Do suspension alternatives work? We don’t know

Many schools are reducing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, but it’s not clear how discipline alternatives affect school safety, according to a study reported in Education Next.

One of the only programs supported by strong research is Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, authors write. “The approach aims to change school culture by setting clear behavioral expectations, designing a continuum of consequences for infractions, and reinforcing positive behavior.” Students say their school is safer even as suspensions are less common.

Other strategies may be effective too, but so far the evidence is “thin.”

It’s easy to reduce suspension rates by lowering behavioral expectations. Creating a safe, orderly learning environment is much, much harder.

It’s also not clear that “exclusionary discipline” (suspension and expulsion) creates a school-to-prison pipeline, the authors write. Children who frequently get in trouble at school, whether suspended or not, may be much more likely to get in trouble as adults. Chicken, egg.

NYC: Are schools really safer?

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City has made it much harder for principals to suspend students for defiance and disobedience, writes Stephen Eide in a look at the progressive mayor’s education policies.

Believers in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” progressives nationwide are trying to limit suspensions, he writes in Education Next.

“While below-proficient students are believed to benefit the most from a lower suspension rate, those who have the most to lose are the above-proficient, low-income strivers,” writes Eide.

The De Blasio administration claims school crime has fallen by 29 percent over four years. However, Families for Excellent Schools cites state data showing rising levels of violent incidents.

There are only four “persistently dangerous” schools in the city, down by 85 percent, the administration claimed last month. The school-safety agents union head pointed out that not a single high school had made the list, notes Eide.

In May 2016, the New York Post reported that school-safety agents and police officers had confiscated 26 percent more weapons from students during this past school year than over the same span in 2014–15.

In a recent teachers’ union survey, “more than 80 percent of the respondents said students in their schools lost learning time as a result of other disruptive students.”

De Blasio is trying to close the achievement gap through “turnarounds instead of closures, heavy emphasis on addressing the ‘root causes’ of K–12 underperformance through pre-kindergarten education and social services, less antagonistic relations with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and more-relaxed school-discipline policies,” writes Eide. “The results have been something less than revolutionary. “

Suspension: Is there a better way?

Credit: Seth Tobocman

The case against suspensions is unproven, argues Max Eden, a senior fellow of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, who’s guest-blogging for Rick Hess.

The attack on suspensions, writes Eden, rests on three assertions: “Disparate impact of school suspensions is evidence that they are racially motivated; (2) Suspensions do significant harm to students; (3) “Restorative justice” is a viable and more humane alternative, so we can reduce suspensions safely.

Blacks are suspended far more than Latinos, whites or Asians.

 The University of Pennsylvania’s Shaun Harper conducted a major study of suspensions in southern states that showed some disparities far too striking to be explicable without racial bias. Another study showed that white teachers tend to view black student behavior more negatively than black teachers.

But policy changes that assume “racial bias is solely responsible for the disparity” may go too far, breeding “rampant disorder,” writes Eden.

He also questions the “oft-heard claim is that school suspensions place students in the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.”

You would rather expect long-term differences between a troublemaker and a well-behaved student of a similar background; you wouldn’t necessarily conclude that the suspension caused the differences.

The most dubious claim, writes Eden, is that there are safe alternatives to suspension.

While there “are case studies of schools that have successfully adopted a ‘restorative justice’ model,  “much of the reliable evidence on the effects of rapid, large-scale school discipline reform in major urban districts is pretty grim,” he writes.

In Chicago, where a thorough study of the effects of shortening suspension length found a significant worsening of student-reported peer-relations, and teacher-reported crime and disorder. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has also undertaken a major suspension-reduction initiative. In de Blasio’s first year, according to the NY State Education Department, the number of violent incidents in schools increased from 12,978 to 15,934, the steepest increase on record.

In St. Paul, Superintendent Valeria Silva ordered “racial equity” reforms to narrow the discipline gap. Rising disorder is one of the issues that led to her firing (with a $787,500 exit package).

In an incisive postmortem, the Center for the American Experiment’s Katherine Kersten quotes St. Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders saying that fights that “might have been between two individuals … [now become] melees involving 40 or 50 people.” Kersten also relates the story of a teacher who, after being crushed into a shelf by a student, asks her students to use a secret knock before she’ll open the door to her classroom.

Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, demanded, “Do students and staff deserve to come to work every day and not expect to be assaulted?”

College for ‘justice-involved’ (criminal) students

Don’t ask college applicants if they have a criminal record, advises the U.S. Department of Education in Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals.

“We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a speech at UCLA, which doesn’t screen applicants for a criminal record. “The college admissions process . . . should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students,” he said. That includes “those involved with the criminal justice system.”

Applicants for federal jobs aren’t asked about a criminal record in the initial screening and the Obama administration is pressuring employers to “ban the box.”

