How DC and New Orleans Are Addressing Excessive Discipline While Respecting School Autonomy

No one doubts that suspension and expulsion rates in too many public schools are far too high. This is true in both charter and district-run schools. No school should treat a child, much less a troubled one, as a problem to be rid of. Yet nor can schools allow a small group of students to continually hinder the learning of many.

Fair School Discipline Rally (photo by the Sacramento chapter of the ACLU)
Fair School Discipline Rally (photo by the Sacramento chapter of the ACLU)

Clearly, a balance must be found between employing overly harsh student discipline and perpetuating classroom conditions that are chaotic or even unsafe for students and teachers. But national data indicate the bar for what can get a student removed from school is alarmingly low: most out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, or violating dress code. These subjectively determined infractions are much more commonly meted out to black and Hispanic students than to their white peers. All of this constitutes a serious problem that requires new solutions.

In charter schools, the principle of autonomy plays an important role in the discipline discussion; charter schools get the latitude to define and carry out their mission in exchange for being held accountable for results. And parents have the ability to choose among a variety of types of schools. Add to the mix the fact that charter schools in some cities are serving some of the most challenged, and challenging, children in impoverished and violent neighborhoods.

The challenge to effectively address harsh discipline is not unique to charter or district schools and nothing will change in classrooms if teachers and school leaders feel singled out and under attack. Yet no one thinks an acceptable status quo are the sky-high suspension and expulsion rates we see in some district and charter schools.

Given these complexities, finding policy solutions to address the challenge of eliminating inappropriately harsh discipline practices is not easy. For example, Los Angeles eliminated “willful defiance” as an acceptable reason for suspension. As a result, the number of suspensions plummeted, but schools that didn’t receive support said they struggled to maintain classroom order. Mostly, blunt directives like LAUSD’s leave schools with two choices: continue their previous harsh discipline practices but don’t report them, or force some students to put up with others’ more disruptive behavior.

Washington, D.C., and New Orleans have taken a different approach, applying creative and thoughtful policies across charter and traditional public schools. While neither city has a perfect solution, both show compelling early results and are important models for others to consider. Earlier this month, CRPE released a report profiling their efforts.

In D.C., leaders have boosted transparency and leveraged public scrutiny of high discipline rates in all public schools by issuing School Equity Reports, which show suspension, expulsion, student exit, and mid-year enrollment data by school. Especially high rates in charter schools prompt conversations with their authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board, to find constructive solutions.

In New Orleans, both charter and district public schools must abide by common, agreed-upon standards for expellable offenses. An office operated by the state-run Recovery School District reviews and approves proposed expulsions according to those standards and works to ensure students continue to receive appropriate educational placement after they are expelled.

In both cities, discipline numbers are declining (New Orleans saw big changes in expulsion, for example, but suspensions, which are far more common, remain outside the centralized system). More importantly, from the perspective of school and government leaders, meaningful conversations are underway about how students’ needs can be better met. Leaders in both cities acknowledge these policies are just a step in creating broad, meaningful school-level change in the use of suspension and expulsion, but an important one.

To be sure, school-level autonomy carries risks. Clearly, some high-profile “no-excuses” schools have gone too far, wielding their autonomy to push out disruptive students they deem to be a “bad fit.” But autonomy also frees schools to come up with new, better approaches to discipline, to the benefit of all students. Simply telling schools to “do less” suspensions and expulsions, has not worked. D.C. and New Orleans have found creative ways to mitigate the risks of autonomy without dampening the possibilities for innovation. We hope more cities will take on that challenge.

— Robin J. Lake

This post originally appeared on CRPE’s blog The Lens.  Grappling with Discipline in Autonomous Schools: New Approaches from D.C. and New Orleans (published earlier this month) is part of CRPE’s ongoing effort to constructively contribute to the often polarized debate over school discipline. 


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