Re-Imagining School Discipline: A Plea To Education Leaders

In many large urban school districts, there are more security employees than counselors. In the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system, for example there is one security guard for every 147 students, while the counselor-to-student ratio is 1:217. In addition, based on 2015-16 data, Groeger et al. (2018) found that Black students in DCPS were 15 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers (nationally, Black students were four times more likely to be suspended). In short, many students are not getting the emotional and mental support they need as they go through our schools. Instead, as exemplified by these staffing ratios, too many students are affected by punitive, militaristic methods of discipline, which may not only have negative consequences for the students who are disciplined, but for their peers as well (Perry and Morris 2014).  

A commonly used discipline approach, which used to be known as “zero tolerance,” was to discipline all students who didn’t follow the expected “rules.” Zero tolerance policies proliferated in public schools as a reform to help manage student behavior, using a “quick fix” method. Weaver and Swank (2020) define zero tolerance as “policies…[that] include exclusionary practices (i.e., office referral, suspension, expulsion) that involve the removal of the offender from the context of the incident and isolating the student from others involved and their school community.”

Unfortunately, as Skiba et al. (2011) show, these policies have created negative experiences for students and have disproportionately affected Black and brown students. Because they are implemented for even minor infractions, such as dress code violations, these policies don’t work and can actually cause harm to our students. Zero tolerance policies were designed to create a method of tracking student behavior, but this militaristic approach did not set students up for future success. Instead, these policies increase suspensions and expulsions, and also contribute to reduced engagement, loss of instructional time, and heightened dropout rates (Jones 2018). We are not giving students the opportunities to fail in our presence.

Many schools are exploring alternative discipline methods. They focus on encouraging children to learn from their mistakes, rather than punishing them for making them. One common alternative is restorative justice practices. These programs rely on a strong teacher-student relationship and the strengthening of the school community. The goal of restorative justice practices is to foster relationships rather than have teachers act as managers of children’s behavior. These models prove to be more successful in keeping students engaged and learning in schools, largely because of the focus on relationships (Davis and Chitayo 2019). 

Unfortunately, if done wrong, restorative justice practices have the power to perpetuate a culture of compliance and control. If teachers embed restorative justice practices into the current discourse of behavior and classroom management, nothing will change. That is why teachers and staff members must believe in the power of restorative practices to shift their own biases away from more extreme approaches, such as zero tolerance policies (Vaandering 2014). School leadership must also provide adequate time and training to ensure a successful rollout of restorative justice practices schoolwide (Crosnoe 2004Weaver and Swank 2020). The research suggests that we must move away from compliance-based classroom management and move towards practices that facilitate a more autonomous space for students to take responsibility for their actions. Such practices help students develop a strong sense of advocacy and belonging within their classroom (Vaandering 2014). 

From my experience as a teacher for seven years, students thrive on restorative justice models. Students are innately curious, and these practices help them to understand the harm they have caused and how to best repair that harm. I recall a specific incident on the playground where one student felt excluded from a game. Once we had a conversation about it with the students who were most involved in the exclusionary behavior, they decided to write letters to apologize and invite anyone to play their game. Importantly, this was not a solution that I suggested. Rather, these students knew what they needed to do in order to repair the harm. In general, students get to choose how they want to proceed with rectifying their mistakes and use their voices to explore how they are most comfortable growing from their mistakes. This empowers them to make better choices in the future, because they learn how their actions affect those around them. 

Schools need to shift away from zero-tolerance policies and move toward relationship-based student accountability models such as restorative justice. My recommendation to school leaders, district leaders, and policymakers is: Please stop disciplining students in punitive ways to achieve “quick fixes.” Please make sure schools are spaces that promote dialogue among students and between teachers and students. Let’s develop school policies that help students learn and grow. Our students’ lives and livelihoods depend on it.

- Lauren Schneider

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