For years, school discipline consisted of referrals, suspensions and expulsions. Many schools had “zero-tolerance” policies that suspended or expelled students for one violation of rules, varying from bringing a weapon to school to willful defiance.
But as suspension rates increased nationwide and, with them, evidence that non-white students are suspended at higher rates than their white peers, the pendulum of preferred disciplinary policy reversed course.
Rather than removing disruptive, defiant or dangerous students from classrooms, our education system has hurtled towards “restorative” approaches to discipline, including the Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions System, or, as colloquially known, PBIS.
PBIS found its champion in Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. In 2009, Duncan sent a letter to state school officers across the U.S., asking for a review of disciplinary policies and endorsing PBIS. In 2010, Duncan focused his department on educational equity, emphasizing the disproportionate number of African-American suspensions. In 2011, the Department of Education teamed up with the Department of Justice to ensure schools didn’t push students through the alleged “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The move from traditional discipline towards newly concocted “restorative justice” reached its apotheosis in 2014, when Duncan penned a “Dear Colleague” letter. In it, the Departments of Education and Justice threatened to investigate public schools that did not take action to reduce suspensions.
It did not matter if a policy was “neutral on its face” and “administered in an evenhanded manner.” Policies were discriminatory if they had “a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”
Under the threat of federal civil rights investigation, thousands of American schools have upended their discipline policies.
Locally, we witnessed this first-hand, as Kern High School District capitulated in a settlement agreement with the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
We’re just beginning to see the fallout.
Earlier this month, a group of teachers took action and addressed the Kern High Board of Trustees regarding the perilous predicaments in which they are placed due to reformed disciplinary policies. Ten teachers have been assaulted by students on Kern High campuses this year.
This is unacceptable. It is also not a local problem.
As Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Max Eden wrote, “The picture is becoming ever clearer: Discipline reform has caused a school-climate catastrophe.” He was referring to the School District of Philadelphia.
Celebrating the settlement agreement with Kern High, Dolores Huerta is quoted as saying, “[we’re going to] make sure our Latino and African American students are being prepared for college so we can dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.”
If college readiness and the end of the supposed “school-to-prison pipeline” are the aims of discipline reform activists, PBIS and other similar methods should be evaluated on the impacts they have on student academic achievement.
The intent of an education is not to occupy a classroom seat and contribute to Average Daily Attendance. The purpose of education is for students to acquire knowledge and develop as members of civil society.
While DHF and other activists may cheer for full classrooms, the tragedy is that our classrooms are peppered with disinterested and defiant children who feel empowered to pilfer their peers of access to a quality education.
Earlier this year, researchers at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released the most comprehensive analysis to date on the impacts of school disciplinary policies on academic achievement.
The report found that PBIS training has a significant, negative effect on Math and English Language Arts performance. The negative effect holds against other variables that adversely impact proficiency. An earlier report found that, tragically, well-behaved students bear the brunt of PBIS’ academic damage.
It is inexcusable that education policymakers would implement a system that demonstrably harms student academic performance.
Discipline reform activists must answer for the impacts their preferred policies have on student academic performance.
That said, it is high time for Secretary of Education Besty DeVos to rescind Duncan’s deleterious guidance on discipline and unshackle school districts from the threat of federal investigations.
If not, I foresee a not too-distant day when teachers in Kern High and districts across the U.S. strike, not protesting compensation and benefits but the unsafe working conditions created by school discipline reform.
It was my education at our local public schools that opened doors for me to upward social mobility. I shudder to think of earnest students who lose access to opportunity because of distracted teachers dealing with defiant delinquents.
Where is the concern for their civil rights? Rather than widening paths of opportunity, disciplinary reform is opening the doors of our schools to the chaos and violence that plagues our streets.
If its negative impacts to student learning outcomes were not enough, the long-term contributions of discipline reform to cultural decay are even more alarming.
Discipline reform has recklessly removed the ability of adults to model, enforce and insist on standards and behaviors essential for young people to develop and live full and meaningful lives. More than simply offering a pedagogy of reading, writing and arithmetic, our classrooms have been sanctuaries that empower young people to become Americans of substance and conviction.
We do our children and, by extension, our nation a grave disservice by removing the consequences of disrespect, violence and defiance. If allowed to continue, we should not be surprised when our society and schools begin to mirror the rashness of childhood itself.
Perhaps we’ve already arrived. That is the problem when classrooms become political playgrounds.
Contributing columnist Justin Salters writes weekly on politics and current events; the views expressed are his own. Reach him on Twitter @justinsalters, or email him your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org.