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.
Finding 5: More than one in seven students were in contact with the juvenile justice system between seventh and twelfth grade. Students who were suspended or expelled had a greater likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system in their middle or high school years, particularly when they were disciplined multiple times.
Many people would believe that a child that cannot behave in school is more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system than a child who conforms in the academic environment. What this study has determined is that this link between discipline and delinquency is quite complex when the goal of school discipline is outlined. The fundamental goal of school discipline is to increase compliance and prevent additional rule breaking which in turn would decrease the chance a child would interact with the juvenile justice system. What the study found was that when a student was suspended or expelled for a discretionary school disciplinary violation, this action nearly tripled (2.85 times) the likelihood of juvenile justice contact in the subsequent school year. Each additional disciplinary encounter increased the likelihood even more. In essence the fundamental goal of discretionary school discipline is not being met. In fact it is having the opposite effect. In light of this, school and juvenile justice professionals have an invested interest in determining what needs to change and what interventions need to be in place to decrease noncompliance of school rules and decrease movement into the juvenile justice system.
Finding 6: Schools that had similar student populations and were alike in other important regards varied significantly in how often they suspended or expelled pupils.
With the implications of school discipline being a concern to juvenile justice and negatively impacting the lives of thousands of children, this finding is the most disturbing of all. Schools are not reacting the same to common challenges and the discipline meted out can be very different regardless of the similarities in student and environmental characteristics. Essentially, how and when a student is disciplined depends on what school they attend. Even schools within districts were found to have very different disciplinary rates. The study also found that schools that rely heavily on the use of suspension and expulsion did not achieve better academic outcomes overall.
What the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study found is that school administrators have an incredible amount of power to change the course of a child’s future and impact the juvenile justice system. The decision to suspend or expel a child based on arbitrary, locally-agreed upon school Codes of Conduct have enormous consequences. This study also shows that the desired outcome of disciplinary actions, i.e. less rule breaking and more conformity, is not occurring. Due to this, we as professionals in the juvenile justice realm, especially those working in the schools, need to work closely with academic professionals to determine what interventions we need to be using to have positive outcomes on our children and consequently our communities. If we do not want to continue the trend of drop-outs and juvenile justice contact, we need to relook at our school disciplinary policies. If it’s not working, we need to do something different. Our children’s futures depend on it.