• by Laurie Posner, MPA • IDRA Newsletter • August 2014 •
The third strike that would bring about the boy’s referral to an alternative school occurred in P.E. class. The students had been asked to take turns kicking a ball once. But Jake had started playing soccer, and he kicked the ball two or three times in a row. The disruption proved to be a tipping point for school staff. They wrote him up.
And this had followed the second strike, which also took place outside. The children were learning about plants and trees. Jake’s dad, who had a military background and was on the road often for work, had taught him about military airplanes. So when a VC-25 roared overhead, instead of focusing exclusively on the plants, he pointed it out to his classmates. This was exactly the kind of airplane his dad talked about! Second strike.
Jake’s first strike had occurred in class. He had a habit of tapping his pencil on the desk when the teacher led the class in group reading. She asked him to stop, but he had continued: tap. tap. tap. tap. Strike.
All in all, the disruptions had added up. In just 47 days, Jake netted a referral to a disciplinary alternative program. And he was only 5 years old.
Receiving the referral by email, his parents immediately felt that something had gone seriously awry with the school’s disciplinary system for Jake.
Research shows that he is not alone.
National Data Sets Reveal Discriminatory Punitive Practices
New national data on school disciplinary practices show that millions of children are being removed from classrooms for increasingly minor behavioral issues. Estimates from the 2009-10 school year suggest that no less than 10 percent of all students in middle school and high school were suspended at least once (Morgan, et al., 2014).
Research on punitive practices in Texas showed that less than 3 percent of cases, removal from school – through suspension or expulsion – was legally required.
In the vast majority of instances, students are suspended or expelled for a minor violation of a school’s code of conduct and are carried out at the sole discretion of school officials.
That discretion turns out to be laden with race and cultural bias. The latest national data on school discipline shows that in preschool, Black children represent 18 percent of enrollment but 48 percent of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension (OCR, 2014).
Preschool-age boys, even younger than Jake, make up just over half (54 percent) of enrollment but 82 percent of children suspended multiple times (OCR, 2014). At the middle and high school levels, Black, Latino and American Indian students are both over-represented in suspensions and expulsions and more likely to receive harsher punishment than their White peers for the same offenses (Morgan, et al., 2014).
Girls of color also face disparate disciplinary treatment: Black girls receive suspensions at higher rates than “girls of any other race and most boys,” according to data from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) (2014).
Youth identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are far more likely – up to three times more likely – to receive harsh disciplinary treatment than their heterosexual peers (Morgan, et al., 2014).
Types of discipline that are administered vary by student characteristics. While youth with disabilities, for example, represent just 12 percent of the student population, they are among 75 percent of children who are physically restrained at school and among one quarter of students who are arrested and referred to law enforcement.
And research shows that among all children, African American students are more likely to receive harsher discipline for the same offenses as their White peers.
School Discipline in Texas and the South
The new national findings echo earlier research conducted by IDRA on the emergence and expansion of disciplinary alternative educational programs (DAEPs) in Texas. The program was established in 1995 to address violations of state criminal codes, such as bringing firearms or drugs to school.
But by 1997, the policy was dramatically expanded to allow local schools to refer students to DAEPs for violations of local codes of conduct (Cortez & Cortez, 2009). As a result, nearly 73,000 students were removed from classrooms by 1996-97, and three quarters of DAEP referrals were for violations of local school codes of conduct rather than major offenses, according to IDRA research (IDRA, 1999).
African American and Latino youth, youth with disabilities, and low-income students in Texas are disproportionately represented in DAEP referrals, according to IDRA research, as is true with OCR’s latest findings on trends for the nation.
In 2011, in the same legislative session in which Texas cut $4 billion in formulae funding and $1.2 billion in supplemental funding for education, the Texas legislature affirmed the rights of school districts to allow corporal punishment unless a student’s parent or guardian submits a previously-signed statement prohibiting its use (Cortez, 2011; Texas Education Code, 2013).
This is a pattern that largely holds across the southern states. While corporal punishment has been banned in 31 states, the practice remains legal in 19 states, the vast majority of which are in the middle and deep South (Center for Effective Discipline, 2010).
Through the intersection of policy and practice, the region that serves our nation’s largest number of minority and economically-disadvantaged students is also the most likely to suspend, expel or physically discipline youth.
