It has been widely documented that, in American schools, students of color are disproportionately punished for nonviolent behaviors, and are targeted for exclusionary discipline within schools more often than their white peers. Exclusionary discipline is defined as students being removed from their learning environment, whether by in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, or expulsion.
In a national study, Sullivan et al. (2013) found that “Black students were more than twice as likely as White students to be suspended, whereas Hispanic and Native American students were 10 and 20 percent more likely to be suspended.” Out of all the racial minority groups, Asians had the lowest suspension rates across the board. Across all the racial groups, “males were twice as likely as female students to be suspended, and Black males had the highest rates of all subgroups.”
One reason that students of color are at a performance disadvantage to their White counterparts is because, put simply, they are being removed from the classroom much more often. This is true nationally, but it seems to be a particularly pronounced issue in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Center for Public Integrity released a 2015 study demonstrating that schools in Virginia “referred students to law enforcement agencies at a rate nearly three times the national rate” (Ferriss, 2015). According to the U.S. Department of Education, Virginia’s Black student population, which is 23 percent of all students, received 59 percent of short-term arrests and 43 percent of expulsions (Lum, 2018).
In 2017, Virginia Tech researchers found evidence of discrepancies in the Center for Public Integrity report. Virginia Tech, with the support of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Children's Cabinet, distinguished between reports to law enforcement, as recounted by the Center for Public Integrity, and actual involvement within the court system. They found that the number of students who ended up in court was much lower than originally thought, because the reported figure included “informal” reports to law enforcement, which might entail simply notifying a school safety officer. Even with these adjustments, the data still showed that Virginia’s Black students and students with disabilities were disproportionately more likely to be suspended or expelled. (It should also be noted that it is unclear if the discounted “informal,” non-court incidents were more, less or equally prevalent in Virginia than in other states).
Exclusionary discipline has a detrimental impact on the academic performance of students, not only because they aren’t in the classroom as often as they should be, but also because suspension and expulsion could increase their time spent unsupervised and with other out-of-school children (Triplett et al., 2014). This could lead to an increase in counter-productive behavior which might further impair students’ academic success.
New legislative policies are a major key to improving the situation. And indeed, during the 2018 legislative session, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed two important bills into law. One of those bills, SB 170, prevents schools from suspending or expelling students in preschool to third grade, except for specifically outlined criminal acts. While an important first step, this bill was passed with an amendment allowing for up to three days of out-of-school suspension at the discretion of superintendents, highlighting the political resistance to decreased reliance on harsh discipline policies, even for younger students.
The second bill, introduced by Del. Jeffrey Bourne and signed by Gov. Northam, limits long-term suspension from an alarming 364 calendar days, to a far more reasonable 45 school days (Gilbreath, 2018).
Unfortunately, another important bill, Virginia House Bill 15, was not passed during the 2018 legislative session. It would have “require[d] a principal to first take appropriate alternative disciplinary action or determine that no such appropriate alternative disciplinary action exists before referring to local law-enforcement agency student incidents of assault and assault and battery without bodily injury.” The opposition by policymakers to such bills, which could provide schools with the resources, training and responsibility to properly address non-violent school-based offenses, is problematic and allows school districts to outsource challenging student behaviors to the juvenile justice system.
Improved training and resources for schools and stronger law enforcement and school system partnerships, which rely on preventative measures and socio-emotional learning for youth, should foster greater equity in Virginia’s public schools and divert students of color from the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, several restorative justice programs have proven successful across the country and model the strength-based approaches that schools should take in regard to their students of all colors.
According to 2017 legislative activity, at least 12 states and Washington D.C., proposed legislation and four states enacted legislation related to alternative school discipline. Approximately 26 bills were proposed, and five were enacted. Some of these alternative discipline policies included: restorative practices, positive behavior incentives, mediation, peer-to-peer counseling, and community service. Virginia state legislation needs to study what alternative discipline practices work best for schools, and school districts should be documenting and sharing what has been working best for them.
There need to be many more open and forthright conversations around school discipline, to the school, policy and community levels. As a former teacher, I understand the constraints that are placed on educators when it comes to disciplinary measures. Many teachers have not been given the proper support or training to deal with the issues that arise in the classroom. Access to counselors, school psychologists and community resources are necessary, as well as high-quality staff training and continuous professional development around alternative school discipline practices. Many schools in Virginia are under-resourced and lack the proper counseling services for students. There needs to be a school counselor, social worker, nurse, and other trauma informed specialists to provide proper behavioral interventions and support for all students. Schools need these resources to support both students and staff, nurture their success and create a positive learning environment for all.