Reforming School Discipline
65 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2016 Last revised: 17 Jun 2016
Date Written: March 30, 2016
Public schools suspend millions of students each year, but only five percent of suspensions are for serious misbehavior. School leaders argue that these suspensions ensure an orderly educational environment for those students who remain. Social science demonstrates the opposite. The practice of regularly suspending students negatively affects misbehaving students as well as innocent bystanders. All things being equal, schools that manage student behavior through means other than suspension produce the highest achieving students. In this respect, the quality of education a school provides is closely connected to its discipline policies.
Drawing on the connection between discipline and educational quality, this article pits harsh discipline as the enemy of good schools and debunks the narrative of bad students as the enemy of good ones. It also argues that this evidence, combined with the affirmative education rights and duties found in state constitutions, can be used to demand that states substantively reform discipline.
First, because students have a constitutionally protected individual right to education, suspensions and expulsions should trigger heightened scrutiny. Heightened scrutiny would not bar suspensions, but it would force states to justify the efficacy of suspension. The practical result would be to prompt states to adopt pedagogical sound approaches to student misbehavior. Second, discipline practices that undermine educational quality violate states’ constitutional obligation to provide equal and adequate educational opportunities to all students. In these instances, state constitutions should obligate states to intervene with reform.
Keywords: school discipline, zero tolerance, racial disparities, school quality, right to education, restorative justice, positive behavioral supports, discipline reform, suspensions, expulsions
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