies afflicting black Americans, a new national focus on school discipline disparities has taken hold. Activists point to staggering statistics—for instance, that the number of high school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year increased roughly 40 percent between 1972 and 2009, while the racial disciplinary gaps also widened. During the 2013–2014 school year, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reported that black students were 3.8 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension. Similar disparities held true even for black preschoolers. Advocates have pressured school officials and policy-makers to end these suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, which they say push too many students into the criminal justice system—a process commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Many districts have responded to the calls for change. By the 2015–2016 school year, 23 of the 100 largest school districts in the United States had implemented policy reforms requiring limits to the use of suspension and/or the implementation of non-punitive approaches to discipline, according to Matthew Steinberg, an education researcher and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Some cities have banned certain types of suspensions, while others have reduced the length of suspensions, or curtailed the types of penalties students could receive for lower-level offenses.
When it comes to exemplary models of discipline reform, Hampstead Hill stands tall. Yet the racially integrated public charter is rather unusual in its ability to devote meaningful resources to implementing restorative justice. The school employs a full-time psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor, family therapist, and a director of restorative practice. Many cash-strapped schools have none of these, but are still being asked to revamp their policies, and fast.
Much of the liberal and education establishment has thrown its weight behind school discipline reform. In February, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the stage in Harlem to discuss societal barriers facing African Americans—among them, the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in police involvement in school discipline, especially in schools with majority-black students,” she declared. “We’re seeing an over-reliance on suspensions and expulsions.” Investments in school districts, Clinton said, will help leaders reform their school discipline practices. She pledged to commit $2 billion to the effort, and promised to push the Office of Civil Rights to intervene if schools and states refuse to change their ways.
Five months after Clinton’s Harlem speech, the Democratic Party platform adopted at its convention included language to end the school-to-prison pipeline, and to oppose discipline policies that disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Embraced by the highest echelons of Democratic politics, the battle against the school-to-prison pipeline has traveled a long way since researchers first coined the term back in 2003.
But challenges remain for progressive reformers. Research has well established that removing students from class has negative impacts on their academic achievement, and there’s broad recognition that suspensions and expulsions do very little on their own to address the underlying issues that cause most students to misbehave. However, good evidence on potential alternatives is fairly thin, and the linkages between school discipline and the criminal justice system are also less clear than advocates tend to acknowledge. While there’s a lot of energy to move forward, to do something about the glaring racial inequities, this same pressure threatens to produce policy change that could inadvertently hurt other students, teachers, and schools. Tackling such deep structural inequities as segregation and resource allocation is likely necessary to really address school discipline disparities—lest we face yet another instance of educators being asked to throw local solutions at systemic problems.
LONG BEFORE HILLARY CLINTON gave her speech on the school-to-prison pipeline, activists, lawyers, and researchers were figuring out how to raise public awareness about the harms of punitive school discipline.
“It’s been incredible to hear the Democratic candidate speak specifically about the school-to-prison pipeline. That really didn’t just come out of the year; it was through a movement that has been built over the past decade and a half,” says Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of Advancement Project, a civil-rights group.
Critics describe the school-to-prison pipeline as the policies and practices that push American public school students—particularly students of color and students with disabilities—out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The American Civil Liberties Union says the pipeline begins with overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, and a dearth of funding and supports like school counselors and special education resources.
Advocates point to “zero tolerance” policies—which automatically impose predetermined punishments for certain types of student misconduct—as another major factor contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Judith Kafka, an education historian and author of The History of “Zero Tolerance” in American Public Schooling, traces the phrase “zero tolerance” back to a U.S. Customs Service antidrug program from the 1980s, which was soon adopted by states and districts for school discipline. The idea was elevated into federal law in 1994, when Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, requiring schools to expel for one year any student found with a gun. Since 1994, most jurisdictions have passed additional zero-tolerance policies that extend well beyond those mandated by federal law.
By 1997, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 94 percent of all schools had zero-tolerance policies for weapons or firearms, 87 percent had them for alcohol, and 79 percent had them for tobacco. Critics say that these nondiscretionary policies are regularly used in response to low-level, nonviolent student misconduct. And the greater the number of suspended and expelled students there are, they say, the greater the likelihood there is that unsupervised young people will engage in negative behaviors, leading them ultimately to the criminal justice system.
The school-to-prison pipeline is also linked to the growth of police assigned to work in schools—known euphemistically as “school resource officers.” According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy nonprofit, between the 1996–1997 and 2007–2008 school years, the number of public high schools with full-time law enforcement and security guards tripled. Advocates say this has yielded an increase in school-based arrests, many of them for nonviolent offenses.
Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ideally wants to see no police in schools, because they’re too often used to handle disciplinary problems traditionally managed by school administrators. But, Dixon says, if they are going to be in schools, then they should be evaluated annually on their effectiveness, based on clear data on who is getting arrested, the reasons why, and what available alternatives could have been used. One analysis of federal data revealed that more than 70 percent of students involved in school-based arrests or referred to law enforcement in 2010 were black or Hispanic.
More than four decades of research has shown that black students are suspended at two to three times the rate of white students. These disparities have been consistently found in all sorts of studies, across and within school districts.
In 2008, an American Psychological Association task force released a literature review on zero tolerance, concluding that not only do such practices fail to make schools safer or improve student behavior, but they also actually increase the likelihood that students will act out in the future.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a sense that our schools were becoming more violent,” says Russell Skiba, a long-time researcher on school discipline issues, and the lead author of the American Psychological Association report. “A careful examination of the data, though, showed there never really was an increase in youth violence in schools. But it made for a good sound bite for policy-makers to say we’d be tough on school crime.” When better data emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Skiba says it became clear that zero tolerance was ineffective.
Talking It Over: Hampstead Hill Academy's weekly circle, which replaces traditional discipline policies with restorative justice.
After the release of the American Psychological Association’s report, along with the advent of scandalous news stories featuring students expelled for infractions like bringing nail clippers to school, more focus was directed at finding alternatives to zero tolerance. Citing districts like Oakland and Indianapolis, which have revised their codes of conduct to emphasize more preventative approaches to school discipline, Skiba says there’s been tremendous interest in reforming punitive policies over the past three years.
THE 2014-2015 SCHOOL YEAR marked the first time white students no longer comprised a majority of the nation’s public school students. And after Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice were killed by police officers in 2014, followed by subsequent police killings in 2015 and 2016, an increasing number of activists and political leaders began drawing connections between the disproportionate discipline black youth face in school and the unequal treatment of black adults by law enforcement.
This national focus on racism prompted attention from teachers unions, too. In the summer of 2015, the National Education Association passed a resolution committing the nation’s largest labor union to fighting institutional racism. The NEA pledged to provide support for programs that end the school-to-prison pipeline, and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.”
The American Federation of Teachers also took action following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, forming a Racial Equity Task Force to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for youth, especially young black men.
Individual districts prioritizing school discipline reform, like Denver and Baltimore, also began to attract national attention. In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who worked to overhaul the district’s discipline policies. He scaled back the scope of offenses that could warrant out-of-school suspensions and expanded the number of non-punitive discipline measures to keep kids in class. The results were dramatic: During the 2009–2010 school year, Baltimore issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004.
The federal government took notice. In 2014, then–Education Secretary Arne Duncan and then–Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore to unveil the first-ever set of national school discipline guidelines, calling on districts to “rethink” their policies. The joint guidance from the U.S. Justice and Education departments instructed schools nationwide to examine their discipline data and to end racial disparities.
The government’s rethink was also informed by a key report, the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, released in 2011 by the Council of State Governments and Texas A&M University. This study tracked school records for all Texas seventh-graders in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and analyzed each student’s grades for at least a six-year period, comparing this information to the state juvenile justice database.
“That particular study made it crystal clear, it gave a clear vision of what the school-to-prison pipeline really looked like,” a Department of Education official says. “It made clear that when a child is suspended or expelled from school, their risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system goes up, as does their likelihood of dropping out of school, and repeating a year.”
The discipline policy shifts by a range of governments have yielded real change: In 2014, California became the first state in the nation to ban “willful defiance” suspensions for its youngest students—a category of misconduct that includes refusing to remove a hat, to wear the school uniform, or to turn off a cell phone. Consequently, the number of California students suspended at least once during the 2014–2015 school year declined by 12.8 percent from the previous year. Similarly, in Chicago, out-of-school suspensions fell by 65 percent between the 2012–2013 and 2014–2015 school years after the district revised its policies, while New York City, after a policy shift, issued 31 percent fewer suspensions in the first half of the 2015–2016 school year than it did in 2014.
In July 2015, the White House convened a “Rethink Discipline” conference, highlighting progress made by the school districts of Oakland, Los Angeles, Broward County (Florida), and others. This past June, Education Secretary John King went to the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville to urge charter school leaders to “rethink” their discipline policies. And this September, the Departments of Justice and Education released the first-ever federal guidance for districts that employ school police officers.
In terms of concrete alternatives, advocates point to models that focus on improving relationships within the school building. Supporters of these approaches—that have names like “Social and Emotional Learning” and “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports”—say that teaching students positive social skills can help prevent or eliminate such risky behaviors as drug use, violence, bullying, and dropping out.