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“There are better ways to ensure campus safety than stigmatizing those who are trying to better their lives through higher education,” University of California President Janet Napolitano said.

“Campus safety is absolutely paramount in this process,” declares a Department of Education press release. Campuses that screen for criminal justice history don’t seem to be any safer than those that don’t, according to the DoE, but there’s little research on the issue.

When college applicants have to admit and explain their criminal record, many just give up, according to Beyond the Box.  A study found 62.5 percent of State University of New York applicants who checked the box for a prior felony conviction never completed their applications, compared with 21 percent of applicants with no criminal history.

The report recommends “delaying the request for – or consideration of – criminal justice involvement until after an admission decision has been made to avoid a chilling effect on potential applicants whose backgrounds may ultimately be deemed irrelevant.”

In addition, the report calls for offering counseling, peer mentors, college coaches, jobs and support groups for “justice-involved students.”

Last July, the Education Department announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program to test new models to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue a postsecondary education with the goal of helping them get jobs, support their families, and turn their lives around. In November, the Department also announced up to $8 million in Adult Reentry Education Grants to support educational attainment and reentry success for individuals who have been incarcerated.

The Common App, used by more than 600 colleges, asks about misdemeanor or felony convictions, but no longer will ask about other crimes.

“Ban the box” campaigners cite racial disparities in arrest rates and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” writes Juleyka Lantigua-Williams in The Atlantic.

“Students of color are the most likely to be harmed by putting these questions on the application,” said Natalie Sokoloff, professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Most students with criminal records go to community colleges and other open-admissions public schools, she found.

I doubt that would change significantly if applications to selective universities were more welcoming. Most “justice-involved youth” are not on the honor roll. Adults coming out of prison, who may pose a danger to classmates, aren’t likely to be qualified for selective universities.

For the kid with a BB gun, expulsion or mercy?

When a student brought a BB gun to school in a tough Chicago neighborhood, his principal expelled him. A few years later, Nancy Hanks encountered him in an elevator, she recalled in a speech last month in Washington at the 25th anniversary summit for Teach for America.

She was afraid: Had she put him in the school-to-prison pipeline?

That meeting changed Hanks’ approach to discipline, reports Emma Brown in the Washington Post.

Nancy Hanks

Nancy Hanks

Now an administrator in Madison, Wisconsin, she’s “played a key role in revamping district-wide discipline policies, replacing the old zero-tolerance approach with an approach built on the conviction that suspension and expulsion don’t solve problems at the root of student misbehavior.”

“You and I, intelligent, well-intentioned warriors of equity — we contribute to the pipeline,” Hanks said in her speech.

She didn’t expel the boy with the BB gun because she thought he’d use it, she said.

BB guns don't look like toys.

BB guns look like guns.

“I was angry because I had busted my behind for almost two years at that point to turn that school around, and establish community, and to repair the climate and to make kids feel safe. His bringing that BB gun wasn’t just a threat to safety but a threat to me and the reputation I was building for myself and for the school.”

As it turned out, her former student said he was earning good grades at Phoenix Military Academy, a public high school, and seeking help to prepare for the ACT.

“I was selfishly relieved that despite my lack of compassion and understanding, or patience or mercy, that he seemed to be thriving — and that, by the grace of God, he hadn’t wound up in the juvenile justice system,” Hanks said. “I prayed for forgiveness for that time and any other time I betrayed the privilege given to me to be a steward and protector over the children I serve.”

If you check out the comments, most people think being a steward and protector includes looking out for the kids who want to attend a safe, BB gun-free school.

Voucher may be ‘stay out of jail’ card

670px-Play-Monopoly-With-Electronic-Banking-Step-9School vouchers may serve as a “stay out of jail card”, concludes a working paper by Corey DeAngelis and Patrick J. Wolf.

Crime rates are lower for young adults who experienced Milwaukee’s citywide voucher program as high school students, they found. Students who stayed in the voucher program through 12th grade — especially males — were significantly less likely to arrested than those who attended public high schools.

Duncan proposes prison-to-school pipeline

Freeing half of non-violent prison inmates would save $15 billion to fund 56 percent pay hikes for teachers at high-poverty schools, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a National Press Club speech yesterday. Duncan envisions a “prison-to-school pipeline,” as Ed Week puts it.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch  lists to Alphonso Coates, a jail inmate in an education program.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch listen to Alphonso Coates, a jail inmate in an education program. Photo: Washington Post

“We cannot lay our incarceration crisis at the door of our schools,” Duncan said. “But we have to do our part to end the school to prison pipeline.”

Duncan also proposed $25,000 pay hikes for mentor teachers at high-poverty schools.

More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts, according to the DOE.

If their teachers had earned more, would they have done better? Or were they trapped in the bad parenting-to-prison pipeline?

