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Seeking Middle Ground on School Discipline

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “A Fair and Effective Approach to School Discipline” by Michael Petrilli in Education Week, May 30, 2018 (Vol. 37, #33, p. 28),; Petrilli can be reached at
In this Education Week article, Michael Petrilli (Thomas B. Fordham Institute) says he’s concerned about “the lack of common sense and evidence-based consensus” in the ongoing school-discipline debate in Washington. “Regardless of what happens at the federal level,” he says, “school discipline brings into play a number of important but often competing goals for school districts: eliminating discrimination, protecting the learning time of both disruptive students and their well-behaved peers, upholding high expectations for students, empathizing with traumatized students, and defending the authority of teachers.” With these competing agendas in mind, Petrilli has these suggestions for school districts:
• Address the part played by racial discrimination and implicit bias in disciplinary actions. There’s no question, says Petrilli, that unconscious educator beliefs partly explain the overrepresentation of students of color in suspensions.
• But don’t assume that racial bias is the only factor in disparities in discipline rates. “Differences in student behavior are also a major factor,” says Petrilli. “That’s not because of the race of the students, but because, tragically, different racial groups face different kinds and degrees of trauma, abuse, and deprivation, many of them associated with poverty… It would be a miracle if children’s vastly different experiences didn’t result in behavioral differences in school.”
• Show empathy for kids whose misbehavior stems from difficult life circumstances. Educators need to understand the underlying causes and provide appropriate mental-health and other supports.
• Don’t engage in the soft bigotry of low expectations. “All students need to learn how to control their impulses and behave in acceptable ways,” says Petrilli, “as well as cultivate an attitude that reflects motivation and engagement.”
• Don’t just send disruptive kids back to their classrooms. One or two of these students can undermine the learning of an entire class, and they need more than a stern lecture.
• Find ways to address misbehavior that lead to positive changes and protect opportunities to learn. Out-of-school suspensions may be counterproductive; schools should experiment with in-school suspensions for non-violent offenses, combined with strategies to get at the roots of misbehavior.
• Address “suspension factories.” Thousands of public schools suspend more than one fourth of their students every year. But mandating that these schools “get their numbers down” is not the answer. Such schools need “massive amounts of support,” says Petrilli.

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