School Punishments and the Over Reliance on Suspensions

Written by: Hugh Potter

Primary Source: Green & Write

School discipline in the United States has grown more punitive in recent years. More students are being subjected to punishments for minor offenses than in previous years. As a result, students are not able to benefit from the instruction that is taking place in the classroom. Due to this increased use of punitive disciplinary action by schools, there has been a need to research and address the growth in punitive disciplinary action. In January of 2014, the United States Departments of Justice and Education joined forces in an attempt to address the current state of discipline in United States schools. In this “Dear Colleague” letter to schools, the two departments argued that the growth of in-school and out-of-school suspensions for students raises significant concerns about the long-term consequences for students who are subjected to the punitive sanctions for behavioral violations in schools.

Discretionary Offenses

One such concern is the growth of sanctions for subjective, or discretionary, offenses by students. Subjective offenses are those actions by students that are not easily identified, but are dependent on the opinion of the teacher in the classroom, such as the failure to open a book when the teacher asks or the refusal to work with fellow students. These offenses fall under the general category of insubordination or disorderly conduct. The application of such subjective discipline policies has resulted in a discipline system that is reliant on exclusion rather than remediation.

What are exclusionary disciplinary punishments?

Exclusionary disciplinary punishments, (such as in-school suspension or out-of-suspensions), prevent the students from participating in the educational development that may be taking place in the classroom. Comparatively, inclusionary disciplinary punishments allow the student to remain in the classroom, but fulfill the consequences of disciplinary action in other ways, such as Saturday detention, the loss of extra-curricular opportunities, or even a written letter of apology.

Riva Ridge School District:

Recently, I conducted a study of a large, urban school district to investigate the incidence of school discipline for the 2012-2013 school year. Data for this study was provided to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request. The results of the study are important because they shed light on the reliance upon exclusionary discipline for student misbehavior and the need for continued exposure of school discipline practices.

In this study of an urban school district that includes 8,682 students (of which 95% are African-American), more than 12,000 individual offenses were analyzed and categorized to identify behavioral infractions that were of the more serious nature (e.g., possession or use of a weapon) and those that were less serious (e.g., insubordination and disorderly conduct). I want to highlight a few findings that are critical to understanding the discipline situation in this school district. I will present findings for the district level.

District Level Findings

In analyzing the data for the district, Riva Ridge School District (pseudonym), it is evident that exclusionary discipline action is a common occurrence and that subjective violations to the district’s Code of Conduct far outweigh all other offenses. For example, within the Riva Ridge School District there were 12,279 infractions that led to some sort of action by school administration. Of these 12,279 individual infractions there were 10,452 that resulted in a student being removed from the classroom for a period of time through the use of an in-school suspension, an out-of-school suspension, or an outright expulsion. The fact that 85% of the disciplinary action in this school district removed the students from the learning environment is concerning, but the question is why? What is leading to this very high percentage of exclusion?

Screenshot 2015-05-09 08.44.32

Insubordination is a relatively broad term, which leads to the large number of overall infractions categorized as insubordination or disorderly conduct. As defined by the Riva Ridge School District Code of Conduct, the definition of insubordination is defined as any action that results in the students’ refusal to comply with the directions or instructions given by school authorities. Disorderly conduct, also defined by the Riva Ridge School District, is any action by the students the causes a disruption to the educational process.

In the Riva Ridge School District, the incidence of insubordination and disorderly conduct accounts for 4,024 of 12,279 total infractions for the district and represent 34% of the total infractions district-wide and 40% of the total exclusionary offenses. When looking at the individual grade levels of infractions for the incidence of insubordination that results in a short-term suspension (between one and five days) for the students of this district, a disturbing trend (as seen in the chart below) appears that seems to single out the freshmen students for disciplinary action by the school administration.

Chart I: Disproportionate discipline by grade level:

Chart I: Disproportionate discipline by grade level:

This trend is also evident in other disciplinary actions, but begs the question of what is the purpose of school discipline? Is it to root out the problematic behavior by establishing a strict code of discipline for all students? Is it to make examples out of some students to encourage others to behavior? Or is it for other reasons?

Impact of Over-Reliance Upon Exclusions:

Whatever the case may be, there appears to be a clear reliance upon exclusionary punishments, for this school district, to address student misbehavior is removing students from the classroom in large numbers. This could potentially be a factor in the academic underachievement of students and may strongly influence the progression of students into the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. The disciplinary practices of schools have been shown to have influence on the student’s likelihood to be defined as criminals in the school and to come into contact with the judicial system while in schools.

Scholars argue that some of the impacts of exclusionary discipline lead to decreased instructional time for students, the overall decline in whole-school proficiency ratings, reading difficulties, and increased likelihood of a student to drop out of school.

The over reliance by school administrations on punitive, exclusionary measures for school discipline has considerable impact on the students’ ability to learn and develop as students and citizens. The disproportionate use of school discipline to exclude students from the classroom is a very serious concern for schools and school districts across the United States. In my research of one particular urban school, it is evident that the reliance upon exclusionary discipline practices warrants more investigation into the goals and outcomes of differential school discipline, especially for students of color, in urban settings.

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Hugh Potter is a third-year doctoral student in Education Policy at Michigan State University. With a focus on Urban Education, recent scholarly work focuses on the impact of disproportionate discipline in schools and how stakeholders operate within existing policies that govern that actions of students, teachers, and administrators.

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