School Discipline in a Post-Obama World

It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will also see the issue as a matter of civil rights.

Students in San Antonio, Texas, resolve a conflict through a restorative-justice program. (Eric Gay / AP )

Education Secretary John King is a generally soft-spoken, thoughtful guy. It’s hard to imagine him as a kid giving his teachers any trouble. But the topmost education official in the United States actually got booted from Phillips Andover Academy, an elite boarding school north of Boston, back when he was a high-school student there in the early 1990s. King, whose parents had both passed away by the time he was 13, felt “unhappy and overwhelmed” by the school’s unfamiliar culture and strict rules.

After boarding school, he went to live with his aunt and uncle, a former Tuskegee Airman who provided a sense of stability. Always strong academically, King, who grew up in Brooklyn, rebounded, and ultimately completed his undergraduate work at Harvard before earning a law degree from Yale, and a master’s in social studies and a doctorate in education from Columbia; he worked full-time and raised two small girls with his wife, Melissa, while he was getting his advanced degrees. Agree with his progressive politics or not, he’s clearly achieved some level of personal and professional success.

But things could’ve gone so differently.

“I often say I’m the first secretary of education to get kicked out of high school, but I hope I’m not the last,” he said during a recent phone conversation from Phoenix, where he’d just finished a roundtable with civil-rights organizations. “Part of why I am here today, why I’m doing the work that I’m doing today, is because folks gave me a second chance.” As he explained to my colleague earlier this year, as a black, Latino male student who was suffering from instability and family loss, King could've easily been dismissed by his teachers as a lost cause. “But instead,” he told me, “they chose to invest in me and support me and give me a second chance, and that helped me to get my life back on track.”

As the Obama administration comes to a close, King and other top officials are calling on schools and nonprofits to make sure kids like him don’t fall through the proverbial cracks—getting suspended or even expelled when tough circumstances prompt them to act out—moving forward. It’s unclear how much of a priority the Trump administration will place on school-discipline reform, or the lens through which those officials will view the topic. (Trump’s team did not respond to a request for comment.) For the Obama administration, that lens has been clear: School discipline is about making sure all kids have access to the same resources and opportunities. “At the core, in the department, we are a civil-rights agency with a responsibility to protect students’ civil rights,” King told me during our phone conversation when I asked him about his views on discipline.

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The previous week, King had met with educators and civil-rights advocates at the White House to thank them for their work over the last few years to change the way schools discipline kids, focusing less on reactionary punishment and more on addressing the root problems that cause kids to act out. Seated at the center of a large conference table in the Roosevelt Room just steps from the Oval Office, the secretary and other administration officials urged those in attendance to think about how to sustain that work in the coming years.

The meeting built off of several years of efforts at the federal level. In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder and then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan released national school-discipline guidelines for the first time in the country’s history, and urged districts to get on board in an effort to reduce racial disparities. The next year, the White House held a conference on school discipline, and this year, the Education and Justice departments published guidelines for districts that have police officers in schools.

In recent years, large school districts from Los Angeles to Baltimore have moved away from using suspensions and expulsions to address misbehavior, favoring ideas like restorative justice or what are known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), instead. Broadly, these approaches focus on the emotions and feelings that prompt misbehavior instead of on the behavior itself. Miami, for instance, began focusing on helping kids better manage their emotions and response to social situations, and developed a program to help kids who have been removed from school for a period of time transition back into their schools. The Bridgeport, Connecticut, school district—where 98 percent of students are low-income and almost all are black or Latino—partnered with Yale to put something called the RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions) approach, aimed at developing a healthy emotional climate, into practice. Denver collaborated with the University of Denver to highlight and scale discipline approaches that were working. While varied, these newer approaches tend to focus on helping children understand and process the feelings behind their misbehavior and mediate disputes with others, instead of sending children home without addressing the underlying issue.

The Obama administration outlined in a recent report that, in part because of concerted efforts to improve discipline practices, the use of out-of-school suspensions declined by nearly 20 percent between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years, and advocates of the reforms have hailed them as effective. Yet the report also pointed out that the 2.8 million students who did receive an out-of-school suspension during the 2013-14 school year were disproportionately students of color or kids with disabilities.

And the disparities begin early: Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely than their white peers to be sent home from school, a rate that rises slightly by elementary school. In the 2013-14 school year, around 70,000 students faced a school-related arrest. While black students make up about 16 percent of all students, they were 34 percent of students subject to such arrests. In some cases students are subject to arrest simply for being boisterous or “annoying.”

