• Morgan Craven, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2021 •
I have worked on school discipline and policing issues for more than a decade as an attorney representing young people in schools and courts, as an advocate supporting local campaigns, and as a collaborator on state and national policies. In these roles, when I talk to people about strategies to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, I often frame the solution as “Stop the Bad, Do the Good.”
I admit that may seem overly-simplistic, particularly for an issue that so profoundly impacts the lives of and limits opportunities for so many young people. But I use this framing precisely because the lived experiences, data, and academic research on school discipline and policing are clear about what works and what doesn’t to create safe and welcoming schools for all students.
Stopping the Bad
What exactly pushes students out of school and drives the school-to-prison pipeline? The term school-to-prison pipeline describes schools’ systemic use of punitive discipline practices that results in missed classroom time and increases the likelihood of justice system involvement and a host of other academic, social and psychological challenges for young people.
These challenges are disproportionately felt by Black and Indigenous students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, and those with intersecting identities who are more likely than their peers to be punished (and punished harshly) by teachers and administrators.
Maybe the need to have an alternative in place in order to stop doing something bad is a hang-up that only adults have.
Much of the “bad” is very clear, albeit deeply-entrenched, in many schools: policies and practices (endorsed in classrooms, codified in state laws, and permitted by federal actors) allow the use of in-school and out-of-school suspensions, corporal punishment, alternative school placements, expulsions and other punitive approaches.
Studies confirm what many students and parents have complained about for years: punitive and exclusionary discipline is harmful for young people (Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2011). They suffer academically, socially, psychologically and sometimes physically. They feel cast aside, excluded from their classroom communities, and may struggle to make up the learning and socialization time they missed (IDRA, 2020). School closures during the pandemic have shown us how social and academic isolation negatively impacts students.
Exclusionary discipline policies and practices both reflect and perpetuate personal biases and systemic discrimination, resulting in a disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities. Research confirms that deeply-rooted biases in adults inform how they view students’ behavior and impact who and how they choose to punish (Staats, 2014).
Those biases are passed down, absorbed and shared by others, including many who write and enforce the laws and policies that make up our education and punitive discipline systems. The result is a vicious culture of punishment in many schools that is rooted in history, fed by policy, and carried out by the very people who should be welcoming and protecting of all students.
To stop the bad, we must boldly and intentionally change the local and state policies that allow schools to use exclusionary discipline. We must end corporal punishment, stop ignoring data that show clear racial disparities, and prohibit police and weapons in schools (Craven, 2020). And we must remove adults from schools if they do not deeply believe in the value and limitless potential of every young person.
Doing the Good
For a long time, I focused mainly on “stopping the bad.” My thinking was pretty simple: we should all just stop doing things that we know hurt students. But, inevitably, whoever I was talking to (parent, policymaker, teacher, etc.) would ask, “What should we do instead?” Interestingly, this question never came from students, maybe they already knew what safer schools should look like or maybe the need to have an alternative in place in order to stop doing something bad is only a hang-up adults have.
Like stopping the bad, strategies and investments that help “do the good” are also clear and supported by research and the lived experiences of students, families and teachers.
Doing the good means that schools must identify the root causes of student and adult behaviors, address the beliefs that cause adults to make decisions to punish, and create schoolwide cultures that are safe and welcoming for all. To do so, policymakers and schools must do the following.
- Value all students regardless of backgrounds and be an advocate for students’ growth and learning.
- Implement schoolwide community-building strategies, like restorative practices.
- Encourage adoption of ethnic studies courses and culturally-sustaining educational practices that connect students to their schools and make them feel that they are supported.
- Hire diverse and highly-qualified teachers and other staff.
- Have intentional discussions about discrimination, history and current events.
- Encourage and fund professional development for educators so that they may explore their personal biases and the systems that lead to disproportionate discipline for students.
- Increase the presence of school-based counselors, social workers, and other mental and behavioral health professionals.
- Fund schools equitably to ensure all students have access to excellent materials, instructional practices, and facilities.
- Review data frequently and adjust policies and practices accordingly to ensure all students can succeed.
- Support meaningful systems of student and family engagement to ensure intergenerational investment and involvement in schools.
These are a few of the many strategies that drastically improve the education experiences and outcomes for so many young people, particularly those who are systemically-marginalized.
There is no real or serious debate over the harmful impacts of punitive discipline or over the efficacy of research-based strategies that resolve conflict and build community. The discriminatory impacts of punitive school discipline and policing are clear and cannot be defended.
Research and stories of success in schools that adopt positive strategies prove that pulling students in is always better than pushing them out. We know just what to do to stop the bad and do the good. Now we must do it.
Craven, M. (September 2020). The Policing of Black People Begins in Schools. IDRA Newsletter.
Council of State Governments Justice Center. (2011). Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.
IDRA. (2020). Unfair School Discipline – Discipline Practices in Texas Push Students Away from School – Web Story. San Antonio: IDRA.
Staats, C. (2014). Implicit Racial Bias and School Discipline Disparities – Exploring the Connection, Kirwan Institute Special Report. Columbus, Ohio: Kirwan Institute.
Morgan Craven, J.D., is the IDRA National Director of Policy, Advocacy and Community Engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2021 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.]