Unnecessary Roughness: Innovative Approaches to School Discipline

Education Week recently ran a four-part series on alternatives to suspension and expulsion, Rethinking Discipline. The series highlights administrators and educators from schools across the country that are moving toward school-based discipline options, such as restorative justice practices, peer courts, and service as substitutes for punishment that push students out of school.

Much of this trend is in response to the latest research on zero-tolerance policies that find young men of color, particularly African American boys, are more likely to face disciplinary action and be suspended or expelled than students of other racial and gender groups (Losen & Skiba, 2010).  Excessive punitive measures have long-term consequences, such as increasing a student’s probability of dropping out of school and becoming involved in the criminal justice system with terrible costs to their communities and families (American Psychological Association, 2008; Balfanz, 2003). Research also suggests that school personnel should use such actions sparingly in only the most extreme situations, and that in the vast majority of cases, more alternatives and effective training of school personnel offer promising solutions to the racial inequalities in school discipline (Losen & Gillespie, 2012).

I seldom have the opportunity to witness first-hand how school leaders can address such issues. But last spring I had the privilege of visiting a local alternative high school- Fir Ridge. Here, I was able to see how students marginalized in traditional settings can find educators who are unequivocally devoted to their students.

It happened to be graduation and administrators, faculty, and staff were feverishly tying up loose ends. “Graduation is a big night for us. We do lose some students along the way, but we have a great graduation rate- all things considered. It is a fight to keep these students engaged. We have to contend with poverty, family, gang, and life issues. We all celebrate when we see our students finish,” Mrs. Shunk, an English teacher and old college friend of mine that encouraged me to visit her school, explained.

Mrs. Shunk’s statement parallels these national efforts to keep students IN school. Especially for students of color, education research stresses the importance of student engagement. I ended my visit by sitting in on one of Mrs. Shunk’s English classes where she weaved blended learning techniques, one-on-one attention, and peer activities with grace. As Geoffrey Canada from Harlem Children’s Zone said, “When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art.”

As class concluded and the students left, I thanked Mrs. Shunk. I thanked her for letting me visit. I thanked her for the remarkable work she does for her students. And I thanked her for inspiring me. I left the classroom with one final question: “Andrea (Mrs. Shunk) – I know you could teach in many other districts or schools, what compels you to stay at Fir Ridge?”

Mrs. Shunk: “I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else.  I had many amazing teachers growing up. I really do believe all students should have access to great teachers.”