Focusing on school discipline after Parkland is unsound policy

Focusing on school discipline after Parkland is unsound policy
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Rolling back discipline reforms that aim to improve student safety and disciplinary fairness is an illogical and inappropriate response to the Parkland school shooting. 

Rethink School Discipline, the Obama administration’s effort to address racial and ethnic disparities in the application of exclusionary school discipline policies, includes support for discipline practices that create safe, supportive, and productive environments for all students. 

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Practices, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, have been shown through rigorous studies to be effective at improving school climate, reducing misbehavior, and enhancing student safety. The guidance provided by the Obama administration, and supported by researchers, is for schools to reduce the use of out-of-school suspension for minor, nonviolent infractions, such as insubordination or talking back in class, and to adopt whole school approaches to improve school climate that would limit the need for these consequences in the first place. 

 

Rolling back these reforms is unsound policy for three primary reasons.  

First, the shooter in the Parkland tragedy was subject to traditional disciplinary consequences — suspension, expulsion — that reforms are looking to improve upon. Clearly in this one case, those approaches were not effective at responding to the underlying issues causing his misbehavior or ultimately, keeping students safe. 

Beyond this instance, there is no basis in the research to suggest that traditional approaches to school discipline are an effective means to prevent mass shootings. In fact, research shows that students and teachers in schools with higher suspension rates feel less safe than those in schools with lower suspension rates.   

Second, the focus on school discipline — instead of gun control — following the Parkland tragedy ignores the fact that schools are not the only place where young people are in danger of being shot. In fact, according to the CDC, in 2015, homicide and suicide involving a firearm were among the leading causes of death for young people in the U.S. under the age of 24. Changing school discipline policy will do woefully little about the vast majority of gun-related deaths in this country.   

Finally, the connection between reducing racial and ethnic disparities in disciplinary outcomes and preventing mass shootings in schools is tenuous, at best. Data and analysis show that black and Hispanic students are more likely than their white or Asian peers to be suspended from school, and as a result, more likely to experience the negative consequences associated with suspension, such as decreases in academic achievement. Blaming school shootings on these students is a blatant attempt at scapegoating — blaming young, minority students for problems that adults should be able to fix, but have not.   

Any parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent, or person who cares at all about children, should take a hard look at the facts — changing school discipline policies to promote suspension and expulsion does nothing to address gun violence or make our children safer.  

Johanna Lacoe, Ph.D., is a researcher specializing in criminal and juvenile justice, education, and housing policy. 

Matthew P. Steinberg, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education specializing in urban school reform, school climate and safety, teacher evaluation, and school finance.