School staff attacks in Baltimore draw knee-jerk reactions

Recent publicized incidents of students hitting school staff and bullying one another have spurred demands to increase the use of suspension and expulsion to maintain school discipline. The assumption that removing students who act out will make schools safer reflects the knee-jerk approach that schools have pursued for decades. Research and experience have definitively proven it wrong.

No one disputes the importance of addressing instances of misconduct or violence by students, but kicking kids out of school when they break rules, even in serious ways, does no good and plenty of harm.

Suspension and expulsion do not remedy underlying causes of student misbehavior — interpersonal conflict, mental health challenges and trauma — and thus have no deterrent effect. Students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out and become involved in criminal activity and the criminal justice system, exacting a toll on society more broadly. Moreover, because of implicit bias, black students are disproportionately likely to face exclusionary discipline, even when engaging in the same behaviors as white students. Students with disabilities face even higher rates of disproportionality relative to their non-disabled peers.

Findings such as these prompted Maryland’s State Board of Education to adopt regulations in 2014 placing limits on the use of exclusionary discipline. Although there is not yet similar research on the impact of these requirements in Maryland, studies of parallel reforms elsewhere show that decreasing the use of suspension even in response to serious offenses does not undermine school safety. Earlier this year, for instance, researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that policy changes within Chicago Public Schools that resulted in a 25 percent drop in the suspension rate had a positive, not negative, impact on school safety and achievement. “Reducing the use of suspensions for severe infractions was not associated with declines in student safety,” their report said. Indeed, some “students felt safer, and the policy may have even made students better off in terms of test scores and attendance.”

What’s more, when schools rely on exclusion in cases of serious misconduct, they frequently end up defaulting to this approach even when confronted with minor infractions. Thirty-nine percent of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions from Maryland schools during the 2017-18 school year were for “disrespect” or “disruption,” offenses that are subjective and susceptible to the influence of implicit bias.

In the last year, our organizations have represented students who were removed from school for a week or more, and sometimes referred to law enforcement, for entering the front office to call a parent for a ride, for having antibiotics in a backpack, for joking around in class, and for carrying pepper spray for protection when walking through a dangerous neighborhood. No other student or staff member was hurt in any of the incidents resulting in these suspensions, but the suspended students suffered psychological and academic injury; many felt distrustful of their teachers and discounted by their schools, and some fell seriously behind in their coursework.

The good news is that there are a number of effective alternatives to exclusionary discipline, as Baltimore City Schools leadership recognized at a community forum on the issue this week:

Solutions will not come easily. Successful implementation of alternatives to exclusionary discipline requires staff training, investment in student services and a realignment of our cultural understanding with academic research on why students misbehave. But it would be a mistake to react to high-profile instances of school violence by embracing the discredited exclusion-based approach to discipline. If we are serious about making our classrooms and communities safe, we must address the root causes of that violence and keep kids in school.

Monisha Cherayil (cherayilm@publicjustice.org) is an attorney with the Public Justice Center. She writes on behalf of the Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline, a group of organizations committed to keeping youth in school and on track to graduate by ensuring school discipline practices in Maryland schools are fair and appropriate, and the Maryland Suspension Representation Project, a partnership of attorneys who provide legal representation to students in disciplinary hearings.

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