There is a conversation about reforming school discipline that we must have — but it hasn’t happened yet. It could have happened back in October when the spotlight was focused on Success Academy and how it deals with the behavior of children in the care of its schools — especially after it was revealed that one of its school leaders took the absolutely unacceptable and intolerable step of compiling a list of children it wanted to push out for various degrees of misbehavior. But save for Dropout Nation‘s discourse on the issue, all we got from all sides was rancor and defensiveness when what was needed was a nuanced conversation about how schools should help all children while also ensuring cultures of high-quality learning.
Yet we still have an opportunity to reform school discipline. I propose that this starts by focusing on how discipline is experienced by all children and their families. A family-friendly approach to school discipline will not make navigating the issue simpler. But it does place the goal of our journey where it belongs – with the interest of children.
What would a common sense, family-friendly approach to school discipline look? Before we find the answers, let’s understand the challenge. We want schools to have healthy learning environments in which children can learn, ones which reflect their interests. Developing those cultures ultimately depends on how the adults deal with the behaviors of the children they serve. This is the problem. Children sometimes behave as adults expect them to. Sometimes they don’t. But even that isn’t as clear as anyone thinks. What counts as bad behavior to one adult isn’t always so to another. Without ground rules in place, different adults will deal with those behaviors differently and arbitrarily.
To provide healthy learning environments, you need to make sure that children aren’t engaging in inappropriate behavior. After all, when schools have a healthy learning environment, one which is safe and orderly, in which children are actively engaged and can achieve their fullest potential, they learn a lot more. Parents value such schools. It is the family-friendly thing to do.
But as I have written, what constitutes misbehavior according to one adult in school isn’t treated the same by another. There are some behaviors that are clearly not okay in any school, like stabbing or bullying classmates and other forms of violent behavior. Suspensions and expulsions have always existed to address those extreme acts of misbehavior. But then there are episodes of “disruptive” behavior that may be harmful to a child’s own learning and could make it harder for teachers to teach. But should suspensions and expulsions be used to address those issues when other tools are at our disposal?
Suspending or expelling a child may create order in the classroom they leave, letting the remaining kids learn more. However, it is extremely harmful to the child being expelled or suspended. These tools can be necessary sometimes. But as data has shown, they can (and have been) overused and in ways that are discriminatory and disproportionately affect different groups of students.
Short of suspension and expulsion, there are many tools and strategies that schools use to shape their disciplinary environment. These tools can also be used well, or they can be handled poorly and in ways that are discriminatory. That is not a charter or non-charter thing. It is how this particular tricky issue plays out, again, and again.
A school’s disciplinary environment can be considered along a ten point scale. We could give a school in total chaos a one, and the most severely-disciplined environment a ten. Scoring one on this spectrum, we might find the hypothetical “Lord of the Flies Middle School” where kids are bullied, fear for their safety, and are forced to choose between disengagement and learning. On the other end of the scale would be “Alcatraz in Lockdown High”, where kids are subjected to arbitrary and draconian rules of conduct that leave no room for expression, individualism, or just being a child.
In a family-friendly system of schools, we can presume there should be no ones or twos, and no nines or 10s. But we should have rules, procedures, and accountability mechanisms that collectively ensure all our schools operate safely, orderly, and reasonably somewhere along the fours to the sevens, or the middle of the spectrum.
One family might believe their child will be best served by a seven. Another might look for a four. Under this model, schools can communicate clearly where they stand on this family so that families can know that their children will be in safe, orderly schools that also won’t take away the right to learn in the name of enforcing unreasonable or unfair disciplinary practices.
A family-friendly set of practices around student discipline would allow for the rare application of expulsion and suspension under clearly-defined circumstances and with real due process. They will also define acts of misbehavior that should be addressed through other means. For children and families, there will be due process so that they can address situations in which they feel they have been treated unfairly.
Under such an approach, parents have a justifiable expectation that their child will not be in an environment where another child could harm them, or where learning is impossible because of disengagement. They also have a right to know their child will not be denied the right to stay in the school they prefer because they wore mismatched socks, failed to tuck in their shirt once too often, spoke without raising their hand in class, or talked with friends while walking between classrooms. Paramount among these assurances, students should not be kicked out of schools because of a disability that can contribute to behavioral challenges.
A key point in a family-friendly approach is ensuring that the schools are not allowed to choose their students. Instead, it should be families who pick a school that they believe will match their own child’s needs and that handles teaching and learning the way they believe it should be handled. Rather than having all parents insist that all schools behave the same way, the idea is that parents who prefer a particular approach, have the data needed to identify and then pick a school with that approach. Other families who feel differently can pick a different school that reflects their own view of what their child needs.
This means that parents know how schools operate, that all schools operate within acceptable boundaries, parents can then pick schools they prefer, and that schools are allowed to operate differently from one another while articulating how they pursue their particular approach, but are not allowed to select or remove children.
Some places have adopted different pieces of these family-friendly practices. Others districts should do the same and even go further. District of Columbia’s Public Charter School Board, for example, promotes transparency around school discipline through online equity reports that use comparable data to show exactly how each school uses or misuses suspensions and expulsions. This holds schools accountable through a degree of public shaming, but also by informing parent’s choices. Charter oversight in the district also revisits these metrics related to discipline actions.
In Louisiana, the authorizer that oversees almost all the schools serving New Orleans has adopted common practices over expulsion. Schools still have flexibility over the remainder of their discipline policies, but the removal of children from a school must be pursued according to common standards and transparent procedures. Several cities use a common enrollment and application process, which can help ensure parents rather than schools are making decisions about where their kids go to school.
This isn’t to say that the family-friendly approach to discipline is perfect. Families have different expectations for discipline, even when data and evidence suggest there are better ways of addressing the behavior of children. But it is to suggest that we focus on what should be done to help all children succeed. We should adopt an approach that focuses on how we help all children grow and that gives parents what they need to know to help them make important choices that affect their kids’ lives.