Fixing School Discipline Policies Requires Listening and Looking at the Data

Jun 13, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Research tells us that despite past efforts of educators and education advocates, Black and Latinx students are still consistently suspended at disproportionate rates. As districts and schools across the country work to make discipline outcomes more equitable, sharing valid and reliable stories is key. So is good data.

I oversee district disciplinary programs and outcomes at Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District, just outside of Buffalo, New York. Like all district administrators, I depend on high-quality data about our culture and climate to know whether our equity initiatives are working.

While I know everyone is not actively examining the cultural waters that exist around who is disciplined and what kinds of disciplinary actions take place, it helps that our district has a long-standing history of gathering feedback. Using data, I am able to share where inconsistencies and disproportionate measures of discipline exist—and share far beyond a discussion with just my immediate colleagues.

Recently, multi-stakeholder feedback—which we gather through the YouthTruth student, family, and staff surveys—has provided my district with deeper insights into students’ experiences in school. A growing body of research also shows that student perceptions are linked with academic outcomes. Thus, [pullquote]paying attention to how students—along with families and school staff members—feel about discipline can be just as important as looking at referral or suspension data.[/pullquote]

When it came to our own district’s discipline perception data, I hoped we would be an exception to national trends revealed by a recent report that maps student, family and staff experiences with school discipline. The data shows that students feel less positively about discipline than family and staff, with high school students and families reporting feeling that discipline is less fair than do middle school students or families.

It turns out our district isn’t an exception.

Targeting Inequities in School Discipline

So, what are we doing to address the results?

While disappointed with our survey results, listening has been a key mode of knowing what to prioritize and where to target improvements, as well as for whom.

Next year, and down the road, trend data will continue to deepen our understanding of whether or not we’re getting discipline right. We can then begin to make larger recommendations and adjustments in our strategic plan to target inequities. However, we have already begun implementing changes based on the survey results.

Here are some initiatives that our team has been working to put in place based on the feedback we received:

  • Ensuring fairness: A code of conduct review. New York State’s mandated code left little room for more flexible restorative practices, which didn’t feel up to our high standards. Community service or making personal amends are two examples among many recommended practices of positive discipline that can help round out guidelines that feel too limited.
  • Sharing policies and practices: Forums for students, family and staff voice. Better communication about successful models of restorative practice help to keep the entire school community informed and involved. Spreading knowledge about district processes also holds us accountable as a district and helps a greater number of people to know what is possible in situations that may require disciplinary action.
  • Making sure all voices matter: Getting as close to a 100% response rate as possible was important to our district. It’s important—no, essential—that students, family and staff across the district know that each and every voice counts. There’s another benefit to this, too: since taking the survey, buy-in has been high as we begin to put the data into action.
  • Sharing the data and expressing gratitude: Clear communication about the what and why behind collecting and using survey feedback—in addition to an authentic thank you—is also essential.

Our district, like many others across the country, has work to do in building stronger systems of discipline. We also have work to do in improving how students, families and staff feel about discipline across our schools.

My hope is that district-wide initiatives like these can inspire change in other schools and districts. I look forward to sharing more stories of reflection and improvement as our district continues to track its journey in creating more equitable systems of discipline for all whom we serve.

Michael F. Lewis, Ph.D.

Michael F. Lewis, Ph.D., is the director of student services and special education at Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District, Buffalo, New York.

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