Last month, we looked at some of the results of the “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement” put together by the Justice Center and Public Policy Research Institute. This groundbreaking study was able to collect an enormous amount of information from Texas public schools (one in ten American students is educated in the Texas public school system). With a bivariate and multivariate analyses, researchers discovered what happens in reference to school discipline has a wide-ranging effect especially in reference to juvenile justice and eventually the adult justice system. In this column, we will continue looking at the study’s findings. But, first let’s address law enforcement’s roles in schools.
Many of you may be asking, "What does a study on school discipline have to do with us?" A lot, especially considering the increased and evolving roles law enforcement is playing in our public schools. In review of last month’s article, there are two disciplinary tracts in our schools. First, there are rules governed by state law, such as bringing weapons to school, assault or theft. These often fall under a zero-tolerance statute and have mandated punishments. Second, are the rules determined locally by school districts or even by individual classrooms. These rules make up the Student Code of Conduct. Punishments are discretionary and application can vary widely. Rules dictating dress code, prohibiting loud talking and disrespect fall under Codes of Conduct.
Law enforcement officers obviously would be tasked with enforcing school rules governed by federal, state and municipal law. School grounds are no different than a public park or a city street or a grocery store. We enforce laws and if they are being broken we take appropriate actions. But what about those rules determined by Codes of Conduct? In some schools, mostly those with their own school police department versus those contracting with a local police department for a School Resource Officer (SRO), an officer can issue a ticket for violating school Codes of Conduct. This ticket is essentially an “arrest and release on the spot” ticket. The student is remanded to municipal court and generally sentenced to a fine and/or community service. We have to ask ourselves, Why the shift of responsibility from the school to the court? Are we turning misdeeds into criminal behavior and what is the impact of a child’s interaction with the juvenile justice system so early in life? With the justice system already overworked and underresourced, wouldn’t student misconduct be better dealt with at a school level? Law enforcement responsibility continues to increase in our schools and a look at the remaining findings of the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study brings some important consequences and discussions to the table.
Finding 4: Students who experienced suspension or expulsion, especially those who did so repeatedly, were more likely to be held back a grade or drop out of school than students who were not involved in the disciplinary system.
When a child is removed from his or her classroom, their academics suffer. Regardless of whether they are assigned In-School-Suspension (ISS) or Out-of-School-Suspension (OSS), they do not have access to the curriculum taught by the teacher in the classroom. These students are not even guaranteed they will get the work they need to do to remain current. If they are expelled, they would not get any work to do at all. Removing a child from the classroom for any length of time heavily influences if they can keep at grade level. Furthermore, falling behind in academics increases feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and lack of investment in the school environment leading to an increase in the chance of a child dropping out. After controlling for other factors that might contribute to being held back or dropping out, the study found that 31% of students with disciplinary action were held back at least once and 10% dropped out. This is in contrast to students without disciplinary action where only 5% were held back at least once and 2% dropped out. Fifteen percent of those students with 11 or more suspension or expulsions dropped out of school. Keep in mind the discipline a student receives is often arbitrary and based on student Codes of Conduct rather than criminal behavior.