The administration has taken pains to point out what it says are the ripple effects of those suspensions, most of which, according to a 2011 report by Child Trends, were for nonviolent offenses. Kids who are suspended, of course, aren’t in class learning, and are less likely than those who aren’t removed from class to graduate on time and be successful. And as Philip Leaf, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who has studied school discipline, told me, the out-of-school environments many of these children end up in are not conducive to learning. Suspensions and expulsions in the early years, the Education Department said a couple of years ago in a joint statement with the Department of Health and Human Services, can even negatively affect health, and can increase the likelihood that a kid becomes involved with the criminal-justice system. Adults who’ve spent time in prison are more likely than their peers who haven’t to struggle to find work.

In other words, the administration has framed school discipline as more than just an education issue. Discipline reform, Obama administration officials have argued, is about ensuring children are treated fairly and given a chance to succeed. When those chances aren’t fairly distributed—and are compounded by entrenched issues like poverty, school segregation, and implicit racial bias—black and Latino communities suffer disproportionately.

In the last eight years, the administration has issued a number of recommendations aimed at reducing those disparities, including focusing on reducing implicit bias in teachers and ending the use of corporal punishment, which is still allowed in 19 states. “It is state-sanctioned violence against children,” King told me. “The corporal punishment practices, if those same things were done to an adult, in many states they would be criminal assault ... [Corporal punishment] is an archaic practice that should be eliminated.”

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Students have, of course, been misbehaving for as long as schools have been around. But when King and President Obama were children, teachers and principals generally handled discipline issues themselves instead of handing them over to a school police officer. Obama said as much at the White House during a mid-December summit for the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a program focused on improving support for boys and young men of color. “There were times where I made poor choices, times where I was adrift,” he said. The only difference between now and then, he said, is that “I grew up in a more forgiving environment.”

That’s not to say that educators today aren’t forgiving. But in general, schools today have more police presence than they used to. In the 1990s, inspired by a larger zero-tolerance movement around crime and the “broken windows” philosophy, schools regularly issued suspensions and expulsions for infractions as minor as wearing a hat in class, and they increasingly turned toward school police officers to handle discipline issues. Infractions that would’ve been handled by a principal or teacher instead landed kids in juvenile detention. Even Hillary Clinton—who during her campaign pledged to spend billions on school-discipline reform if she became president—in the mid-1990s used the term “superpredator” to describe children who had “no conscience, no empathy.” Between then and the mid-2000s, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, the number of public high schools with full-time security officers tripled. Even now, 1.6 million students go to a school that has a law-enforcement officer but no counselor.

Yet, in the last decade or so—spurred by reports of racial disparities in discipline, the widespread use of suspensions for nonviolent offenses, and the demographic shift taking place in classrooms across the country—some advocacy and professional groups began calling for change. The American Psychological Association in 2008 criticized zero-tolerance policies for failing to make schools safer and making students more likely to misbehave in the future. The American Civil Liberties Union, for its part, began talking about the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon in which harsh school-discipline policies funnel children into the criminal-justice system.

It’s unclear how much of the school-discipline reform that’s taken place during the last eight years is a direct consequence of the administration’s actions, and how fragile the reforms are in a post-Obama world. “It’s hard to know” the Obama administration’s impact on discipline reform, Matthew Steinberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied school discipline, said. But “it’s put a spotlight on the issue at the federal level.”

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, a school-board member in Houston, which recently shifted funding away from alternative schools and toward emotional-support services in traditional schools, said during an interview at the White House after attending the roundtable with King that an invitation to last year’s discipline conference “was pivotal for us.” Before that, discipline reform hadn’t been a central focus for the district.

Steve Zimmer, the president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board of education, also attended the White House meeting. While his district began rethinking its approach to discipline a year or so before Obama took office, he said recognition from the White House helped strengthen the district’s resolve to scale back suspensions and expulsions.

Sitting directly across from King, he outlined how, students, most of them Latino or black, lost some 75,000 days to suspensions in the 2007-08 school year alone. Last year, that figure was under 6,000—in part, he said, because the district implemented restorative-justice practices. In a follow-up conversation after the meeting, Zimmer said the change also reflected the district’s effort to avoid treating certain kids as somehow deficient.

The transition hasn’t been entirely smooth or complete, however. Zimmer was blunt when he said there had not been complete buy-in from teachers, and he acknowledged that the district’s budget for reforming discipline is tight. A year ago the Los Angeles Times noted that just 307 of the district’s 900 campuses had been trained in restorative justice. In 2013, the district banned so-called “willful-defiance suspensions.” But Sylvester Wiley, a police officer in the district, told the paper that schools were more likely to call police to handle students who acted out after teachers lost suspension as an option.

