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School Discipline Survey Finds Challenges in Making Changes

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Many school districts are changing their codes of conduct in a way that limits the use of out-of-school suspension and expulsion and defines the role of law enforcement in school, a recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators found.

But the resources—human and financial—needed to make those changes don't always match what districts can muster.

Out of 464 superintendents and school district administrators, the survey also found that more than 80 percent of districts provide professional development related to school climate, with the most common areas of training being in classroom management, engaging instruction, and positive behavioral supports. And districts reported their greatest needs in establishing positive school climates and implementing prevention strategies as funding for education support staff—including counselors and social workers—and professional development/training.

While many school districts across the country had already been in the midst of changing school discipline policies from those emphasizing out-of-school suspension and expulsion, issues including the use of police in schools, student disciplinary practices, and school climate have been thrust into the spotlight following the December shootings in Newtown, Conn.

School discipline issues are tightly connected to school climate and violence, according to many education and advocacy groups. If students feel welcomed at school, aren't harassed or bullied, and are engaged in their learning—a challenge if they miss a lot of school because of suspension—then perhaps there would be fewer everyday incidents of school violence and misbehavior. And students who may be considering something especially violent could be deterred or given the kind of mental health support they may need.

Even the National Rifle Association, which proposed having at least one armed staff member at every school to boost security, found merit in improving mental health services in schools in a proposal it shared earlier this month.

The AASA survey also found that in districts where students are suspended from school for more than 10 days, 51 percent enroll students in an alternative education program, and others provide students with a combination of work sent home, online learning, and tutoring. But 13 percent of districts don't require education services for students removed from school for over 10 days. In addition, although more than 40 percent of districts enroll students expelled from school in alternative education programs, 33 percent have no policy requiring an alternative placement.

Alternative education programs were more likely to be used in urban settings than rural—73 percent vs. 43 percent. (The majority of the superintendents and district leaders surveyed were from rural districts and districts of 2,500 students or fewer.)

The National School Boards Association and Opportunity to Learn campaign recently declared districts' use of out-of-school suspension a crisis.

An overwhelming 96 percent of those that employ SROs reported that they had either a positive or somewhat positive effect on school climate.

However, the new survey found that attempts to implement alternatives met with a variety of challenges: not enough money, not enough staff time, parents and staff who don't buy into alternatives, no professional development on options, and a lack of information on what works. A majority of districts, the survey found, did not have experience with youth courts, restorative circles, or community conferencing—some of which you can read about in a series of stories on school discipline published in Education Week last fall.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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