School Discipline Study Finds Disparities

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Picture this: Students lay out their school initials in bricks on the outfield of a rival team’s baseball field so the grass underneath dies, leaving a long-term imprint.  If the culprits are caught, their punishment could range from a wink and a reprimand to a criminal charge of vandalism. The difference depends on where in Georgia the prank occurs.

Some schools and districts punish much more frequently and more severely than others, according to “Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class,” a report released in June by the non-profit Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. Some districts, for example, impose out-of-school-suspension at a rate 10 to 20 times higher than others.

“Perhaps the overarching theme of Georgia’s student discipline law is the strong reliance on local control in the development of overall discipline policies,” says the report, subtitled, “An Assessment of Georgia’s Public School Disciplinary Policies, Practices and Outcomes.” The June release is Phase One of a project expected to be completed in late 2010 in association with JustGeorgia, a statewide juvenile justice coalition formed in 2006.

Data in the report compiled by the Georgia Department of Education shows that the total incidence of disciplinary actions seemed to decrease from  2003-2009, but some severe forms of punishment increased. Expulsions were up by 19 percent, for example, and assignments to alternative schools grew by a whopping 40 percent.

The report, which looks at discipline in grades K-12 in Georgia public schools, found that African-American students, special education students, and those receiving free or reduced lunches were disciplined at a greater rate than other students.

  • African-American students, who made up 37.7 percent of the student body in 2008-2009 received 58.9 percent of the disciplinary actions.
  • Special education students, who made up 11 percent of all students, received 18.2 percent of the out of school suspensions and 23.7 percent of expulsions.
  • And the 53 percent of students who were eligible for free or reduced lunches made up 73 percent of the out of school suspensions.

The findings reaffirm those in an earlier study by the Georgia Department of Education, says Rob Rhodes, Georgia Appleseed’s Director of Legal Affairs and the primary author of the June report.  As the organization prepares a Phase Two report due out late this year, “we’re going to look at this very rigorously,” Rhodes says. In discussions with stakeholders in the state’s public schools, Georgia Appleseed will examine whether discipline policies need to be changed to correct unfair disparities, or whether counseling or other support might be needed, he says.

Some of the impetus for the discipline study resulted from stringent policies adopted in the wake of widely reported incidents of school violence.  “This nation was shocked by the tragedy of student violence at Columbine High School in Colorado in the spring of 1999,” says the preface to the report. “One month later, six students at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, suffered injury at the hands of a fifteen-year-old classmate. Understandably, school administrators around the country have searched for ways to assure that their students can come to school and learn in a safe environment.”

These events lead to “zero tolerance” policies in many school districts, requiring severe sanctions for some offenses, regardless of the circumstances.   “Some observers have argued that these more rigorous approaches to student discipline have overreached, resulting in unintended consequences,” the report says. “Incidents of severe punishment for minor or inadvertent violations of student codes of conduct have been reported from around the country and in Georgia. These include the ten-day suspension of an eleven-year-old in Cobb County, Georgia, for her possession of a Tweety Bird key chain and the arrest and suspension of a ten-year-old Newton County boy who brought a small cap gun to a ‘show-and-tell’ about the civil war.”

Discipline is necessary to make sure students, faculty and staff are safe in schools, Rhodes says, but schools are also mandated to educate students. When discipline results in extended suspension or expulsion, the opportunity to educate is lost.   “There’s a need for balance between potentially conflicting goals and objectives,” he says. “Some studies have shown that since the 1990s, the pendulum has swung toward ensuring a safe environment at the expense of excluding too many kids.”

Different school districts in Georgia seem to see the balance differently.

Georgia Appleseed examined in detail the policies of fifteen school systems across the state. The districts varied significantly in their approaches to zero tolerance, which Georgia Appleseed defined as mandatory out-of-school suspension for ten or more days, expulsion, referral to an alternative educational setting, or referral to juvenile court for violation of a provision of a code, “regardless of intent or extenuating circumstances.”

State law requires zero tolerance in certain cases, such as bringing a gun to school, but some districts have adopted the same policy for other behavior.  The state requires that students be expelled for physically injuring school faculty or staff members. However, there is no such requirement for punishing student-on-student acts. “Nevertheless,” says an appendix to the report, “most districts have zero tolerance policies for fighting, battery, and assault committed by one student against another or even, dangerous behavior committed against oneself.”

DeKalb County, whose policies are among the strictest of the 15 districts, imposes zero tolerance for a string of offenses including smoking, using an unauthorized computer ID or password, and vandalism of property valued at more than $100.    Some people believe zero tolerance has gotten out of hand.

One Georgia incident got so much attention, it spurred changes in state law during the last legislative session.

When Eli Mohone, 14, couldn’t find his backpack one morning, his mother handed him another bag. At school, Eli found a fishing knife inadvertently left in it.  Even though he turned in the knife at his Morgan County middle school, he was  handcuffed, expelled, convicted of a felony and sent to an alternative school.  Morgan County school board member Dave Belton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “our hands were tied because it was state law...It’s not only zero tolerance. It’s zero common sense.”

In response to the Morgan County case, Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) introduced a bill that allows school officials to consider intent and circumstances in imposing discipline.  The bill passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed by Governor Sonny Perdue, who called it “common sense legislation.”   “We hope schools will now go in and change their policies,” Jones says in a recent telephone interview.

Overly stringent discipline may have long-term implications for students.  Appleseed found that many of the school districts with the highest rates of out-of-school suspension had graduation rates below the state average.  Conversely, districts with the lowest rates of out-of-school suspensions generally had above-average graduation rates.   The Appleseed report draws no conclusion about the relationship between the figures, Rhodes says, but raises the matter as a potential topic for further investigation.

Effective, fair discipline requires common sense and mutual respect among teachers, administrators and students, says Dr. Jim Arnold, Superintendent of Pelham City Schools. Until June 30, Arnold was principal of Shaw High School in Columbus and President of the Georgia Association of Secondary School Principals.  “Our school administrators understand that a kid that works at Publix and forgets to take his box-cutter out of his pocket is not same as another who threatens somebody with a knife,” Arnold says.

Shaw uses Monday Evening School as an alternative to suspension.  At Monday Evening School, students must study definitions from the SAT word list.

Arnold says he has a rule for discipline: It can’t be personal.  “We don’t criminalize the person,” he says, “only the behavior.”

He also believes in not overreacting to what may be a practical joke or a prank.

It was on the baseball field at Shaw a couple of weeks ago, where he was principal, that students from rival Hardaway High School laid out the bricks in an HHS pattern.  Some administrators might have called it vandalism.  Arnold had a good chuckle.

“I thought that was pretty clever,” he says. “Of course I wish our grass wasn’t dead.”

There won’t be an investigation to apprehend and punish the culprits.

Shaw will just cut the grass, fertilize it and let it grow back.

Read more:  Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class

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Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts

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