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Maryland is facing a school discipline crisis.
Maryland is facing a school discipline crisis. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Maryland has a school discipline crisis caused by the behavior of adults, not children. Too many educators default to outdated exclusionary discipline — sending a student to the office or “punishing” a student with days off (i.e., suspension).

Does exclusionary punishment work? Does it improve student behavior? Make schools safer? Study after study has shown that the answer is a resounding “no.”

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In 2008, a study by the American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force found that suspensions not only fail to make schools safer but actually increase student behavioral issues and dropout rates. Since the APA’s report, a large and growing body of research has confirmed that suspensions link to poorer academic outcomes for students, negative school social climate for all students and higher rates of school misconduct.

Black girls in the Baltimore City public schools are more likely than other girls to be punished for speaking out in school, defying authority and causing disturbances, according to a study released Thursday by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

Suspensions are associated with a higher risk of involvement with the criminal justice system, fueling the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Increased police presence in schools has exacerbated the problem, leading to the criminalization of minor student behavior. The most common school arrests are for the vague categories of “disorderly conduct” or “disrespect.” In other words, children get arrested for acting like children.

What’s worse, suspensions and school arrests are meted out disproportionately, with black students and students with disabilities suspended and arrested at substantially higher rates. To be clear, studies show that this is not due to behavioral differences among the students but because of inconsistent adult responses. And having large numbers of black students does not equate to higher rates of student arrests. Baltimore City, for example, ranks among the lowest school-based arrests, with rural counties topping the list.

So, what’s the answer? In 2017, the legislature appointed an interdisciplinary group of educators and experts to the Maryland Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices. Our charge was to analyze school disciplinary practices in Maryland and study best practices with respect to restorative approaches to school discipline that foster school climates most conducive to learning.

We absolutely take seriously Baltimore County parents' complaints about unchecked discipline problems in the schools. But returning to zero-tolerance policies isn't the answer.

After two years of study, the commission’s 100-page report concluded that exclusionary discipline undermines Maryland’s goal of providing a world class education. The answer, we found, lies in two simple concepts: relationships and problem solving. The time has come for adults to examine how we should behave so our children do too.

The commission urges schools to move away from exclusionary punishments and adopt proactive, restorative approaches to discipline. This includes a range of potential problem-solving strategies, such as restorative practices, mediation and socio-emotional learning curriculum.

The commission defines restorative approaches as those that combine “a relationship-focused mindset and distinctive tools that create a school climate and culture that is inherently just, racially equitable and conducive to learning for all students.” This approach is primarily proactive, setting clear behavioral norms and building strong relationships. If they do misbehave — as kids are known to do — they are held accountable in rehabilitative ways that support positive changes and put them back on track. It is a learning approach to discipline focused on prevention and correction.

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. That's exactly the wrong thing to do.

It is a myth that restorative approaches are permissive. Rather, they require more accountability and change from students. As the best teachers know, students behave and thrive not in an atmosphere of fear and retribution, but in a positive climate that combines high expectations and accountability with adequate guidance and support. Restorative approaches provide a continuum of strategies to address student behavior in more targeted, effective ways. Many Maryland schools that have already moved to restorative approaches have experienced dramatic decreases in misbehavior, office referrals and suspensions, together with improved attendance rates and academic outcomes.

Many schools that want to adopt restorative approaches need our help. Five bills that evolved from the commission’s recommendations are pending in the Maryland General Assembly. They would provide schools with the guidance and resources needed for creating positive school climates most conducive to learning for all students. We encourage all who care about children and their education to support these bills (especially house bills 725 and 1229). They will help to address the school discipline crisis impeding the success of our children.

Deborah Thompson Eisenberg (deisenberg@law.umaryland.edu) is faculty director of the Center for Dispute Resolution (C-DRUM) at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and a professor of law. Barbara Sugarman Grochal (bgrochal@law.umaryland.edu) is chair of the Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices and director of C-DRUM’s School Conflict Resolution Education Program.

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