In a February speech, Hillary Clinton discussed societal barriers facing African Americans, among them the school-to-prison pipeline.
Another popular reform, backed by teachers unions and civil-rights groups, aims to train educators on ways to overcome any racial biases they may harbor. Many worry that middle-class white educators in particular lack the cultural understanding that could help them work more compassionately with poor black and brown students.
The last major alternative is restorative justice, the kind of climate-based improvement program that Matthew Hornbeck has been building in his school over the past nine years. The amount of high-quality research on the effectiveness of restorative justice is limited, but academics at the Johns Hopkins School of Education are currently engaged in a rigorous evaluation of schools implementing the model. Cities aren’t waiting around, though: From Chicago to Los Angeles to New York City, many districts have already moved to implement restorative justice pilot programs.
Kathy Evans, an education professor at Eastern Mennonite University, helped start the nation’s first graduate program focused on training teachers to use restorative justice. “It’s not just that I think restorative justice is more effective, it’s that I think suspensions and expulsions hurt a lot of kids,” she says. “They experience suspensions or expulsions not as a deterrent, but as just one more message that ‘You’re not worthy,’ ‘You’re not important,’ and ‘You don’t matter.’”
“I think reform really comes down to leadership, and how well we’ve managed to get information in the hands of leaders that are willing to take on this challenge,” a Department of Education official told me. “And it is a challenge. You have had educators who for so many years may not have been trained to manage classrooms without the use of exclusionary discipline, and have become reliant on their ability to send children out of the classroom.”
BUT EVEN AS DISTRICTS TURN away from the harsh disciplinary policies of recent decades, few studies exist on alternative approaches. This is partly because so many reforms are only just emerging, and it will take time for academics to evaluate their impacts. However, some researchers also question how much we can really conclude based on the studies we currently have.
There is, for instance, little evidence that black students and white students within the same school receive different kinds of school discipline. In 2011, Josh Kinsler, an education economist at the University of Georgia, ran a study that looked at roughly 500,000 students across 1,000 elementary, middle, and high schools in North Carolina. He found that within schools, black and white students were treated similarly, but that student disciplinary outcomes varied significantly across schools.
Another recent study released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research echoes some of these findings: Researchers found that the specific Chicago public school students attended was a much stronger predictor of whether they would be suspended or expelled than any individual student characteristic, including race or gender. Chicago schools with high rates of suspensions and expulsions served extremely vulnerable, segregated populations, while those with low levels of exclusionary discipline did not.
There are also limitations to the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, which produced correlational, not causal, findings. “The Texas study … would fail the Department of Education’s own research evaluation tool,” says Kinsler, referring to a rubric for high-quality research by the Institute of Education Sciences.
Nevertheless, the immediate challenge for school leaders is figuring out how to balance the harm a disruptive student would face from losing more class time with their responsibility to effectively teach the rest of the class. We already know that those students who arrive at school with the most serious challenges, those who need the most instructional support, are also among those who are most likely to be suspended.
Academics with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA say that softening disciplinary practices would be minimal and manageable, and that resolving unequal discipline is necessary to reduce the racial achievement gap. They point to the Denver Public Schools, a district that has made concerted efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Researchers found that at the same time that Denver’s punitive discipline went down, the district showed “a steady and substantial increase” in the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in nearly every subject for six consecutive years. Another recent study found that the impact of Chicago shortening the length of suspensions for more serious misconduct from ten days to five did not seriously disrupt or harm other students.
“We summarily reject this narrative that if you just identify the kids that don’t deserve to be in school then everyone else is going to thrive,” says Kesi Foster, a coordinator with the Urban Youth Collaborative, a youth-led group focused on the school-to-prison pipeline in New York City. “Communities thrive when [people] see that everyone in the community is valued and supported. This theory that some people are disposable is what has led to mass incarceration and continues to ensnare young black people.”
ROBUST AGREEMENT IN FAVOR of exploring less-punitive disciplinary measures has not prevented the emergence of controversy, however, especially as elected officials and districts move to implement broad policy changes quickly.
When the federal government released its school discipline guidelines at the start of 2014, the American Federation of Teachers praised the effort, but warned that new policies would succeed only if additional resources were made available.
Seventh-grader Jayden Witter, foreground, discusses a recent conflict with another student solved through restorative justice, which included teachers and students gathering in circles for discussions, at Ed White Middle School, Friday, October 16, 2015, in San Antonio.
It’s been difficult for teachers like Kimberly Colbert, an English teacher in Saint Paul, who feels passionate about social justice and reducing exclusionary discipline. Colbert has taught for 21 years, and has helped lead her local union to push for reductions in suspensions and expulsions. In their recent round of collective bargaining, her union negotiated increased funding for restorative justice pilots. “We’re looking at racism, we’re calling it out, and we’re trying to interrupt it,” she says.
