Commentary

Education is a key component of future opportunity for children, and we should ensure that our education system is setting all students up for success. To keep students in school and on track, it is important that school discipline policies are structured in a way that doesn’t hinder student success. We all benefit from more students being prepared to enter the workforce and fewer students facing the challenges that come with dropping out of school.

Research indicates that building a positive school culture and strong relationships between students, teachers, and administrators are key to supporting student success. Overreliance on exclusion from school as a discipline method can push students out of the school system and into what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, whereby students are referred to the court systems for issues that arise in school. This increases the likelihood that they will become involved with the criminal justice system.

School discipline methods that keep students away from school through suspensions, expulsions, or transfers are all exclusionary forms of discipline. By contrast, non-exclusionary discipline relies on interventions that are restorative, including proactive measures that promote a culture of healthy and appropriate behaviors.

Exclusionary discipline also plays a role in increasing the opportunity gap in the educational system, as such punishments are disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities.i,ii,iii Data shows that these student populations are less likely to graduate high school on time, and show lower rates of reading, math, and science proficiency.

Exclusionary discipline policies have also been linked to lower educational attainment not only for suspended or expelled students, but for the student body as a whole. Studies have shown that schools with a higher reliance on exclusion score lower on academic achievement tests among the total student body, even after controlling for socioeconomic and demographic factors.iv Ensuring that there are appropriate educational protections for students who might otherwise be at risk of drop out will benefit both schools and the larger community by ensuring that more students are completing their education.

School Discipline in Nebraska

School discipline in Nebraska is governed by the Nebraska Student Discipline Act (NSDA). The purpose of the act is to “assure the protection of all elementary and secondary school students’ constitutional right to due process and fundamental fairness within the context of an orderly and effective educational process.”v The NSDA outlines exclusionary practices including: short-term suspension, long-term suspension, expulsion, and mandatory reassignment.

The “alternative education/pre-expulsion” policy identified in the NSDA provides a more constructive discipline option. This policy is only applicable to students once they reach the discipline level of expulsion and therefore, is more of a reactive than proactive policy. This procedure allows each school district the choice of providing an “alternative education” option to those students facing expulsion. Under the alternative education policy, school districts may send students between school districts in a joint effort to provide an alternative educational setting, as well as employ “individually prescribed educational and counseling programs; a community-centered classroom with experiences for the student; an observer or aide in governmental functions; an on-the-job trainee; or a participant in specialized tutorial experiences.”v This program is required to be individualized to each student and enables them to remain in a school setting and obtain academic credit toward graduation. Importantly, the “alternative education/pre-expulsion” policy is not a requirement of each school district; if a district does not provide an alternative educational program for expelled students, the district is required to “work with the parent, student, school representative, and a representative of either a community organization with a mission of assisting young people, or a representative of an agency involved with juvenile justice to adopt a plan for the student to fulfill their educational requirements.”v While the NSDA includes language on some non-exclusionary policies, it lacks a mechanism by which consistency in school discipline policy among school districts can be regulated and enforced.

Types of Discipline

Exclusionary Discipline

Exclusionary discipline, which has been the preferred technique for about the past forty years, has been commonly defined as office referrals, in- or out-of-school suspension, expulsion or alternative education. Research demonstrates that three marginalized groups are disproportionately likely to experience this form of discipline and for longer periods of time: students of color, socioeconomically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities. Despite exclusionary discipline being the most prevalent discipline tool, “high exclusionary discipline rates are positively associated with academic failure, high school dropout, involvement with the juvenile justice system, grade retention, and illegal substance abuse.”ii The use of exclusionary discipline practices deprives a student from access to solutions to the very problems that may be the source of their disruptive behavior as “then they are unable to access the very forces that might prepare them to be more productive citizens.”ii

The primary goal of any school discipline policy is and should be to create a safe, effective school environment for all students. There is no evidence that exclusionary policies improve school safety but these policies do increase the likelihood that excluded students will have contact with the juvenile justice system and decrease their likelihood of academic success.

