How to Discipline Students Without Turning School Into a Prison

New guidelines from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education urge schools to abandon "zero-tolerance" policies.

Mark Stehle/AP Photo

For years a body of troubling evidence has been building that reveals racially discriminatory practices in school disciplinary measures. Black and Latino children are more likely to be disciplined, be more severely disciplined, and are more frequently are suspended or expelled or sent to special alternative schools. "Zero-tolerance" policies that presume all explanations for infractions as small as being late to school are excuses and there’s no such thing as mitigating circumstances have been particularly hurtful to poor black and Latino students. Supporters of zero tolerance say the policies are designed to teach accountability and maintain order in some of the country’s most dangerous schools; critics say they push at-risk kids who need the most help and attention out of school and send a message that they’re not wanted. Simultaneously, schools have over the years more heavily relied on law enforcement and courts to deal with problem students, creating the so called "school-to-prison pipeline" that for many perpetuates into adulthood.

Now the civil rights arms of both the Departments of Education and Justice have jointly set guidelines for school discipline. These guidelines are meant to help schools avoid racially discriminatory disciplinary practices as outlined in the Civil Rights Data Collection, a survey of all public schools that’s been regularly conducted by the DoE since 1968. Among the discouraging findings the study outlines:

African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Further, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.

The study goes on to say that these findings aren’t explained by more frequent or serious infractions by minority students. The consequences for students are severe, leading to an array of negative outcomes from increased juvenile criminal justice involvement to drug use to lower academic achievement.

Some may feel, despite the voluminous data that black and Latino kids are too frequently targeted for harsh punishment, that disciplining black and Latino children less frequently and less severely can only lead to more chaotic and dangerous schools. In fact, there is considerable advocacy in the wake of Sandy Hook and other school tragedies to expand security practices typically found in inner city schools, including metal detectors and on-campus police, to predominantly white, middle-class, and affluent districts.  But the Department of Education outlines in a separate release called “Guiding Principles, A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline” what it sees as the way forward for maintaining order and safety in schools without relying on correctional-setting security tactics.

Among the many alternatives to automatically suspending or expelling students or making rushed referrals to juvenile criminal justice, the DoE’s 37-page-long Guiding Principles mention restorative practices no less than nine times. This approach evolved from the restorative justice movement that seeks to make both victims and offenders whole and productive again through mediation and amends-making. Restorative practices in schools aim to prevent the spread of violence through non-punitive conflict resolution and peer support and to resolve problems that do occur peacefully through communication among victims, perpetrators and facilitators. Skeptics may think that this sounds like some hippy-dippy nonsense that’s doomed to fail when it hits the streets in a predominantly black inner-city school, but that’s not the case.

Last year I wrote for The Atlantic about a notorious North Philadelphia junior high school known for years as the “Jones Jail.” Its rambunctious students wreaked such terror on the neighborhood that the police put the streets surrounding the school on lockdown every day at dismissal. Nearby shop-keepers locked their doors and porches as 800 of the city’s poorest kids streamed out the doors, often reportedly climbing over parked cars in their unruly rush to get out of school. When the John Paul Jones Middle School was taken charter and reopened as the Memphis Street Academy, the new administration decided, to the mystified dismay of the police department , that they would strip the school of metal detectors and window gratings, get rid of the security guards, and instead utilize nonviolence based restorative practices.

The number of violent incidents dropped 90 percent in a single year.

Of course, many readers were skeptical of such a precipitous drop in such a short time. Maybe the school under-reported violent incidents. Maybe with no security guards violent incidents aren’t getting reported at all. But since the story ran more corroborating information has come from the police department to support the school’s claims. Since Memphis Street Academy initiated restorative practices, the police department says they no longer need to send the 11 patrol officers they used to send every day to oversee the hectic and potentially explosive dismissal time. The police department has been able to begin serving other schools in the area, which used to get barely any resources even when reporting something as serious as a student being hit by a car because the need for security at the old Jones Jail was so great.   Juvenile crime rates in the immediate area are down, as are truancy and curfew violations. Officers are freed up to focus on the considerable amount of violent crime that can jump off at any time of day in this drug- and gun-ridden part of the city. At neighborhood town halls citizens reportedly praise students and the school for having solved a persistent neighborhood nuisance. Memphis Street Academy CEO Christine Borelli says the school's restorative practices continue having a major impact. "We only have 2 serious incidents that require police involvement thus far this year."

Now imagine if Jones Jail had decided to go with harsher enforcement instead of restorative practices. Of course, that’s disregarding the fact that many Philadelphia schools have long had very martial approaches to discipline and extremely tight security with linkages to school police, truant officers, and juvenile probation and still suffered a tremendous violence epidemic over the years. But if Jones Jail had instead taken on some of the harsher zero-tolerance policies that predominate, such as automatic suspensions for minor infractions like tardiness, in order to forcibly impose order? Then the school would only send more of the most at-risk children home, where they would be deprived of instruction time and exposed to more social pathology that predominates in their neighborhood.

Junior high kids hanging out in the West Kensington neighborhood that feeds into Memphis Street Academy instead of being in school are more likely to be recruited as look-outs and runners by the older kids who sell drugs on nearly every block. If there is violence in their homes, which considering the rates of domestic violence in the neighborhood are not unlikely, they’re more likely to be exposed to even more of it. If there’s no food in the house, which is distinctly possible, considering that food scarcity is a major problem in North Philadelphia, they’ll go without the school lunch they would have received. And receiving punitive messages from an institution you’re already ambivalent about can be enough to push a struggling student away from school altogether—from any school.

As a social worker I’ve worked both in public schools and in the criminal justice system, so I’ve seen what it’s like at both ends of the pipeline. I remember arriving for the first time at the probation department and immediately thinking that it was uncannily similar to the public high school I worked in just before I took the job. The metal detectors, the barking security demanding removal of items of clothing and access to bags, beeping wands waved around in people’s personal space and the long line of black and Latino men and women stretching out the door all could have been transplanted from one institution to the other.  The bigger picture, from my perspective, concerns America’s continued struggle to get beyond its racially based fears and the impulse to monitor, control, discipline and punish black and Latino men for even the smallest infraction or else chaos will break loose in our cities. It starts as early as the first day of elementary school and for some will last until they get off parole. It makes one wonder how much of the problem we’re creating through the solutions we’ve crafted.

In schools, like in adult society, there are serious crimes that deserve serious punishment. But as the Departments of Education and Justice demonstrate with their Civil Rights Data Collection survey, the generalizing of the misbehavior of some black and Latino students has become so broad that it’s out of control. The policies crafted in their bias are arbitrary and damaging. And, as the Guiding Principles outline, there are many other ways to provide safety and security in every school without using force or threats.  That is, if we can finally let go of the impulse to overly condemn and punish black and Latino students.