Colbert remains hopeful about change, but also worried that the expectation to fix everything will fall, as usual, on the shoulders of under-supported teachers. She notes that not every public school has a librarian or a school nurse, and Minnesota has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the United States. Last year, a series of violent school incidents in Saint Paul served as harsh reminders of the daunting challenges that persist. In October, a student showed up to one Saint Paul high school with a loaded handgun in his backpack. Two months later, a student at Colbert’s own school slammed a teacher against a concrete wall, choked him unconscious, and ultimately gave him a traumatic brain injury. A few months later, at a third Saint Paul school, two students assaulted a teacher, punching him in the face, and throwing him to the ground.
“It was really difficult for everybody,” recalls Colbert. “We don’t want to see our colleagues hurt, we don’t want to be hurt, and at the same time we understand that we have students who get angry and have needs.”
These concerns extend beyond Saint Paul. Several years into various efforts across the country to scale back suspensions and expulsions, more and more teachers are saying they feel they are being put in untenable situations.
In 2013, the teachers unions in California initially opposed the statewide “willful defiance” suspension ban, which many felt went too far in limiting teachers’ discretion. “Some legislators don’t understand, they haven’t been in the environment, so when they say let’s eliminate all suspensions and expulsions, we’ve had to work to make sure the teacher still has authority in the classroom,” says Jeff Freitas, the secretary treasurer for the California Federation of Teachers. “And we need doctors, mental-health specialists—you’re going to take away this [disciplinary] tool without providing strategies? That’s been our struggle.”
Teachers aren’t the only ones worried about losing their discretion. Mark Cannizzaro, the executive vice president for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing New York City principals, says that while the renewed focus on school discipline has been very welcome, his members worry about the degree to which school leaders are losing their authority. He cites a new rule the city’s education department implemented last year, requiring principals to seek permission to suspend students for infractions related to “defying the lawful authority of school personnel.” Local political leaders are also considering a citywide ban on suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. Both Cannizzaro’s union and the New York City teachers union have raised objections to this proposal.
“The school leader is the person who knows the community, knows the circumstances, and that person is in the best position to make that discipline call,” says Cannizzarro. “You can’t legislate every type of social interaction into a code of conduct. We agree that suspensions should be extremely rare, but there are cases where something egregious happens, and there are often few other tools in a principal’s toolkit.”
Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a school safety consulting firm, says the push to ban all suspensions is just zero tolerance by another name.
“Suffice to say that suspending and expelling students from school certainly is not a real solution to the underlying negative behaviors and problems of individual students,” he says. “That said, there are very legitimate cases when student misconduct poses a serious threat to other students and even the student demonstrating the unsafe behaviors.”
Trump also thinks the public should be more critical of districts that tout dramatic drops in school suspensions. “Have school officials reduced negative behaviors or have they just reduced their discipline numbers? Rarely does behavior change overnight, nor do even the most successful programs have dramatic drops of 30, 50, or greater percent in one year,” he says.
Reports have been surfacing of teachers who say they feel they can’t discipline out-of-control students because their district wants to “keep their numbers down.” Relatedly, many educators are saying they feel unsupported, and even unsafe, as they try to keep up with new school discipline policies.
Los Angeles was the first city in California to ban suspensions for “willful defiance” and was also hailed for its commitment to roll out restorative justice pilots. But last fall, the Los Angeles Times reported that teachers at only about a third of the district’s 900 campuses had been trained in restorative justice, and that the district was failing to budget sufficient funds for its implementation. The report cited one Los Angeles middle school where teachers felt overwhelmed by their inability to respond to students who pushed, threatened, and cursed at them. Two teachers took leaves of absence as a result.
Change always brings resistance, but finding ways to sustain support from teachers and school administrators will matter greatly moving forward. That means figuring out how to engage local stakeholders so they don’t feel that a series of unfunded mandates are descending upon them.
One challenge will be to find the dollars necessary to invest in non-punitive policies and practices. To be sure, as some advocates point out, when districts need to expand the number of school police officers or implement expensive testing programs, somehow there seems to be far less anguish scraping up the funds. Redirecting school budget line items to better reflect progressive priorities will no doubt be a critical aspect of discipline reform.
But to truly overcome racial disproportionality in school discipline, leaders will need to do more than just shuffle local dollars around. It will require more than just sending individual teachers to anti-racism trainings. Important though those things are, the evidence suggests that systemic problems like the concentration of racially and economically segregated schools must also be addressed if the real, if narrower, issue of racial school discipline disparities is to be resolved.