Out of Class Into Court
Discretion in School Discipline has Big Impacts, Groundbreaking CSG Study Finds
By Martha Plotkin
Large numbers of children in middle and high school in the nation’s second largest public school system are being suspended and expelled—and those disciplined students are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out and become involved in the juvenile justice system.
The numbers are startling.
Nearly 60 percent of students in Texas received at least one disciplinary action—including in-school suspensions ranging from a single class period to several days, with no cap on how many suspensions they can receive in a school year;
More than 30 percent had out-of-school suspensions of up to three days, with no cap on the number in a year;
About 15 percent were sent to Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs for an average of 27 days;
Approximately 8 percent were placed in Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs, averaging 73 days.
Those are some of the findings from a recent report, Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. The study, released July 19, was a partnership between The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M.
The report was released at a Texas event—and webcast nationally—at which legislators, court and school officials, education and juvenile justice agency leaders, and school law enforcement representatives discussed its implications. Some of the findings seemed unexpected, such as nearly all the actions taken against students for misbehavior at school being at the discretion of school officials. Only about 3 percent of the disciplinary actions were for behaviors that have a mandated school response under state law.
The landmark study relied on data for nearly 1 million public secondary school students in Texas—every student in the state, not just a sample of students—who were in seventh grade in the 2000, 2001 and 2002 academic years. The students were followed from the seventh through 12th grades. The study drew from more than 6 million individual student records, school campus information and juvenile justice data.
“The study is remarkable for its size and scope,” said national school discipline expert Russ Skiba, director of the Equity Project at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. “The base data involving all students in the state of Texas for a six-year period represents the most complete data set that I’ve seen in the field of school discipline.”
Because of study population size and access to such comprehensive data, the researchers were able to use multivariate analyses to control for more than 80 variables, effectively isolating the impact that these factors had on the likelihood of a student being suspended and expelled. These analyses allowed researchers to delve into the relationship between the discipline of a student and that student’s academic performance—such as dropping out or repeating a grade—or involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Frequently Disciplined Students
Students who were repeatedly disciplined often experienced poor outcomes at particularly high rates. The Texas study found that 15 percent of Texas students had 11 or more disciplinary violations between seventh and 12th grades; about half of those frequent violators had subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system. Repeated suspensions and expulsions also predicted poor academic outcomes. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once, compared with 5 percent of students who had not been disciplined.
Even students who were disciplined less frequently were still more likely to repeat a grade or drop out. A student who had experienced a discretionary disciplinary action was twice as likely to repeat a grade as a student who had the same characteristics and attended a similar school but was not suspended or expelled. The results were also troubling in regard to keeping students with disciplinary histories in school. Nearly 10 percent of students with at least one disciplinary contact dropped out of school, compared to just 2 percent of students with no disciplinary actions.
Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Texas Criminal Justice Committee, said the legislature should find ways to better support teachers.
“We need to maintain realistic expectations of what educators alone can accomplish in today’s challenging classrooms,” he said. “At the same time, this report demonstrates that if we want our kids to do better in school and reduce their involvement in the juvenile justice system, we in the legislature need to continue looking into how teachers can be better supported and how the school discipline system can be improved.”
The Texas research found that African-American students were more likely to receive discretionary actions than Hispanic or white students. In fact, the complex analysis conducted by researchers found that African-American students had a 31 percent higher likelihood of a school discretionary action as compared to otherwise identical white and Hispanic students. Close examination of students with educational disabilities, also controlling for all study factors, showed that a disproportionate number of students with particular disabilities—especially those coded as emotionally disturbed—were highly involved in the disciplinary system.
“The numbers are heartbreaking,” Matt Cregor of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund said in a Washington Post article about the report. “What we’re seeing in Texas is no different than what we are seeing nationally.”
Juvenile Justice Involvement
The study found that 23 percent of disciplined students had contact with the juvenile justice system, while just 2 percent of nondisciplined students had juvenile justice contact. The suspension or expulsion of a student for a discretionary school disciplinary violation nearly tripled the likelihood of juvenile justice contact within the subsequent academic year.
More than one in seven Texas middle and high school students were involved with the juvenile justice system during the study period. That raised concerns with Texas Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson.
“We should ask whether teachers and principals, rather than police officers and judges, are best suited to discipline kids who commit minor infractions,” he said.