However, the Education and Justice departments have released guidelines urging schools to reduce expulsions and suspensions, notes the Washington Post.

Tying racial patterns in school discipline to academic achievement gaps and to the national debate about racial discrimination by police, Duncan urged educators to examine their biases, their “own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class.”

If Duncan wants more high-quality teachers in high-poverty schools, accusing educators of being racially biased probably isn’t a good move.

Locking up fewer non-violent offenders may be good policy. But it’s not cost free. The “savings” would have to go to supervise thieves, train the unskilled, rehab addicts and alcoholics, care for the mentally ill, house the homeless — and police neighborhoods. Don’t expect states or cities to hand over the money to the schools.

Too strict?

A student at Lyons Community School in New York does an exercise before a student "circle."

A student at Lyons Community School in New York prepares for a student “circle.”

Is this working? asks a story on school discipline policies for NPR’s This American Life.

Reporter Chana Jaffe-Walt contrasts a “no excuses” charter school in Brooklyn, Achievement First Bushwick, with a nearby middle/high school, Lyons Community, which stresses “restorative justice.”

AFB students who misbehave gets demerits. Lyons students discuss their decision-making in student circles and and may go before a student justice court.

On Match Education’s blog, guest Ross T. critiques NPR’s story.

Educated in a “no excuses” school in Boston, Rousseau Mieze now teaches middle school at AFB. He’s ambivalent about his old high school’s strict discipline, she writes. She finds it “super confusing” when he gives a a demerit to a student for talking during a silent transition.

Mieze is motivated by fear, she concludes.

Fear for the well-being of their students, fear that they “won’t graduate, won’t get to college, will get suspended or arrested for horsing around or being rowdy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I can relate. I felt that fear, for my own part. What follows next, though, I disagree with.

Jaffe-Walt then says that while Mieze is trying to relinquish some control over his students, “his fear gets in the way.”  The implication is that he knows that the discipline he enacts is wrongheaded, but a sort of hysteria of good intentions blinds his better judgment.

The vignette is framed by a discussion of the “Schools to Prison Pipeline,” a theory that strict discipline leads students — disproportionately minority — to see themselves as “bad kids,”  writes Ross T. “The idea is that minority kids will get suspended (often unfairly), miss school, become frustrated and garner more suspensions by misbehaving out of frustration.” And then on to prison.

By contrast, the report on Lyons is glowing.

Jaffe-Walt is impressed with the commitment to dialogue, and introduces us to multiple students who have been “Lyonized,” or transformed into more reflective, socially adept community members.

She doesn’t discuss the schools’ academic results, notes Ross T. The Achievement First middle school earned straight As — based in part on students’ academic gains — on its 2012-13 DOE progress report, while Lyons’ middle school earned Ds and Cs. The Lyons high school had lower graduation rates than peer schools in its district.

In a few years, we’ll be able to see whether the “no excuses” model increases the number of low-income, minority students who become prison inmates — or college graduates.


Achievement First Bushwick students practice the violin.

As a teacher at a low-performing Memphis high school, Jessica Polner “saw dozens of suspensions and expulsions” for subjectively enforced and overly harsh rules. Carefully and consistently implemented restorative justice programs can be effective, she writes.

Pushed out

Let’s return to common-sense discipline and stop suspending, expelling and arresting students for minor offenses, argues Advancement Project. Overusing suspensions and replacing counselors with metal detectors and police creates a school-to-prison pipeline, the civil rights group believes.

Federal discipline rules could hurt blacks

Sen. Dick Durbin’s hearing on the “school to prison pipeline” may lead to federal mandates to curtail the use of out-of-school suspensions,  make suspension policies uniform across schools, or both, writes Andrew Coulson of Cato @ Liberty, who testified against zero-tolerance policies at the hearing.

Black students are more likely to be suspended than whites. However, requiring lenient discipline policies would hurt black students the most, Coulson writes.

In Understanding the Black-White School Discipline Gap, Rochester University Professor Joshua Kinsler concludes that black and white students are suspended at the same rates for the same offenses at the same schools, Coulson writes.

However principals at predominantly black schools issue more and longer suspensions to all students — black and white — while discipline policies are more lenient for all students at predominantly white schools.

In a subsequent empirical study, Kinsler investigated what would happen if all schools were compelled to observe a more lenient suspension policy, to close the black/white discipline gap. He found that this would disproportionately hurt the achievement of African American students, widening the black/white achievement gap.  The reason for this, according to Kinsler’s findings, is that serious suspensions do in fact discourage misbehavior, and that removing disruptive students from the class does improve the achievement of the other students.

In his written testimony, Coulson proposed alternatives to out-of-school suspensions that motivate students to behave while protecting their classmates from disruption.