It turns out it may the schools, and not the kids, who are causing the discipline problems.  A new study from Texas tracked every Texas seventh-grader from 2000, 2001, and 2002 for six years or more to examine the interaction between school discipline, poverty, race, and the juvenile justice system.  The studies findings are eye-opening, and have already made news around the country.

Overall, 60% of students in Texas, the country’s second largest public school system, are suspended (in-school or out-of-school) or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grade.  1 in 7 students was disciplined eleven or more times.  This trend is part of a 20-year trend toward “zero-tolerance,” that has lead the nation’s school discipline rate to double. Obviously, this should be concerning because students who are suspended or expelled are not learning.  If a student is suspended or expelled eleven times, then the student is not learning a lot.  Among the most disciplined students, half went on to spend time in juvenile justice facilities, making them more likely to repeat a grade and less likely to graduate.

The study, performed by the Council of State Governments and Texas A&M University, found that schools with very similar demographics had drastically different rates of suspension and expulsion of students.  Only about 3% of school discipline offenses have punishment mandated by state law, such as offenses involving guns or drugs.  The vast majority are discretionary offenses, leaving the appropriate action up to teachers and school officials, often for violations of the school’s code of conduct or other relatively minor offenses.

“The research showed that while some high-poverty schools suspended students at unexpectedly high rates, others with strikingly similar characteristics did not. The same discipline gap was clear for prosperous, suburban schools and small, rural schools; some were harsh, and others with nearly identical qualities were not.

“’It’s a really important finding,’ said Russell Skiba, an Indiana University professor who has studied discipline issues for 15 years. ‘It says it’s not totally about what kids and communities bring but it’s a choice that schools make.'”

The study also showed significant differences in disciplinary outcomes by race, even when controlling for other factors such as type of offense and socioeconomic status.  “Minority students facing discipline for the first time tended to be given the harsher, out-of-school suspension, rather than in-school suspension, more often than white students, the study said…A disproportionate number of minority students also ended up in alternative classrooms, where some have complained that teachers are often less qualified.”  70% of black girls had been suspended, compared to only 37% of white girls, despite often committing the same offenses.

The differences highlighted between schools with similar demographic qualities demonstrates the reality that “zero-tolerance” and suspension/expulsion policies are not the only way to deal with school discipline.  Many schools have had success reducing disciplinary actions, while increasing academic achievement and school attendance, using more positive, less punitive approaches to discipline that reward students for positive behavior and react to disciplinary issues with counseling and guidance, instead of automatic suspension.  This report has caught the attention of Texas legislators, as well as the national media.  Hopefully, it will be a step toward the reconsideration of policies that unfairly and unnecessarily keep minority students and students with disabilities out of the classroom, while doing nothing to make school a positive learning environment that students actually want to be a part of.

Doug Otto, superintendent of schools in Plano, Texas, said:  “The right kind of intervention in a timely way can make all the difference in the world for most kids.”