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A Better Approach to School Discipline

NY Times, June 13, 2014

By The Editorial Board

The “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that swept through the country’s schools beginning in the 1990s have led to millions of children each year being suspended, expelled and even arrested, mainly for minor misbehavior that would once have been dealt with at the principal’s office. Federal civil rights officials warned this year that these tactics are often used in a discriminatory fashion against black and Latino children, who are at greater risk of being thrown out of school and denied an education.

The good news is that these policies are being rolled back. A new report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit policy group, shows that states and school districts can cut down on suspensions and unwarranted arrests at school within relatively short periods without sacrificing safety or disrupting the school environment.

That has already happened in Texas, which came under a national spotlight three years ago when a council study showed that nearly six in 10 public school students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once between seventh grade and 12th grade. By focusing on solving minor misbehaviors at school — and keeping children out of the courts — the state has already driven down expulsions by 28 percent and suspensions by 9 percent. Similar improvements have been seen in New York City and in some school districts in California.

The new report, which includes 60 policy recommendations, lays out a clear road map for states and districts that want to preserve order without ejecting large numbers of students. For starters, schools need to have formal disciplinary codes that make suspension a last resort and that include approaches like referring students to peer counseling and other alternatives.

Schools should also have data-driven, early warning systems that identify at-risk students who need special help. They should avoid engaging police officers in routine classroom management, as doing so leads inevitably to unwarranted arrests, and they should take other steps to reduce the number of children referred to juvenile courts for minor misconduct.

© 2014 The New York Times

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