Non-Exclusionary Discipline

Although researchers overwhelmingly agree that exclusionary discipline leads to a lower likelihood of academic success and a higher likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system, there is less consensus on alternative solutions.vi Three main programs are cited in research studies: positive behavior support or positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), social and emotional learning (SEL), and restitution or restorative approaches.

• The PBIS model proactively works to establish a climate where appropriate behavior is the norm and students are rewarded for following community standards.vii When a student fails to exhibit appropriate behavior, interventions are adopted that are tailored to the students and work to teach social and study skills to correct the behavior and keep the child in school.

• SEL programs proactively instruct students within classroom lessons on social and emotional competencies and work to promote emotional literacy, self-control, social competence, positive peer relations, and interpersonal problem-solving skills.viii

• Restitution and restorative justice models are reactive in nature. They are implemented only after harm has occurred. The models focus on the relationship development between student and administrator and work to help the student engage and understand how their actions affect the school. Both the student and administrator then work together to determine how the wrongs caused by the student’s behavior can be set right.vii

The Data in Nebraska

The Office of Civil Rights’ Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) collects and publishes self-reported data from individual schools and districts for all public schools.ix The most recent CRDC data on school discipline was collected in 2015. The CRDC reports data disaggregated by sex, race/ethnicity, and disability status. For our purposes, we will utilize IDEA status as an indicator for disability as most disabled students fell under the IDEA status designation. IDEA status ensures “that a child with a disability will receive an individualized educational program that is designed to meet the child’s unique needs and provide the child with educational benefit, so the child will be prepared for ‘for employment and independent living’.” Unfortunately, the CRDC does not provide data on school discipline by Free and Reduced-Price Lunch designation, so data on how family income impacts the discipline of students is unavailable.

The 2015 CRDC does not provide statewide data and in order to protect the privacy of students the CRDC masks very low occurring instances of discipline. Due to this and research acknowledging that students of color and high rates of poverty are disproportionately concentrated in urban school districts, our analysis of the data includes an aggregate of the school districts in the ten most populous cities in Nebraska as well as each of the school districts contained in the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. x,xi, xii As the CRDC only collects data on public schools, this research does not include discipline data from private schools.

The most frequently experienced form of disciplines were in-school and out-of-school suspensions, experienced by 4.2% and 6.0% of students respectively. There were no cases of corporal punishment reported, therefore it will no longer be included in the charts to follow.

American Indian, Black, and multi-racial children experience disproportionate rates of every type of discipline. Most notably are the rates of being transferred to alternative schools and expulsions.

Students with disabilities were over-represented in each of the discipline types when compared to all students. In most cases, doubly so. Conversely, students with limited English Proficiency in each case had lower incidence of discipline than the total population of students.

Suspensions

Of the total number of students enrolled, 6% were suspended out-of-school at least once during the school year. Males experienced twice the rate of suspension than females. 42% of students who were suspended out-of-school were suspended more than once, and of the students who are suspended, an average of 4.7 school days were missed as a result of suspension. Black students, and students with disabilities were the most likely to be suspended out-of-school at least once during the school year.

The high rates of suspension also impacted the number of days these students missed from school.

Expulsions

834 students were expelled – 42 under zero-tolerance policies, 16 without educational services, and 776 with educational services. Male students made up 66% of expulsions, and 27% of those expelled were students with disabilities.

