In the heat of a tense moment, without planning, without forethought of any subsequent action, a stressed student might pop off a statement that has the potential to bring harsh consequences. If others perceive the verbal outburst as a threat, the student could be arrested and taken to juvenile court.
Such strong reaction to student misbehavior was born in the 1990s with zero-tolerance policies and a national appetite for getting tough on crime. The result of the harsh measures has helped create a school-to-prison pipeline.
Even students who are not arrested can face life-altering consequences if they are disciplined through suspension and expulsion. They will be removed from the classroom, putting them behind in the coursework and at increased risk for dropping out completely.
“We can’t say this is the Wild Wild West and we can do anything we want to children,” said attorney JauNae Hanger.
Hanger has spent much of her career working on juvenile issues as well as public policy related to reforming the juvenile justice system and how society treats children. In 2012, she helped found and currently serves as board chair of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, a nonprofit that educates and advocates for fundamental changes to public policy regarding Hoosier children.
A key issue for the organization is school discipline. During the 2014 session of the Indiana General Assembly, CPLI pushed a bill that would have created a model approach to addressing troublesome students without using extreme measures that can cause long-term harm.
The measure, House Bill 1287, was authored by Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, and based on the work done by CPLI’s Equitable School Discipline Work Group chaired by retired educator Carole Craig. Although the bill failed to get out of committee, members of the initiative said it broadened the discussion of school discipline issues, and they are hopeful it will be on the Legislature’s summer study agenda.
Putting the hammer away
School principals are now joining the conversation. Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, raised concerns that the bill was drafted without input from teachers, counselors and administrators, and it limits the schools’ discretion in maintaining a climate conducive to learning.
“Principals through and through don’t want to just suspend and expel kids,” Bess said. “The times when they do, they feel like it’s a situation that has to occur for the needs of the school and, this sounds strange, but also the needs of the student.”
The misconception, he said, is that principals remove students from the classroom at the first infraction when actually other means of discipline were tried before the harsh method was applied.
However, Craig said on the whole school discipline codes have become punitive. As an alternative, CPLI is promoting methods that prevent students from causing disruptions and keep bad behavior from spiraling out of control.
“We’re not talking about having unsafe schools, that’s absolutely ridiculous,” Craig said. “We’re talking about using proven interventions and helping children rather than going straight to the hammer.”
Some schools in the state are incorporating best practices into their approach to discipline and showing positive results. HB 1287 sought to expand the use of evidenced-based methods by requiring the Indiana Department of Education to develop a model plan for improving behavior and discipline in the classroom.
Bess said schools do need to use best practices when dealing with student discipline, but he cautioned against what he saw as the bill’s blanket approach to addressing the issue of suspension and expulsion. Sometimes an elevated response is necessary, he continued, and HB 1287 would limit a school’s options.
“Whenever we get into a broad approach like that, there probably would be unintended consequences,” Bess said. “We want to avoid that at all costs.”
Other provisions in the CPLI proposal would require schools to report information related to disciplinary actions and would require the DOE to take a look at disproportionality in discipline.
An examination of data from Indiana’s public schools found that over a five-year period, African-American students were being suspended at a higher rate than other ethnic groups.
According to an analysis for CPLI by Brandie Oliver and Nick Abel, both assistant professors in the College of Education at Butler University, in-school and out-of-school suspensions for African-Americans far exceeded expectations based on total school population.
African-American students represented roughly 12 percent of the total school population in Indiana but they accounted for about 26 to 28 percent of the in-school suspensions from school years 2007 through 2012. The rate climbed for out-of-school suspensions, with 37 to 42 percent of this kind of discipline being assigned to African-Americans.
Neither Oliver nor Abel was surprised by the results of their study, saying it confirmed the anecdotal evidence they have encountered. The pair has requested more specific data from the DOE and hope to have a more comprehensive report on school discipline in Indiana by the end of the summer.
Despite its inability to get to the floor of the Indiana House of Representatives, HB 1287 and the testimony it inspired made an impression on House Education Committee Chair Rep. Robert Behning. He included language in his measure, House Enrolled Act 1319, that urged the Legislative Council to assign the topic of school discipline and suspension of students to a summer study committee.
School discipline is a concern of the General Assembly, the Indianapolis Republican said, especially with regard to minorities who represent a higher rate not only for school suspensions but also in prison populations.
“I do believe it’s something we ought to take a look at and figure out a way to reduce,” Behning said.
CPLI maintains the best way to disconnect the school-to-prison pipeline is to keep the students out of the juvenile justice system and keep them engaged in school. It charges expulsion is used too often, too readily and effects the most vulnerable children.
Bess countered the statistics do not give the entire picture. The data does not provide the whole story of what happened and what other disciplinary strategies were tried before the suspension was issued.
Jill Johnson, assistant division chief of juvenile delinquency at the Marion County Public Defender Agency, questioned the practice of kicking kids out of school. She conceded the jobs of teachers and principals are not easy, but time and time again she has seen students banned from the classroom for months. The students are stuck at home instead of being in school where they have the opportunity to learn and participate in pro-social programs.
Recently, the Marion County juvenile courts have begun to pay more attention to classroom discipline by considering alternative approaches for students arrested in school, Johnson said. The courts have shown more willingness to make an informal adjustment which would require a student to stay out of trouble and do something like community service or write a letter of apology.
This is seen by Johnson as a positive step since the informal adjustments can prevent the low-risk, non-violent students from going deeper into the justice system and encountering bad influences.
What Johnson would like to see happen next is the juvenile courts and schools to start working together. Too often, the juvenile justice system feels as if the students are being dumped at the backdoor and schools are saying “they’re your problem now,” she said. Moreover, being arrested at school in front of their peers can be especially traumatic for students.
“Is it a deterrent?” Johnson asked of sending troublesome students to juvenile court. “I don’t know because I don’t know if it’s addressing the heart of what the issue is.”•