From Discipline to Dialogue: Starting the Conversation

This blog post is part of a series in which AYPF is exploring responses from policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to the problem of discipline disparities in K-12 education.

erin russ photo for site

Erin Russ, Program Associate

During my third year of teaching at a turnaround high school in a large suburb, a student came to me with an idea. “We need a student court,” he said. Alex, a sophomore, knew that students were being removed from class a lot for what was labeled “misconduct” – things like talking, rolling their eyes, or coming to class late. Still he said, “Nothing is changing around the school.” Students, teachers, and administrators continued to demonstrate the same patterns of behavior and consequences with no opportunities for authentic dialogue and individual supports. As a leader with the school’s student government association, Alex was tired of it.

Since then Alex’s idea inspired me to learn more about school discipline policies and practices, and I was recently able to publish a paper on this topic in New Voices in Public Policy entitled “Zero Tolerance, Zero Benefits: The Discipline Gap in American Public K-12 Education”. In it I explore the very same issues that Alex brought to my attention years ago: the overuse of zero tolerance discipline, and the need for alternatives that go beyond discipline to create positive dialogue between educators and students, ultimately keeping students engaged in learning and on a path to success.

When students are suspended or expelled, they are more likely to fall behind academically, drop out of school, be referred to the criminal justice system, and eventually become disconnected from educational opportunities. Minorities and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by zero tolerance discipline, as reported by the United States Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. If you’re not familiar with the recent findings, here’s what you should know:

  • Black males are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than that of their white peers for the same actions.
  • Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to experience exclusionary forms of discipline like suspension or expulsion.
  • “Student misconduct” is among the most common reasons for student referrals, resulting in detention and/or suspension (Dr. Anne Gregory has written some thought-provoking pieces on this point).
  • In January, 2014, the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice released federal guidance on school district implementation of discipline policies, emphasizing their obligation under Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act to ensure equitable treatment of all students (NASBE recently hosted an informative webinar on state-level interpretation).
  • A growing field of research has also uncovered the long-term consequences of zero tolerance discipline and its disproportionate impacts on subgroups such as minorities or students with disabilities (for more reading, check out the UCLA Civil Rights Project).

The problem of zero tolerance discipline has been well-documented, and a consensus has been built among practitioners, policymakers, and researchers that changes must occur. So, what’s next? This blog series is meant to explore areas where schools, districts, and states can move beyond discipline and create a culture of learning and positive support that allows students to excel. The forthcoming blog posts are meant to confront the same challenges that we wrestle with at AYPF – how do we talk about this topic in a way that acknowledges the problem, but also provokes thoughtful, long-term solutions? The questions we’ll address throughout this series are:

1. What can we learn from research about the causes of student misconduct, the consequences of zero tolerance discipline, and evidence-based alternatives?

2. What role can and should policy play in reducing discipline disparities and promoting alternatives?

3. How are practitioners addressing these challenges?

4. Where are the opportunities for students themselves to have a voice in addressing this issue?

I look forward to exploring these questions and ideas throughout this series, and encourage you to add your own thoughts and comments as well.

Erin Russ is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum 


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.