Interaction with law enforcement

834 students were expelled – 42 under zero-tolerance policies, 16 without educational services, and 776 with educational services. Male students made up 66% of expulsions, and 27% of those expelled were students with disabilities.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

The research overwhelmingly indicates that school discipline policy should diverge from the exclusionary and zero tolerance policies that dominate the education system today. To ensure our system is structured and funded to produce equitable educational outcomes for all kids in Nebraska, we recommend:

1. Data Collection on School Discipline: The Nebraska Department of Education should collect and share accurate, recent, disaggregated data regarding school discipline. An important first step in school discipline reform and accurately explaining its need, starts with addressing the data. National trends indicate that exclusionary policies are problematic as they disproportionately impact students of color, socioeconomically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities. Moreover, studies show that even when accounting for socioeconomic status, African Americans are still disproportionately recipients of school discipline.x,xii,xiii “Disaggregating data allows for patterns and other critical information to be unveiled enabling problems and successes to be more easily identified. A state-level database housed within NDE tracking exclusionary discipline and law enforcement involvement would create greater transparency as policymakers consider appropriate statutory and administrative changes, and families consider where to enroll their children.

2. Investing in Alternatives to Exclusionary Discipline: Nebraska lawmakers should invest in and emphasize alternative disciplinary procedures and restorative practices in schools. Alternative disciplinary procedures “have been shown to reduce schools’ need for exclusionary discipline by preventing student misbehavior in the first place and successfully modifying misbehavior when it occurs.”vii The research shows that the realm of school discipline is evolving from traditional exclusionary policies to more inclusive, non-exclusionary policies. As a first step, the NSDA should be amended to reflect an educational system that prioritizes non-exclusionary discipline and funding should be appropriated as needed to support enhanced inclusive policies and practices.

3. Increasing Consistency Across Schools and Addressing Disproportionality: The Nebraska School Discipline Act should be amended to establish consistency in school discipline policy across school districts. We should also work to address disparate outcomes in our discipline procedures. Students of color, those with disabilities, and those from lower-income families should not be subjected to harsher consequences for their behaviors than their peers. Including evaluation of school districts discipline policies in an amended version of the NSDA would help to account for implicit biases and ensure that discipline methods are equitable in nature.

The overarching goal of these policy suggestions is to create a more equitable and just public-school system in the state of Nebraska where Nebraska can serve as a leader in school discipline reform that prioritizes all students’ well-being and educational outcomes.

Other discipline data of note

• 11 preschoolers were suspended out-of-school
• There were 2,898 instances of physical restraint and 3,216 instances of seclusion, a large majority of which were used on students with disabilities — 2,747 and 2,519 respectively.

Sources

i. Triplett et al. Zero Tolerance, School Shootings, and the Post-Brown Quest for Equity in Discipline Policy: An Examination of How Urban Minorities Are Punished for White Suburban Violence, The Journal of Negro Education 83, no. 3 (2014): 352-370, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7709/jnegroeducation.83.3.0352.

ii. Noltemeyer and Mcloughlin, Patterns of Exclusionary Discipline by School Typology, Ethnicity, and their Interaction, 2010.

iii. Skiba, R, “Special Education and School Discipline: A Precarious Balance,” Behavioral Disorders 27, no. 2 (2002): 81-97, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23889132.

iv. Skiba et al., Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations, American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006.

v. Nebraska Student Discipline Act, Section 79-254, (1997).

vi. Yang, K. (2009). Focus on Policy: Discipline or Punish? Some Suggestions for School Policy and Teacher Practice. Language Arts, 87(1), 49-61. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41484230

vii. Mergler, M.S., Vargas, K.M., & Caldwell, C. (2014). Alternative discipline can: benefit learning. The Phi Delta Kappan, 96(2), 25-30. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24376156.

viii. Gregory, A., & Fergus, E. (2017). Social and Emotional Learning and Equity in School Discipline. The Future of Children, 27(1), 117-136. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44219024.

ix. Office of Civil Rights. (2015). School/District Search. Civil Rights Data Collection. Retrieved from https://ocrdata.ed.gov/DistrictSchoolSearch

x. Fabelo, T., Thompson, M.D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M.P., & Booth, E.A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. New York, NY: Council of State Governments Justice Center.

xi. Skiba, R., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment (Policy Research Report #SRS1). Bloomington: Indiana University, Indiana Education Policy Center.

xii. Rocque, M. (2010). Office discipline and student behavior: Does race matter? American Journal of Education, 116, 557-581.