John Locke Update / Research Newsletter

What should we do with disruptive students?

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Welcome

Should we ship them off to a military boarding school, provide therapy, or resort to something in between?

CommenTerry

This year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) implemented a new "restorative justice" discipline policy that, according to an article published in the Los Angeles Times, "seeks to resolve conflicts through talking circles and other methods to build trust."

Yes, you read that correctly — talking circles.

On one hand, the policy has succeeded in slashing the number of students receiving suspensions.  On the other hand, teachers are finding that the new methods of addressing student misbehavior, which received the support of the United Teachers Los Angeles teachers union and liberal activists, have created an inhospitable environment.

First, it is important to understand why school districts are trying to cut down on the number of student suspensions.

Last year, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education published a "dear colleague letter" to address the nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline.

The stated goal was to "ensure that their discipline policies and practices complied with applicable constitutional requirements and Federal laws, including civil rights statutes and regulations."  But the letter was actually a shot across the bow for school districts, that is, a way to prepare them for more stringent federal regulations and closer monitoring of school district policies and practices. While Washington politicians and bureaucrats seek to impose their will, some suggest that the federal government does not have much of a legal case for doing so.

The issue of student discipline received renewed local and national attention in August when the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Study of Race and Equity in Education released a study that identified a disproportionate number of minority student suspensions in Southern states.  According to researchers Edward Smith and Shaun Harper, 26 percent of the students in North Carolina are black, but black students account for 51 percent of suspensions and 38 percent of expulsions.  They cite "implicit bias and other racist forces" as one of the reasons for the disparity, reinforcing a commonly held belief that student discipline is an outgrowth of racism inherent in a teaching profession dominated by white women.

I find several reasons to question the authors’ conclusions.  For example, Smith and Harper failed to examine the race of the teachers and administrators who initiated the suspensions and expulsions of African American students.  In fact, North Carolina charter schools and school districts that have a majority of black teachers on staff also discipline African American students at what the authors classify as "disproportionate" rates.  This suggests that their charge of "implicit bias and other racist forces" is a deeply flawed explanation for this phenomenon.

More importantly, all school districts maintain color-blind behavioral and disciplinary standards, as sensibly required by federal law and common decency.  Yet, the authors implicitly blame teachers and school-based administrators for so-called "disproportionate discipline."  It would be news to teachers and administrators, however, that their underlying prejudice motivates their decisions to punish students who violate their code of conduct.

In my experience, teachers and administrators simply want to maintain an orderly classroom environment.  Suspensions (and the threat of suspensions) are one of many tools used to achieve that goal. LAUSD officials, taking a cue from the Obama administration and liberal activists, have removed those options and the results have been predictable.

By all accounts, the new discipline policies are taking an emotional toll on the district’s teachers. Even worse, it is likely impeding the learning process for well-behaved students.  Those who support the restorative justice policies blame inadequate training and uneven implementation for problems encountered by teachers and administrators.

The solution to creating racially equitable discipline is not clear.  The process of maintaining a disciplinary record that mirrors racial demographics would either require schools to discipline African American children less, punish students from other racial groups more, or simply abolish traditional methods of disciplining students.  In those cases, the emphasis is misplaced.  Correcting behavior that impedes the educational process, not fidelity to demographics, should be the focus of student discipline.

In the end, I suspect that LAUSD is the first of many urban school districts to exercise "affirmative inaction," the refusal to punish a misbehaving student because of his or her race.

(Note: Thus far there has been no mention of parents and their responsibilities.  Certainly the failure of some parents to instill and reinforce respect for others is a serious problem — one best addressed by strengthening social institutions, not government.)

Acronym of the Week

OCR — Office for Civil Rights, located within the U.S. Department of Education

Quote of the Week

"Where is the justice for the students who want to learn? I’m afraid our standards are getting lower and lower."

— Michael Lam, eighth-grade LAUSD math teacher quoted by the Los Angeles Times

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As Vice President for Research, Terry oversees the research team’s writing and analysis across the spectrum of public policy issues. He specializes in pre-K-12 education. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the program assistant for the Child Welfare… ...

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