A 6-year-old with a camping utensil was suspended for bringing it to school. A 12-year-old was given a ticket for spraying perfume in class. An Indiana school suspended a student for touching a pill, a Virginia student received a two-week suspension for taking her birth-control pill and four Illinois students were suspended because of mints containing caffeine.
Across the country, 3 million students were suspended or expelled in 2010-2011, 95 percent of whom were nonviolent, according to NPR. Seven out of 10 were minority students.
The misuse of “overly zealous” discipline policies and practices is endemic nationwide, as the Boston Herald reported, but that’s beginning to change — thanks to research-supported innovations.
In a joint project, the departments of Justice and Education have announced a policy to help states, districts and schools develop, in the words of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “positive discipline policies that help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions.”
Educational systems across the country have pioneered more effective discipline programs that focus on prevention, positive behavior supports and interventions, support for self-discipline, movement away from the criminal justice system, and the elimination of zero-tolerance policies.
“The guidance package provides resources for creating safe and positive school climates, which are essential for boosting student academic success,” according to a news release from the departments.
The groundbreaking federal action is supported by a large body of research, civil and human rights laws and successful programs. In Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Oregon and dozens of other locations, schools have, according to the departments of Education and Justice, “adopted comprehensive, appropriate, and effective programs demonstrated to: (1) reduce disruption and misconduct; (2) support and reinforce positive behavior and character development; and (3) help students succeed.”
After the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, zero-tolerance programs became a “mindset” in schools; a North Carolina school board member said there were so many students suspended it was "like zero-tolerance gone wild.”
But the old policy, along with an increased police presence in schools, has caused a “school discipline gap” disproportionately harming minority students and those with disabilities, according to the Civil Rights Project.
One Department of Education study found that black students comprised 15 percent of the study population but made up 44 percent of those suspended multiple times and 36 percent of expulsions. Students with disabilities were just 15 percent of the overall population, yet made up 76 percent of those physically restrained by adults.
These shifts in disciplinary policy come in a post-Newtown world, where increasing police presence in schools is happening in an attempt to improve school safety. The new disciplinary models do not interfere with the role of police (commonly called “school resource officers”) in schools; instead, they provide more training for officers and relieve them from dealing with minor disciplinary matters.
The measures even have the support of some police, according to NPR, who say that the old system “just doesn’t work.”
In an unrelated 2013 action, the Department of Justice provided $44 million to increase the number of police officers in schools.