When California took up a statewide ban on the practice, the teachers’ unions initially balked and accused lawmakers of trying to take away a discipline tool without offering anything to replace it in return. As Steinberg said, it’s one thing to make policy changes to reduce suspensions, but another to ask teachers to implement them without assistance. In Des Moines, Iowa, which recently began to reduce suspensions and eliminate expulsions, parents and teachers have said the new tactic actually increases disruptive behavior, according to The Des Moines Register.

King is sympathetic. “I think that’s a legitimate concern,” he said during our phone conversation, adding that districts need to pair the policy changes with resources to actually implement them. But those changes don’t always have to be costly. A school in Des Moines was able to curb bad behavior by moving what had been an afternoon snack to morning, the Register noted. Other teachers lead brief yoga lessons each morning to help students focus.

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Even where there’s buy-in from teachers, researchers say there’s little hard evidence to back some of the most popular discipline reforms, including restorative justice. Steinberg said restorative justice is particularly difficult to study because people often use it to refer to a loosely defined set of practices, such as “peace circles” where students share their feelings. That hasn’t deterred people like Zimmer and King, who see restorative justice as one potential piece of the solution.

“I think there are no silver-bullet solutions in education,” King said, adding that he thinks restorative justice can “work well in some schools in conjunction with other strategies.” Schools still need counselors, teachers who engage students, and extracurriculars for kids who don’t have access to them outside of school, he said. Training and professional development for school staff are also “critical,” and schools with law-enforcement officers but no counselors are “not set up for success,” he added.

There’s also the possibility that some districts are effectively suspending students without logging the suspensions in an attempt to make it look like they are implementing reforms. That concerns researchers like Steinberg. “I think the fidelity of the data is always a concern,” he told me. “We need to talk about having systems in place that can better monitor the fidelity of reporting.”

The chances those systems will grow more robust in the coming years seems somewhat slim. If Trump’s administration expands charter schools and voucher programs, which let families use public funds to pay for private or parochial schools, some civil-rights groups, like the NAACP, worry it could become harder in some places to keep track of how students are treated. King declined to speculate about the next administration but said that some states, including Michigan (the home state of Trump’s choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos), haven’t done a good job of shutting down bad schools. “I worry that a lack of a strong accountability system has resulted in the proliferation of poor-performing charters that are not attentive to students’ needs,” he said, “and are not getting the kinds of outcomes for students that we would hope for.”

King pointed to New Orleans (where almost all kids attend charter schools), which has created a centralized expulsion policy, meaning schools have to get approval to expel students from a single hearing office, as a possible model for how to handle oversight.

The secretary is no opponent of charters (he helped found one), though, and he’s fed up by questions about whether they are better or worse than traditional public schools on discipline, calling the debate “irrelevant.” “Charters have a mission to serve students well, and given that mission, all charters should be working to improve their discipline practices and do more to ensure students are in the classroom,” he said.

“Should” is the operative word: King and the Education Department have had little power to mandate discipline reform at the national level. While the department has been more active than many previous administrations in issuing guidelines and investigating discipline complaints through the civil-rights office, states and districts can still largely handle discipline according to their own rules. Whether the next administration continues to wield the civil-rights office that way isn’t clear, and Obama’s team will depart with plenty of cases still unfinished. Trump has spoken about moving the division over to the Justice Department, which is set to be led by Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama. Sessions has questioned what he sees as a “complex system of federal regulations and laws,” and said he sees those regulations as factors in “the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.” How he would approach the issue as U.S. attorney general is unclear.

King indirectly acknowledged the uncertainty of some of the administration’s reforms during our conversation when he said civil-rights groups will play an important role in keeping school-discipline reform in the limelight, as they’ve done historically when the office has been less active on other issues. “The next administration should build on the progress we’ve made over the last eight years,” King said, citing the Education Department’s protections for LGBT students and English-language learners, among other causes, “because that is the responsibility of the federal government to protect students’ civil rights.”

Ultimately, the issue is personal for King. Had the adults in his life responded differently to his behavior when he was an upset, angry teen, he could’ve been headed for a very different kind of yard than Harvard’s. “I think about that a lot of times when I’m meeting with young people—you know, young people who are getting in trouble, young people who are in juvenile-justice facilities,” he said as our conversation wound down.

“Young people are going to make mistakes,” he continued, “but we as adults have to use those as teachable moments and help them get back on track so that they can be successful as adults.”