Schools Deal Differently
The study found that schools statistically similar on a large number of measures—such as expenditures per student, teacher experience, percentage economically disadvantaged, and teacher and student diversity—disciplined students at varying rates.
“The single most important finding may be that schools with similar demographic risk profiles use very different patterns of school discipline,” Skiba said. “That is a very hopeful finding. It says that school officials can learn from colleagues that have chosen to reduce exclusion in order to keep schools safe and orderly without resorting to high rates of suspension and expulsion.”
The report identifies schools that had significantly different rates of discipline but comparable attendance and grade completion rates. What that means is that lowering disciplinary rates, which some school officials are concerned could result in more misbehavior, did not doom a school to low attendance rates or large numbers of students being held back.
“One of the most important takeaways from the report is learning that the school a student attends largely influences how, when, or if a student is removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons,” said Sen. Florence Shapiro, chair of the Texas Senate Education Committee, and one of the lawmakers who supported the study. “The data suggest that individual school campuses often have a pronounced influence over how often students are suspended or expelled.”
The report does not offer specific recommendations because additional extensive discussions of the results with teachers, other school officials and the many other stakeholders committed to creating safe and effective learning environments for all students is needed.
Travis County, Texas, Judge Jeanne Meurer recognized the need for this next step when she asked leaders at the report release event, “Who is missing at the table and what do we need to do from here?”
The report’s authors hope the study will advance the discussion and implementation of promising practices in Texas and beyond. As examples from the report demonstrate, policymakers and practitioners in Texas are working to address school discipline issues. The report is meant to support those efforts.
“This groundbreaking study finally moves us beyond the debate surrounding the efficacy of traditional disciplinary methods so that we can begin to move toward alternatives. It is time now for policymakers, educators and juvenile justice stakeholders to intentionally seek out and put into place behavioral interventions that do what they should—reduce disciplinary problems and encourage academic success,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler, an author on school discipline issues.
In Texas and across the nation, interest in implementing nontraditional strategies is growing. For example, an increasing number of districts across the state have adopted Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, known as PBIS, an evidence-based disciplinary model to reduce disciplinary actions and dropout rates, and improve academic performance.
“Part of the elegance of PBIS is that it uses widely accepted and easy-to-use behavioral techniques, developed and implemented with existing school structures and resources. PBIS is efficient, effective and also addresses concerns of inequality associated with traditional disciplinary practices,” said Brenda Scheuermann, a professor of special education at Texas State University and expert in that behavioral approach. According to Scheuermann, awareness and implementation of PBIS is growing; more than 14,000 schools are implementing the approach, including many schools in Texas.
The Justice Center plans to convene a group of experts, opinion leaders and stakeholders representing multiple systems and perspectives to discuss recommendations for policymakers and practitioners. This follow-up effort is meant to reach consensus on approaches across various public systems to address the study findings and build on the strong foundation of work by academics and professionals in the field.
The Justice Center’s work also is meant to support the efforts of federal agencies engaged in these issues. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in July announced the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaborative project to encourage effective disciplinary practices and to promote research-driven strategies that reduce the likelihood that disciplined students will have subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system.
“This joint initiative by the secretary of education and U.S. attorney general models the kind of leadership we need in local and state governments on this issue,” New York State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, then-CSG Justice Center chair, said. “We look forward to working with the Departments of Justice and Education, as well as other agencies and individuals concerned with improving outcomes for all our school children.”
“This collaborative initiative cannot come at a better time as states like mine work diligently to address school discipline issues,” said Texas State Rep Jerry Madden, a Justice Center board member.
What Makes This Study Different?
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a recent meeting of the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, referred to The Council of State Governments Justice Center’s “Breaking Schools’ Rules” as a “landmark” report.
Legislators from both parties, court and school officials, education and juvenile justice agency leaders, and school law enforcement praised the study and discussed the findings and potential next steps during the release of the study in Austin, Texas, on July 19. Here are a few facts about the study:
The study relied on data for nearly 1 million public secondary school students in Texas—all students, not a sample of students—who were in seventh grade in the academic years 2000, 2001, and 2002.
Each student’s records—including students who moved from one Texas public school to another—were analyzed for a minimum of six years.
The study drew from more than 6 million individual student records, school campus information and juvenile justice data.
All information that could identify a particular student was removed and all privacy protocols were met.
The study was supported by the Atlantic Philanthropies and Open Society Foundations.