Are teenagers today given the opportunity to make mistakes that won’t follow them for the rest of their lives or do laws on the books make childhood a criminal act? In 22 states and dozens of cities and towns across America, school disturbance is outlawed in some form. For example, South Dakota prohibits “boisterous” behavior and Arkansas bans “annoying conduct” and in Maine, simply interrupting a teacher by speaking loudly is a civil offense. Read More.

These options allow schools to access law enforcement intervention and may lead to zero tolerance policies in school discipline, which were originally reserved to penalize those students that brought weapons and drugs to school. This disciplinary standard has evolved to include subjective and nonviolent offenses that do not pose an immediate threat or harm to the student population, but are prohibited by state and local law. What has followed is ever increasing number of students suspended and/or expelled, or even criminally charged, for activity that often times amounts to simple juvenile behavior, like class disruptions, dress code violations, displays of affection or defiant behavior towards school staff. Read More.

However, most parents and school staff agree, and as a society we acknowledge, that conduct in formative years should not prevent opportunity and growth in the futures of our youth. The confidentiality of the juvenile justice system is a direct reflection of this sentiment.

Recent studies show that in the 2012-13 academic school year, 3 million students were suspended, 130,000 students were expelled for minor infractions and over 260,000 wee referred to law enforcement. Importantly, students receiving exclusionary discipline are 23.5 percent more likely to drop out of school; substantially limiting future opportunity due to past infractions. Read More.

A pattern has also emerged where race is a factor in student discipline, such that punishment is delivered at disproportionate rate for minor, subjective conduct that does not cause harm to other students or staff. For example, while African-American students represent 16.4 percent of the nation’s student population, 34 percent were expelled and 42 percent were suspended multiple times in 2014. There are similar statistics for Hispanic youth across the country. There is no evidence that these students engage in more problematic behaviors than other students, but they are expelled or receive more serious forms of punishment at significantly higher rates. Learn More.

There are some recent cases in New England to racial biased in schools. Last summer, the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General completed an investigation at Easthampton High School and identified “serious problems” with racial bias. The AG’s report noted “significant concerns” at the school, including disparities in discipline based upon race and ethnicity, administrators who failed to identify and respond to bias incidents, and a hostile school environment for students of color. Among the report findings were that, between 2012 and 2016, African American students were disciplined at four times the rate of Caucasian students, and Hispanic students were disciplined at three times that rate. African American and Hispanic students were also disciplined more severely for committing similar offenses. Read More.

While strict disciplinary sanctions such as expulsion are an important tool for punishing and deterring behavior that threatens the safety and well-being of other students and staff, it is not necessarily effective in correcting minor behaviors. Some experts have proposed alternative positive-based disciplinary strategies that schools can implement to address and modify these types of behavior. The idea behind these strategies is to create a school environment that can help students progress and develop skills to eliminate problematic behavior before transitioning to life after school.

These methods, such as the On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) program are alternative approaches to suspension and expulsion. These two methods are a sample of programming that can create a shift from a punitive learning environment to one that is a safe place to make mistakes, and learn from them. Read More.

Similar programming was implemented in Oregon to replace the zero tolerance policy with rules that only allow expulsion for conduct that threatens the safety of others at school. Many other schools across the country are working to modify and clarify their methodology in response to the evidence that supports racial disparity in school discipline.


Juvenile Justice Information Exchange:

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American Bar Association

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Civil Rights Data Collection

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American Progress:

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On-Campus Intervention Program and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline

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Civil Right Project:

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Education Northwest:

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