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.
Punishments for violating school rules, both mandatory and discretionary, can include In-School-Suspension (ISS), Out-of-School-Suspension (OSS), Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP), Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) and Expulsion to the street. ISS can mean removal from the classroom for one period up to several days. During this time, the student’s curriculum is disrupted and often a student is assigned to serve ISS over a period of time aggravating the time away from class and academic instruction. OSS can be for up to three days and there is no cap on how many OSS actions can occur in a school year. In Texas and numerous other states, school districts are required to provide students who have been suspended with an alternative so they can continue his or her education. Unfortunately, concerns have been raised regarding DAEPs failure to be staffed with certified teachers, providing an equivalent learning environment, lack of instructional alignment and insufficient communication with the student’s home campus. Students can also be expelled from a DAEP for the ambiguous “serious or persistent misbehavior.” JJAEPs are education programs governed and run through the department of juvenile justice. The final punishment, Expulsion to the street occurs when alternative education programs do not exist, and in many communities they do not, and a child is no longer allowed at their local school. They are literally put out onto the street.
The research behind “Breaking Schools’ Rules” determined several key findings. Many of which stand on their own as issues needing addressed in the justice system and others add support to present juvenile justice theories. Here are a few of the findings:
Finding 1: The majority of students in the public school system (59.6%) experienced some form of suspension or expulsion in middle or high school.
An important note about this finding is that 92.4% of the students suspended or expelled were disciplined for violating the Code of Conduct with broad discretion on responsive actions. Only 2.7% of the suspensions/expulsions were related to behavior mandated by state law for expulsion or removal. Also of note, males experienced a higher rate of ISS (59%), OSS (63.5%), DAEP (68.5%) or expulsion (78.6%) than females. The average number of times a student was disciplined was eight which makes us ask if student discipline is having the desired effects.
Finding 2: African-American students were more likely than students of other races to be disciplined during their seventh- to twelfth-grade school years.
Students of color experienced a disparate level of involvement in school disciplinary actions especially those in relationship to discretionary Code of Conduct violations. 83% of African-American male students and 74% of Hispanic male students had at least one discretionary violation as compared to 59% of white males. This remained consistent with females showing 70% of African-American females and 58% of Hispanic females vs. 37% of white females. Also discovered was that a much larger percentage of African-American (26.2%) and Hispanic (18%) students were placed in OSS for the first violation vs. whites (9.9%)
Finding 3: Nearly three out of four students who qualified for special education services during the study period were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh- and twelfth-grade school years. The level of disciplinary involvement by these students, however, varied significantly according to the specific type of educational disability they had.
The study found three quarters of the students with an educational disability were suspended or expelled. The percentage of disciplinary action varied depending on the type of educational disability with the highest being coded for an emotional disturbance (90.2%). Those with a learning disability followed at 76.2%. Then, a physical disability (62.9) and finally Other disability which includes Autism, Mental Retardation, Traumatic Brain Injury and Developmental Delay (37%). Of significant importance is that 48.4% of students coded with an emotional disturbance were suspended or expelled 11 or more times. Keep this in mind in light of a further finding reference the consequences in relationship to the quantity of disciplinary actions.
In my next column, I will continue outlining the important findings in this study and its relevance to juvenile justice practitioners. Law enforcement officers are more and more being asked to get involved with matters that are dictated by school rules rather than criminal matters. In light of this and since school disciplinary action correlates to juvenile justice interaction, this study will help us ask some tough questions about how we are handling perceived misconduct by our children in the public school system.
Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and CJ from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit www.thewritinghand.net