IU expert: Harsh discipline doesn’t work, disproportionately affects students of color

Research shows that “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies don’t make schools safer and are likely to have negative effects on the students they’re supposed to help, Indiana University education professor Russell Skiba told a national radio audience Friday.

The get-tough approach to discipline was widely adopted in the 1990s because officials thought suspension and expulsion would deter students from misbehaving and create a more orderly learning environment for others, he said on the public radio program “Science Friday.”

Russell Skiba

Russell Skiba

But in fact they have had the opposite effect. Students who experience harsh discipline are more likely to fall behind and disengage from school. And schools with high levels of suspension and expulsion have a worse behavioral climate even when controlling for socioeconomic factors.

“Studies are showing that zero-tolerance policies, while they’re intuitive, haven’t panned out in practice,” Skiba said on a segment of “Science Friday” devoted to alternative school discipline.

Skiba, director of the Equity Project in the School of Education, is a national authority on school discipline. Joining him in the “Science Friday” discussion were Edward Fergus, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at New York University, and Yamanda Wright, a data scientist with the nonprofit social justice organization Texas Appleseed.

Not only are harsh discipline practices ineffective, the panelists said, but they tend to be used disproportionately for youth of color. Skiba said African-American and Latino students are several times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled for the same infractions.

Critics point to zero-tolerance discipline and hair-trigger referrals of students to the criminal justice system as significant factors in what’s often called the school-to-prison pipeline.

The “Science Friday” segment focused on alternatives to zero tolerance, such as restorative justice and positive behavioral support. Skiba said there’s no single approach that will work in every school – what’s effective in one school or region of the country may be less so in another.

“One of the most promising approaches is simply building relationships,” he said. “Teachers who have better relationships with their kids are more likely to engage in disciplinary practices that work.”

He also cited research that found positive outcomes when teachers who have a record of successfully managing classrooms and student interactions are paired as mentors with other teachers.

Panelists conceded that a lack of resources can make it less likely that some schools will implement progressive discipline policies. But Skiba said office referrals and suspensions have often been used for low-level offenses, a wasteful approach that eats up lots of teacher and principal time.

“If there are preventive measures put in place, those will actually, in the long run, save time,” he said. “You’re not going to be spending a lot of time chasing after minor issues.”

To listen to the segment, see the “Science Friday” website.

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