After the recent moves by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Education against states that use disciplinary measures like suspension and expulsion to excess, districts around the country are reconsidering the way their schools discipline students. In part, this change is a realization that after many years the punitive approach doesn't appear to be working; getting tough on rule breakers doesn't appear to be having an impact on how many students continue to break rules.
Among those already taking steps to change is Chicago Public Schools, where automatic multi-day suspensions as a punishment for serious rule-breaking is being dropped. According to Deseret News, New York City made a similar adjustment a few months ago by eliminating suspensions for discipline issues that they consider "minor."
More than 3 million schoolchildren lost instruction time at school in 2009-10 because they were suspended from school, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at University of California/Los Angeles. Those students missed the learning that went on at school during their enforced absences, and often, were left without adult supervision. And those consequences fell most often upon minority students and those with disabilities, leading to charges by civil rights groups that suspensions are used disproportionately in the discipline of certain groups.
And the issue that raised the ire of the DoE enforcers – that minority students are subject to suspension and expulsion more often than their white peers – shows up all over the country. According to nationwide statistics, a full 17% of all black students have earned at least one suspension by the time they reach 12th grade compared to only 5% of whites and 7% of Latinos.
The numbers are similarly high for students with disabilities. By the time they leave schools, 13% of them have served at least one suspension, which makes them twice as likely to earn the penalty as their non-disabled peers.
Striking the right balance between draconian discipline measures and excessive leniency is tricky, though. A 2012 decision to soften New York City public schools' disciplinary code — in part, because punishments fell more heavily on underprivileged youth — has made it more difficult for teachers to manage their classrooms effectively, some critics say.
Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, says this kind of softening of discipline policies could set a bad example by making it seem like students can get away with breaking rules. She adds that all the recent attention being paid to those who disrupt means that the needs of students who are willing and ready to learn are being overlooked.