Myths of school discipline challenged

By Donna St. George
Washington Post / July 20, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Here’s one myth of school debunked: Harsh discipline is not always a reflection of the students in a particular school. It can be driven by those in charge.

In a study of nearly a million Texas children described as an unprecedented look at discipline, researchers found that nearly identical schools suspended and expelled students at very different rates.

The report, released yesterday, challenges a common misperception that the only way schools can manage behavior is through suspension, says Michael D. Thompson, a coauthor of the report, done by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute.

“The bottom line is that schools can get different outcomes with very similar student bodies,’’ he said. “School administrators and school superintendents and teachers can have a dramatic impact.’’

The research could not cite reasons for differences - whether some schools might be more tolerant of misbehavior, or better at classroom management or using alternative approaches. The analysis used more than 80 variables, including race, economics, test scores, attendance, teacher salary, and experience and expenditures per student.

The research showed that while some high-poverty schools suspended students at unexpectedly high rates, others with strikingly similar characteristics did not. The same discipline gap was clear for prosperous, suburban schools and small, rural schools: Some were harsh and others with nearly identical qualities were not.

“It’s a really important finding,’’ said Russell Skiba, an Indiana University professor who has studied discipline issues for 15 years. “It says it’s not totally about what kids and communities bring, but it’s a choice that schools make.’’

The study was said to be the first of its kind - a statewide analysis of 6.6 million records that examined every Texas seventh-grader in 2000, 2001, and 2002 and tracked them for the next six years or more. Education data was matched with juvenile justice records for a fuller picture.

The results showed that suspension or expulsion greatly increased a student’s risk of being held back a grade, dropping out, or landing in the juvenile justice system. Such ideas have been probed in other research, but not with such a large population and across a lengthy period, experts said.

Among the study’s central findings was that 23 percent of students who had been suspended at least once had contact with the juvenile justice system. By comparison, 2 percent of students with no suspensions had juvenile justice involvement.

This connection between classroom and courtroom is often referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.’’ Links between one set of records and the other had never been done on such a large scale, the authors said.

“This is documenting there is a pipeline: The more you’re involved in discipline at the school level, the greater you risk involvement at the criminal justice level,’’ Skiba said.

The study showed that 97 percent of disciplined students got in trouble for so-called “discretionary’’ offenses, which can include serious fights, but often refer to classroom disruption and insubordination. Fewer than 3 percent were ousted for violations with state-mandated punishment, such as bringing weapons or drugs to school.

In an analysis that controlled for 83 variables to isolate the effect of race on discipline, the study found African American students had a 31 percent higher likelihood of being disciplined for a discretionary offense, compared with identical whites and Hispanics.

The analysis also concluded that African-Americans had fewer mandatory-discipline offenses than whites or Hispanics.