Suspensions, Expulsions, Arrests Don't Work: On School Discipline, We Can Do Better

By Daniel Willingham

RCEd Commentary

Stick a few hundred kids together in a building for six hours and you can bet that a few are going to misbehave. How teachers and administrators should react to rule infractions -- especially more serious ones -- is perennial problem. A newly published report from the School Discipline Consensus Project, with over 700 experts contributing, offers the most comprehensive answer I’ve seen.

The reports starts with two grim facts. First, present practices are ineffective. Policies tend to focus on student removal--suspensions, expulsions and arrests—as a way to keep schools orderly and safe. But while they are removed, the offenders fall behind in their schoolwork, and removal puts them at greater risk for dropping out or getting in trouble with the law. Second, present policies are poorly implemented. Students are often suspended for minor infractions such as cell phone use, and kids from some groups—those with disabilities, kids of color, and LGBT youth—are disproportionately disciplined.

What’s a better way? The overarching principle emphasized in the report is the creation of more positive environments in schools and classrooms, and more supportive relationships among students, teachers, and administration. Sounds great. How do we get there? Actions in schools and districts such as these:

  1. Collect (disaggregated) data on infractions and on factors that are predictive of misbehavior. Make these data transparent to all, consistent with privacy policies.
  2. Work on school climate, for example through social/emotional learning programs.
  3. Design a graduated system of responses to misconduct that keeps students in school whenever possible, addresses the harm caused, and considers the factors that may contribute to the problem, while encouraging students to take responsibility for changing their behavior.
  4. Have a place on school grounds to which disciplined students can be removed but still receive instruction and social or emotional support, as needed.
  5. Partner with police to ensure that officers understand school policies, to formalize cooperation in written documents that are periodically reviewed, and to ensure that officers on school grounds are committed to the school learning environment.
  6. Plan for ways to divert students from the juvenile justice system for minor infractions (if appropriate); plan for ways that students released from correctional facilities can transition smoothly back to community schools.

The six points listed above constitute an incomplete summary of the very broad goals that the report addresses. These broad goals are cashed out in over 60 more specific action recommendations. But even in a long report (some 400 pages,) these inevitably end up as guidelines rather than specific blueprints, e.g., “Address physical facility conditions and school security procedures to ensure schools are safe and feel secure while also being welcoming and orderly.”

The value of the report lies not in the specificity of the recommendations, but in the breadth of its vision. It gives an administrator or legislator a view of just how broad the problem is, and emphasizes that attending to just one or two pieces of this complex puzzle will not be sufficient. And although it cannot serve as a policy guidebook, it does lay out big-picture conclusions based on solid research.

A natural reaction upon reading this report might be despair: 60 recommended actions, each of them formidable in its own right. The authors anticipate this reaction, and confirm that implementing all of the recommendations at once would be impossible, and further, that there is no right or wrong place to start. The important thing is to start.

Let’s hope this report provides some impetus to reform in discipline practices. There’s little evidence that current policies are serving students and schools well, and there is reason to think we can do better. 

Daniel Willingham is a columnist for RealClearEducation and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He also writes the Daniel Willingham science and education blog.

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