U.S. Supreme Court Opinions Out of Sync with International Consensus
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of these practices, despite evidence that they perpetuate violence and in some cases cause injury; they discourage children from attending school; they increase the risk of students dropping out (Balfanz, et al., 2013); and they are disproportionately used on children of color, low-income children, children with disabilities, LGBT youth, and boys (Center for Effective Discipline, 2010; Global Initiative, 2011; Morgan, et al., 2014).
In sanctioning corporal punishment in schools, the Supreme Court has denied the rights to children that are generally accorded prisoners, military personal and patients and that are accorded to children in 117 United Nation’s member states.
The International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which “puts an obligation on governments to take ‘all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence’” (article 19(1)), has been ratified by all United Nation’s member states except the United States and Somalia (Global Initiative, 2011).
Family and Community Leaders Taking Action
Family leaders, community organizations, children’s advocacy, and youth across the South are speaking out and taking action to bring a halt to punitive practices that they recognize as ineffective, unfair and unsafe.
Southern Echo, a nonprofit that focuses on intergenerational organizing in the African American community and members of the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable produced a Model Student Parent Handbook with input from youth, parents, activists and local education officials to promote new policies and practices (2012).
The handbook calls for educators to separate students from the educational process as a last resort, only when (1) their conduct is so disruptive of a properly managed classroom that it cannot be any other way and is the only viable solution, or (2) they are clearly a danger to themselves or others and separation is necessary to the health and safety of students, faculty and staff (Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable, 2012). As Joyce Parker, board chair and the founder and director of Concerned Citizens for a Better Greenville, has said, corporal punishment “symbolizes a ‘legacy we’re trying to outlive.’”
The Arkansas Cradle to Prison Pipeline Initiative is working with a network of volunteers across the state to dismantle the norms, policies and practices that pave a road to incarceration – rather than educational opportunity and excellence – for Latino and African American boys. With co-sponsorship by IDRA’s South Central Collaborative for Equity and the City of Little Rock Community Programs and the Children’s Defense Fund Southern Regional Office, they convened the Little Rock Parent Summit to bring together African American and Latino family leaders to focus on family- and community-led action to dismantle the pipeline.
In California Fix School Discipline, a project of the pro-bono law firm Public Council, has partnered with youth-led civil rights, crime prevention, and community and children’s advocacy organizations to develop a toolkit for educators for recognizing problems with current disciplinary practices and adopting effective disciplinary alternatives. This work includes study examples and the listing of a diverse network of people who stand ready to help educators and policymakers who seek to transform these practices in public schools.
One such alternative is for schools to adopt restorative practices, including restorative justice. Restorative practices are aimed at building relationships and the sense of community that helps students and adults to prevent and navigate conflict. Restorative justice focuses not on meting out punishments but teaching students to take responsibility for their actions and repair harm to others and themselves. Each considers separation from school to be a last resort.
To restore community is to build meaningful respectful relationships. To restore justice is to recognize, take responsibility for and make things right where there has been harm.
If we look at the stained history of disciplinary practices in America, it is clear that restoration is widely needed. Alternative practices exist, are shown to be more effective and can keep children safe, sound and learning. We owe it to them.
Balfanz, R., & V. Byrnes, J. Fox. Sent Home and Put Off-Track: The Antecedents, Disproportionalities, and Consequences of Being Suspended in the Ninth Grade (Los Angeles, Calif.: The Civil Rights Project, December 21, 2012).
Center for Effective Discipline. U.S.: Corporal Punishment and Paddling Statistics by State and Race, webpage (Canal Winchester, Ohio: Center for Effective Discipline, 2010).
Cortez, A., & J.D. Cortez. Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – A 2009 Update (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).
Cortez, A. “Texas: Turning its Back on the Future – An Assessment of Major Education Policy Reforms Considered by the 82nd Texas Legislature,” IDRA Newsletter (August 2011).
Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. Prohibiting All Corporal Punishment in Schools: Global Report 2011 (London: Global Initiative, 2011).
IDRA. Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – What is Known; What is Needed (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).
Milne, E. Corporal Punishment: A Barrier to Education for Children with Disabilities (London: Global Initiative, 2013).
Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable. Model Student and Parent Handbook, Version #8 – To Build a Quality, Healthy School District (The Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable, 2012).
Morgan, E., & N. Salomon, M. Plotkin, R. Cohen. The School Discipline Consensus Report: Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System (New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2014).
Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection – Data Snapshot: School Discipline (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2014).
Laurie Posner, MPA is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2014, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2014 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]