Rethinking School Discipline

In Chicago's public schools, some students get a slap on the wrist for fighting while others get a ride to the police station.
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Classroom learning is a delicate balance between teacher and student -- a balance of discipline and nurturing that shelters students from the chaos of the outside world and replaces it with structure and inspiration to help focus on building their minds. But the recently published analysis by the Associated Press on in-school disciplinary actions in Illinois reveals that the disciplinary side of education is often too heavy-handed, sweeping away not just troublemakers but potentially successful students, too. These bleak findings show that while African American students make up 20% of the average student population in the past decade, they comprise nearly half of all public school suspensions and expulsions.

Suspensions and expulsions have been on the rise since 1999 when several black students were expelled from Decatur High School, triggering a national debate on race and discipline. Since that year, suspensions of black students have increased a remarkable 74.5% statewide while suspensions of whites have declined by 5.4%. Critics of this data contend the sudden spike is attributable to increased reporting. But we argue that African Americans are being over-disciplined, a phenomenon that results in severe disruptions to their long-term educational achievement.

Three years ago, Chicago Public Schools announced an end to its zero-tolerance discipline policy and the embrace of "restorative justice," which favors counseling over punitive measures. Some schools have experimented with positive behavior interventions - school-wide programs that target hard-core troublemakers and reward good behavior. These policies have yet to become the norm. According to Catalyst magazine, among big city school districts, CPS ranks at or near the top in suspensions. In 2008 an astounding 1 in 4 black males was suspended at least once. Surely, some observers will argue that this is appropriate: throw out the bad, keep the good. Yet a deeper look shows something different.

The causes of over-disciplining reside at the intersection of family poverty, under-funded schools, inadequate teacher training and deeply-rooted cultural biases in the way administrators and students of color respond to each other. It explains why some students get a slap on the wrist for fighting while others get a ride to the police station.

Each time they are put out of school, African American students suffer cumulative setbacks in their educational progress. They miss valuable class time and must wind up struggling to catch up. Teachers in the many underfunded schools serving African American youngsters lack the resources to handle disciplinary problems effectively. Excessive discipline is indicative of a system full of overburdened teachers and resource-poor counselors and principals who must often choose not what's best but what is most expeditious. In the age of No Child Left Behind, where schools are held to performance standards, it's not hard to see the convenience of pushing out troublemakers rather than devoting limited resources to save them.

While suspensions may solve a short-term problem, they create new, long-term ones. Black males continue to have the highest dropout rate of any racial or ethnic group in the Chicago Public School system -- a rate correlated with repeated suspensions and course failures. Illinois already has 250,000 school drop-outs. Is that a write-off we can continue to afford as a society? We think not. In failing to address disciplinary problems effectively, we are neglecting to correct behaviors. We are showing our young people that they have no value, that they are not worth the time and the effort. We are sending them a dangerous message: that at age 10, or 13 they are too far gone to be helped.

So what are the answers? Better-funding is a good place to start. Teachers and principals need more and better training in managing discipline. And not least, more emphasis must be placed on families and the role parents and guardians play in education. Are responsibility and homework on the menu in the household? Many schools simply do not have the resources. But this crisis won't wait for us to solve the funding mess. Discipline should be "evenhanded," said Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and he's proposed a commission to investigate ways of insuring that it is. We second that proposal.

David E. Thigpen is Vice President for Policy and Research at the Chicago Urban League.

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