From Discipline to Dialogue: What Role Can States Play?

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

I was challenged several months ago in a conversation with our executive director, Betsy Brand. We were discussing recent conversations happening at the national level about school discipline. She listened patiently as I described the innovative thinking happening around school discipline – from restorative justice practices to federal guidance. And, of course, there are the state policies.

“So, what can states do?” She asked.

It was a simple question, but I honestly had trouble with a response. I managed to say something about data tracking, but our conversation left me to wonder – If relationships matter for reducing discipline disparities and creating dialogue between students and teachers, is there a place for state policymakers in the conversation? If so, what can they do?

What can states do to reduce discipline disparities?

Schools and districts are re-thinking their policies in order to minimize the use of zero tolerance discipline, keep students in the classroom, and build positive relationships between teachers, administrators, and students.  Simultaneously, states are exploring a range of policies that support localities in their efforts. This means ensuring districts and schools have the flexibility to create and use alternative approaches to discipline, and providing support for teachers and other professionals, especially those who work with culturally diverse groups of students.

National Focus

Several national organizations have been working to research, document, and implement state policies that are most effective for reducing discipline disparities. In June, The Council of State Governments Justice Center released “The School Discipline Consensus Report”, highlighting four key intervention areas for schools, districts and states to consider – conditions for learning, targeted behavioral interventions, school-police partnerships, and courts and juvenile justice systems. In the report they make thoughtful recommendations, particularly around data tracking and usage.  Specifically, states can help build the capacity of schools, districts, and even juvenile justice systems to track and manage data more effectively in order to understand the characteristics of students who are being suspended, expelled, and referred to the court system. As Nina Salomon, Senior Policy Analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center stated, “Reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions can’t be the ultimate goal. Ideally schools will also see a correlation between reducing exclusionary disciplinary actions and other positive student outcomes, like increased graduation rates and an overall improvement in school climate.”

State Support for Customizable Community Solutions

The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) is working with states to think about how they can support district efforts to reduce discipline disparities, and promote positive school climate. Five states (Michigan, Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland) and the District of Columbia are partnering with NASBE’s School Discipline Project. The goal of the project is to create a community of practice among state boards of education and identify specific areas of policy that can be enhanced in order to reduce discipline disparities. Beginning in 2014, leaders in Oregon are working with NASBE to think about ways to incorporate a restorative justice framework into existing state guidelines, enabling districts and schools to receive the training and support to offer this alternative approach to discipline. In Georgia, policymakers are working to take lessons learned from Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) at the district level and support it through state policy. By highlighting these successful practices, states are validating positive approaches to school climate and offering more options to districts, schools, and staff in place of zero tolerance discipline.

Elsewhere, states are considering their role to provide and support customizable community solutions that allow localities to serve their population in a flexible way. Connecticut is one such example. For decades the state has supported a network of local Youth Service Bureaus (YSBs). Each YSB uses funding from the state and other sources (federal, local, and philanthropic) to assess and provide for the needs of youth. Beginning in 2012, the state of Connecticut selected five YSBs as pilot sites for Juvenile Review Boards (JRBs). JRBs are community panels established to divert at-risk youth, like discipline-referred students, from the justice system. Working in collaboration with local schools, the goal of JRBs is to determine the most appropriate intervention based on individual needs. These interventions can include counseling and emotional coaching, drug and violence prevention programs, community service opportunities, and other positive youth development services. Panels consist of local community members like clergy, police, school officials, social workers, and juvenile court officials. The value of JRBs and YSBs lies in the flexibility they have, with state support, to be responsive to the needs of the youth in their community by convening a range of local experts to address these needs on an individual basis.

Lingering Questions

Momentum to address the problems caused by zero tolerance discipline and develop alternatives is encouraging. As states continue to consider their role in supporting local district, school, and community solutions for reducing discipline disparities, I hope they consider several questions.

  • As states build the capacity to collect and track data on student discipline, what are they looking for and how will they know when a goal has been met? (Michael Petrilli) had an interesting take on this).
  • How are states considering the role(s) of multiple youth-serving systems to reduce discipline disparities, as in the case of Connecticut?
  • Finally (and back to my original question), what is the connection between state policy and student-teacher relationships?

I hope to pick up on this last point in the next post of the series, and AYPF is always interested in your thoughts. Please tweet at us (@AYPF_tweets) or email me ( with your thoughts, questions, or comments!



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.