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Rigid Laws Limit Discretion Over School Discipline, Many Superintendents Say

Cross-posted from the Rules for Engagement blog

by Evie Blad

While 92 percent of superintendents responding to a recent survey said they believe there are negative consequences to the use of out-of-school suspensions in their districts, 71 percent also indicated that state laws and policies on suspensions and expulsions limited "the discretion of district and school staff" in making disciplinary decisions.

The report—released this week by the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the Children's Defense Fund—is the result of an April survey of 500 district superintendents around the country about discipline policies and practices.

The findings echo a common concern of organizations who advocate for a reduction in suspensions and expulsions: Even when leaders want to keep students in the classroom, inflexible zero-tolerance mandates often leave them with no choice.

Some states have responded to those concerns in recent years by cutting back on discipline mandates and requiring districts to examine or rework their own zero-tolerance policies. The U.S. Departments of education and justice also pushed for a reexamination of discipline in federal guidance they released in January. But, as data recently released by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights shows, many zero-tolerance policies remain in effect.

Among the surveyed superintendents who see negative consequences to suspensions, "67 percent indicate that lost class time is the most significant while 27 percent identify increased disengagement, absenteeism, truancy and/or dropout as the most significant negative consequence."

Among the survey's other findings:

Half of superintendents surveyed report reducing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions is important or very important to their leadership agenda.

  • "When asked which infractions account for the greatest number of OSS in their districts, 40 percent of superintendents indicate insubordination, defiance, failure to obey and disrespect of teachers and staff are most common; 30 percent indicate fighting is the most common cause."
  • "Of the 85 percent of superintendents who believe there are positive consequences to using out-of-school suspension, 33 percent report that suspension maintains or improves school climate by removing the worst offenders and 15 percent say that suspension improves the behaviors of disciplined students."
  • "Superintendents describe maintaining safety and order in the school building (42%) as the primary purpose of out-of-school suspension (OSS) followed by providing consequences for student misbehavior, which communicate to students, parents, and teachers that the school is taking an issue seriously (20%) and removing students from a setting where they are disruptive to the learning of others (20%). Only 12 percent of respondents say that the primary purpose is to change student behavior and discourage future misconduct."
  • "Fifty-three percent of superintendents believe that greater parental involvement would have the greatest impact on reducing OSS in the district. Forty percent of superintendents believe that character education, conflict resolution, skill building and/or social/emotional learning for students would have the greatest effect, 38 percent cite more mental health supports, counselors or social workers and 38 percent believe support and training for teachers and staff on building positive relationships with students would have the greatest effect on reducing OSS."

If you haven't already read Education Week's deep dive into school discipline and zero-tolerance policies that ran in January 2013, you should check it out here.

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