At first glance, a teacher sending a student to the office, issuing a referral or the decision to suspend a child may seem outside the concern of law enforcement and juvenile justice. On the contrary, research is finding what happens inside our schools, particularly public schools, heavily impacts our juvenile justice system. The amount of students being assigned disciplinary actions is astounding and the link between these actions and a student being retained, dropping out and ending up a part of the juvenile system and eventually the adult justice system makes the issue of how, when and why school administrators are punishing our children an issue that affects juvenile justice professionals across the country.
In July 2011, the Council of State Governments Justice Center in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University published the findings of a wide-scale longitudinal study looking at how school discipline relates to student success and juvenile justice involvement. “Breaking Schools’ Rules” used bivariate and multivariate analyses to control for a variety of factors of Texas’ seventh through twelfth-grade public school children. The findings supported the link between what is happening in our schools and a child becoming part of the juvenile system.
In the 1980s and 1990s, policy makers began a new focus on how to make schools safer. During a time, shrouded in get tough policy, legislative and justice discussions weighed heavily with terms such as hardened juveniles, zero tolerance and code of conduct. Although as a community, we are all tasked with promoting safety and discipline within our schools many of the policies adopted during this time have had unintended and negative consequences. Prior to looking at the findings of the study and how these apply to juvenile justice, a discussion of the different types of disciplinary action within schools must occur.
School Code of Conduct vs. State Law
When discussing school disciplinary action a distinction must be made between rules that violate state law and have mandated sanctions, i.e. original zero tolerance rules and behaviors regulated by individual school districts via a Code of Conduct.
Breaking certain rules clearly violate school safety. Rules such as bringing weapons on campus or committing assault on another student or staff violate state law and require a mandatory punishment. Many of the zero-tolerance rules, in the beginning, were dictated by state law. In the same realm are the alcohol and substance rules and discipline born of the War on Drugs.
On the other hand, individual schools are governed by rules dictated by school officials. These rules make up the Student Code of Conduct. Parents and students often sign these handbooks at the beginning of the school year attesting to the fact they understand the rules and the consequences. The rules, as well as, the discipline associated with Codes of Conduct are mostly discretionary. For example, Danbury (CT) Middle School Conduct Code for Students includes rules such as, No foul language, obscene gestures, racial, ethnic, religious slurs and disrespectful language or actions, No sales of candy, etc, No toys, No coats, No backtalk and No loud talking in the cafeteria. A consequence of breaking any of these rules includes suspension.