Rethinking School Discipline

Imagine a classroom without chaos, a school where all students are engaged. Imagine a school district where minor infractions like being late for class prompt questions of genuine concern, not detrimental cycles of punishment. Working with child advocates, we believe it is our responsibility to create an educational system where students feel safe and nurtured, not targeted and patrolled.

However, students of color are disproportionately punished more harshly than their white peers for misbehavior – and in many cases, for perceived misbehavior. In Mississippi, a high school student faced suspension for holding up the number “3” with his fingers in a photo taken by his science teacher. The assistant principal alleged his student was “holding up gang signs,” but as number “3” on the football team, the student said he was simply trying to show some school spirit.

Stories like these are all too common. Black and brown students, especially young men, are being pulled out of school and placed in a pipeline to prison, even from a preschool age. Handcuffs are alarmingly becoming smaller and smaller. Each time a young man is suspended from school, his chances of dropping out are doubled and his chances of getting arrested are tripled.

Disparities are well documented, especially among black and Latino adolescents. Black students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as white students to be expelled or suspended. In a national survey, black students made up only 15 percent of those tracked, but 35 percent of students who were suspended, and 44 percent of those who were suspended multiple times. These disparities don’t exist because black students are more likely to misbehave than white students; they exist because punishment is distributed unequally.

American Indian and Alaska Native high school graduation rates have been on a downward trend since 2008, and in the absence of culturally appropriate interventions, Native youth, who face unique barriers to success, have a significantly higher suicide rate than the national average.

Nationwide, organizations, entire school districts and even the U.S. Department of Education have taken notice and are intervening to ensure the health and success of our youth by advocating for schools that fully serve a child’s needs, while pushing for policies that keep kids inside of the classroom.

At Fenton, our work on this critical issue is growing. With Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) we are working to transform schools into places where each student gains the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their education, be prepared for college and career, and live healthy, happy lives. OUSD’s Full Service Community Schools focus on relationship building, health and wellness, career tools and the social and emotional skills all people need to thrive.

With Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we support a number of Forward Promise Innovation and Community Partnership grantees that are using a variety of approaches to end harmful disciplinary practices and expand best practices, keeping kids engaged and in school. Below is an introduction to the work of a few of these remarkable Forward Promise grantees.

Addressing Alternatives

The Dignity in Schools Campaign is uniting parents, youth, advocates and educators to end harmful discipline practices and implement positive, evidence-based approaches that reduce conflict and improve teaching and learning. Similarly, Elev8 Baltimore’s program helps students manage stress and cope with trauma to remove barriers to academic and life achievement.

In Clayton County Georgia, interventions at the juvenile court level that keep youth in school and connected to the services that they need have already been shown to reduce school arrests by 83 percent and increase graduation rates by nearly 25 percent since 2004.

The Value of Cultural Identity

A young man making a drum during a course at the Alaska Native Heritage Center
A young man making a drum during a course at the Alaska Native Heritage Center

In New Mexico and Alaska, Forward Promise grantees, Native American Community Academy (NACA) and Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) are using heritage and tradition to engage youth, develop leadership and increase graduation rates. From a community level, efforts led by the Pacific American Foundation in Oahu, Hawaii and the Phoenix Indian Center in Arizona are helping Native Hawaiian and American Indian youth access everything from culturally relevant education to job training programs.

With NACA’s proven model, 100 percent of its first senior class was accepted into and attended college, 75 percent of whom were first-generation college students. And in 2011, ANHC helped 77 percent of its participants graduate from 12th grade in a district with historically low native graduation rates (only 43 percent of non-participants graduated that year).

A Collaborative Approach

The Safe Schools Consortium is a collaboration of six leading community organizations that work in youth organizing, education and racial justice in Chicago. The Consortium works to keep kids in school and promote safe school climates for all students by implementing restorative practices as alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. In just one year, citywide restorative justice trainings resulted in more than 2,000 avoided suspension days.

Whether from a city, district or organizational level, each of these unique approaches has one underlying goal: to provide healthy, safe and promising futures for all students. In recent news and through our work with Oakland Unified School District, we heard about 17-year-old Oakland senior, Akintunde Ahmad, whose 5.0 GPA, SAT and AP scores caught the attention of an array of Ivy League schools including Yale, Brown and Columbia University.

As more schools recognize the power of positive learning environments that are tailored to academic and life success, we expect to see stories like Akintunde’s become the new norm.