Are teenagers today given the opportunity to make mistakes that won’t follow them for the rest of their lives or do laws on the books outlaw adolescence? In 22 states and dozens of city and towns across American school disturbance is outlawed in some form. For example, South Dakota prohibits “boisterous” behavior and Arkansas bans “annoying conduct” and in Maine simply interrupting a teacher by speaking loudly is a civil offense, punishable by a $500 fine.
These options which allow schools to access law enforcement intervention also lead to zero tolerance policies in school discipline, which were originally reserved to penalize those students that brought weapons and drugs onto school grounds. This high disciplinary standard has evolved to include subjective and nonviolent offenses that do not pose an immediate threat or harm to the student population, but are prohibited by state and local law. As a result, a shocking number of students are now suspended and/or expelled or even criminally charged for activity that amounts to basic teenage behavior, including class disruptions, dress code violations, displays of affection or defiant behavior towards school staff.
However, most parents agree, and as a society we acknowledge, that conduct in formative years should not prevent opportunity and growth in the futures of our youth. The confidentiality of the juvenile justice system is a direct example of this sentiment.
Recent studies have shown that in the 2012-13 academic school year, 3 million students were suspended, 130,000 students were expelled for minor infractions and over 260,000 wee referred to law enforcement. Importantly, students receiving exclusionary discipline are 23.5 percent more likely to drop out of school; substantially limiting future opportunity due to past infractions.
Disturbingly, a pattern has emerged where minority students are being punished more harshly, and at a disproportionate rate for minor subjective conduct that does not cause harm to other students or staff. While African-American students represent 16.4 percent of the nation’s student population, 34 percent were expelled and 42 percent were suspended multiple times in 2014. There are similar statistics for Hispanic and other racial minority youth across the country. There is no evidence that minority students engage in more problematic behaviors than other students, but they are expelled or receive more serious forms of punishment at significantly higher rates.
In New England, we are not immune to racial biased in school. Just this summer, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office completed an investigation at Easthampton High School and identified “serious problems” with racial bias. The AG’s report noted “significant concerns” at the school, including disparities in discipline based upon race and ethnicity, administrators who failed to identify and respond to bias incidents, and a hostile school environment for students of color. Among the report’s findings were that, between 2012 and 2016, African American students were disciplined at four times the rate of their Caucasian counterparts, and Hispanic students were disciplined at three times that rate. African American and Hispanic students were also disciplined more severely for committing similar offenses.
While strict disciplinary sanctions such as expulsion are an important tool for punishing and deterring behavior that threatens the safety and well fair of other student and staff, it is not effective in correcting minor behaviors. There are alternative positive-based disciplinary strategies that schools should implement for addressing and modifying this type of behavior. The school environment should help students progress and develop skills to eliminate problematic behavior before transitioning to life after school, not a place to further inherent racial bias that exists in society today.
Methods such as the On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) programs are alternative approaches to suspension and expulsion. These two methods are a sample of programming that can create a shift from a punitive learning environment to one that is a safe place to make mistake and learn from them for all students.
There is hope for change in school discipline practices. For example, Oregon replaced its zero tolerance policy with rules that only allow expulsion for conduct that threatens the safety and well-being of others within the school environment. Many other schools across the country are working to modify and clarify their approach to disciplinary action and are an approach that will improve and strengthen the future prospects and opportunities for all students.
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange:
American Bar Association
Civil Rights Data Collection