School Discipline: Perspectives and Policies in Flux

Understanding the specific gendered implications of US immigration and refugee policies.

In spite of the largely local control of U.S. education policy, there are many ways that federal and state governments impact school policies and practices, from what’s taught in the classroom to what’s served in the lunchroom. Given the Republican control of both Congress and the White House, we may see departures from the Obama Administration’s practices that will impact not only federal, but also state-and local education policy. Whether or not Republicans implement proposals to change current policies, they will send strong signals to local school districts about what’s possible and permissible over the next four years.

As the curators for the Education section, we’ll be looking at a host of issues using an intersectional lens, where we examine gender, race, indigeneity, gender and sexuality when attending to policy issues. We invite guest contributors to shed light through their research on a wide range of topics.  Here’s a glimpse at one of the topics we’ll be looking at to start:

School Discipline
On its face, school discipline might not seem like an obvious gender/sexuality issue, especially when most data is conveyed to the public in terms of “racial gaps” without attention to gender. But an intersectional breakdown of suspension rates reveals that while black students overall are suspended three times as often as their white peers, black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other racial group, and most boys. This difference in degree suggests there is a specific gender/race dynamic driving these disparities. We also know that GLBT and gender non-conforming students are more likely to face more harsh discipline than their cis-gender peers.

The Obama Administration highlighted the need for research and urged action to reduce disparities in suspensions in an exit memo published January 15, 2016 and framed this as a civil rights issue. The Trump campaign, in contrast, said nothing about these issues and ran on a “law and order” platform. Relatedly, the incoming president and many of his surrogates have scoffed at science-based evidence. What will that mean for federal programs like the School Climate Transformation Grants, launched by the Department of Education to implement evidence-based interventions to reform school discipline policies and reduce racial disparities? A growing body of research finds that teachers scrutinize students of color more and show implicit bias against students of color of all ages, disciplining them for behaviors that do not elicit punishment for white peers.

Recent overviews of research on discipline practices show that zero-tolerance discipline policies don’t improve behavior, but other interventions can.  These studies provide compelling evidence that racial biases and disciplinary disparities can be decreased with targeted policy changes, particularly teacher training in constructive discipline policies and restorative justice.  These relationship and skill-building strategies support student development and increase teacher capacity. Replacing zero-tolerance policies with staff training and coaching in these practices, combined with hiring sufficient classroom aides and counselors to support students, leads to significant reductions in suspensions, violent incidents, and student arrests. A growing number of individual schools and districts are adopting these reforms, and are showing real progress. In a program started in Virginia, for example, teachers who had restorative justice training not only reduced the number of times they sent students out of class, they also eliminated racial disparities in the practice compared to teachers without training.

But in the wake of high-profile media cases of attacks on teachers, some legislators are proposing bills that would allow teachers to have students expelled if they assault a teacher or make the teacher feel fearful of an assault. Will the new leader of the Department of Education continue the Obama Administration’s agenda on evidence-based interventions, or will the law-and-order rhetoric of the Trump Administration spur an increased police presence in schools, which leads to increased exposure of GLBT students, boys and girls of color to the criminal justice system?

We’ll update information on these questions, as well as examine issues surrounding Title IX enforcement, curriculum design, sex education, and guns in schools, after the new leader of the Department of Education takes over in Washington.

—Catherine R. Squires & Keith Mayes

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