School discipline is often inconsistent or inadequate.
A decline in overall suspensions nationwide is at least partially explained by higher tolerance for misbehavior or underreporting.
And although exclusionary practices like suspension and expulsion disproportionately target students of color, some teachers still feel they should be used more often.
So concludes a study of U.S. teachers released this week by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, in partnership with the RAND Corp.
Researchers surveyed 1,200 educators across the country, with a focus on African American teachers and teachers in high-poverty school systems.
In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidance designed to reduce racial disparities in school discipline, warning schools with glaring inequalities that they could be subject to federal review. (Students of color, especially boys, are more likely to be disciplined, facts that are borne out in federal statistics.)
And though the Trump administration rescinded the 2014 order, some states still use school suspension numbers in their accountability frameworks that determine how much government oversight the schools will receive.
Suspensions are down in the Philadelphia School District. In the 2012-13 school year, 89 percent of all students had no out-of-school suspensions. In 2017-18, that was up to 92 percent.
Some advocates have called for a ban on suspensions; the district has moved to halt suspensions for students in grades K-2.
Educators in those districts like Philadelphia, where at least 75 percent of students live below the poverty line, told researchers they experienced “higher rates of verbal disrespect and physical fighting” than those in wealthier districts. They were also three times as likely to have been physically attacked by a student, and over half said a small number of disruptive students made it tough for others to learn.
And though suspensions are generally trending downward, in part due to a pushback against suspensions and other punishments that keep young people out of school, teachers told the researchers that the fallout has been, in some cases, more acceptance of bad behavior and inconsistent application of disciplinary policies.
One teacher surveyed lamented underreporting that “led to an increase in behavioral issues because the students understood that there would be no consequences for their actions."
Nearly one in five teachers who said suspensions were down at their school said underreporting was completely or mostly responsible for that dip.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to punish students and make them feel disconnected from school and give up on an academic life,” one teacher surveyed said. “But something needs to be done instead of nothing.”
Trauma-informed practices and alternatives to suspension, including restorative justice and positive behavior supports, have risen in popularity, and teachers told the Fordham researchers they were a step in the right direction. But they also said that suspensions could be useful in some contexts.
Though they are mindful of both a connection between suspensions and a student’s odds of criminal-justice involvement and racial bias inherent in disciplinary consequences, many teachers told researchers suspensions should be used more often.
Of the surveyed teachers who work in high-poverty schools, 50 percent of black teachers and 46 percent of white teachers said suspensions should be used more often. Seven percent of black teachers and nine percent of white teachers said suspensions are used too often.
“I think the issue is quite complex,” one teacher said. “My gut says that we should be addressing underlying issues rather than telling a child not to come to school for a week. Either we want higher test scores or we want lower suspension rates, but we can’t have both.”
The researchers made recommendations, including giving school administrators and teachers greater leeway when it comes to suspensions and putting additional resources into hiring more support staff, teaching assistants, and mental health professionals in high-poverty schools.
Sharif El-Mekki, who worked until June as a principal in the school district and then at Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus, said suspensions are a reactionary measure that simply don’t work for most students.
To be clear: He doesn’t want students disrupting other children’s learning, in his own kids’ classrooms or anyone else’s. Boundaries are a must, he said.
But rather than working on what to do when students act out, “I just wish researchers and educators were paying way more attention to the groundwork, to facilitating a positive instructional culture,” El-Mekki said.
Christopher Paslay, an English teacher at Swenson High, a Philadelphia School District vocational school in the Northeast, said that while students generally want to come to his school and underreporting is not a problem, “I’ve certainly heard of cases where students should have been placed in an alternative environment and they weren’t because people don’t want to deal with the fallout of it.”
Other Philadelphia teachers said there were real pressures to keep reporting low.
One teacher, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal, said teachers and administrators are keenly aware that suspensions impact their schools’ scores as measured by the district.
“The human reaction is to find a way to not suspend for an infraction that should have been a suspension, like fighting,” said the teacher who is assigned to a K-5 school.
A middle-school teacher who also declined to be named was blunt.