School Discipline Often Meted Out Unevenly

Michael Thompson, director, Council of State Governments Justice Center
Douglas Otto, superintendent, Plano Independent School District (Texas)
Matt Cregor, assistant counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

A report shows that nearly 60 percent of Texas students were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grade, many of them multiple times. That can lead students to stay back a grade, drop out of school or get in trouble with the law. Is it time to reassess how schools deal with bad behavior?

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When a student behaves badly in school, it can disrupt the whole class. So teachers sometimes remove them, and discipline can escalate to suspension and even expulsion.

But until last week, nobody knew how often students got kicked out of class, who they are and what happens to them afterwards. For several reasons, the Council of State Governments Justice Center focused on schools on Texas and found that nearly six in 10 students there got suspended or expelled between seventh and 12th grade, usually more than once.

Many of those kids stayed back or dropped out, and a disturbingly high number got into trouble with the law.

The report raises a host of questions about who decides to impose school discipline, what process they follow, why African-Americans get suspended or expelled more often, and about how effective these tools are.

Teachers, school administrators, call and tell us about a discipline problem you had to deal with and how it turned out, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the president's problems as a storyteller on the Opinion Page this week. But first, discipline in schools, and joining us now from NPR's bureau in New York is Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center and co-author of this study. Nice to have you with us.

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: A lot of kids getting suspended and expelled, I think much higher numbers than most people would have anticipated.

THOMPSON: That's right, and that's certainly what prompted this study was that policymakers were hearing that an increased number of kids were being suspended or expelled. We see, for example, the number of suspensions and expulsions in the U.S. has more than doubled over the last 20 years.

And we see large states, like California, for example, 13 percent of all K-through-12 students are placed in out-of-school or expelled each year.

CONAN: Each year, and then some part of the study was to follow up and see what the effect of that was.

THOMPSON: That's right. We were able to do a pretty extraordinary study in Texas, where we were actually able to look at one million seventh-graders. We actually took all the seventh-graders in Texas, in 2000, 2001 and 2002. And we actually followed them for at least six years - that is to say through their projected graduation date, and even as much as three years further.

And we found indeed that in Texas, as you said earlier, nearly six in 10 students were suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and 12th grade.

CONAN: And that some groups got expelled and suspended more often than others.

THOMPSON: That's right. Clearly this was happening with particular frequency to particular subsets of students. So for example, we saw that 83 percent of African-American males were suspended or expelled at least once. We saw that 70 percent of African-American females were suspended or expelled at least once. So not that much difference between African-American males and African-American females. But when we contrast that with white females, for example, we saw that just 37 percent of white females were suspended or expelled at least once.

And we also looked at kids with particular educational disabilities as well.

CONAN: One aspect of the school system in Texas is large numbers of non-white students.

THOMPSON: That's right, although, you know, to be clear, I don't think this is something that's sort of happening uniquely in Texas. In fact, we see that nationally, when we look at suspension and expulsion rates in Texas, they actually look to be considerably lower.

When we just look at the gross number of K-through-12 students suspended or expelled, we see rates, for example, that are more than twice as high in California. So clearly this is not something that's unique to Texas.

CONAN: And as you looked at this, the other questions, or an important issue, was what kind of process was used. Did you find any consistency here?

THOMPSON: Yeah, one thing that was very interesting is I think that oftentimes people assume that we're seeing more and more kids removed from the school campus because essentially the state law requires the removal of that student because they've done something particularly serious.

So for example, bringing a gun onto school campus or selling drugs, state law in Texas and in most states mandates that that person be immediately removed from the school campus.

What we found, though, was that 97 percent of the actions in Texas taken, or suspensions and expulsions, were not pursuant to this, mandated by state law, but in fact were discretionary decisions made by local school authorities.

CONAN: Just decisions by a teacher, by a principal, by a committee?

THOMPSON: Yeah, typically what happens is - and we looked at formal forms of discipline. We didn't look, for example, at going to the principal's office or after-school detention or weekend detention. Those were informal forms of discipline. We looked at in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion into juvenile justice education system or whole alternative school placement.

We looked at all those things, and in order for a student to be placed in one of those programs, or to be suspended or expelled, the teacher has to make a - or a school employee has to make a referral to the person who's responsible for the school discipline system in that school.

CONAN: And is there an appeal? Is there a hearing? Is there any process here?

THOMPSON: I know that's something certainly that a lot of people in Texas are starting to look at, is, you know, what exactly, you know, should the process be. At the same time, you know, we need to make clear that just because these are discretionary decisions doesn't mean they're always for not-serious acts.

For example, a student can be involved in fighting, or a student can be involved in theft or something else that actually could be - or destruction of school property - that could be quite serious. And in those incidents, we want to make sure that we're not handcuffing school employees and preventing them from making important decisions and in effect removing their discretion.

It's just an interesting that this study points out, is how often now, in fact, suspension/expulsion are being relied on as a response to particular behaviors and the consequences of removing a student from the classroom in terms of that student's subsequent academic performance and juvenile justice involvement.

CONAN: The pipeline from suspension or expulsion to prison is what some described it.

THOMPSON: Well, we're careful to sort of - you know, in what we talk about. We don't go as far as what happens to these kids as adults and subsequent involvement in the adult criminal justice system.

But we do look at involvement in the juvenile justice system, and we found that one out of seven kids in Texas between seventh and 12th grade has had contact with the juvenile justice system. That doesn't mean that they were simply arrested or had contact with law enforcement. It means that a formal referral was made into the statewide juvenile justice record system.

So one in seven kids has had that contact, and we found that - and through this study that we were able to do, we were able to create nearly identical profiles of students and create really just one difference between those two students, and in this case it was whether that student had a disciplinary history or not.

So we took two nearly identical students in terms of their income, in terms of their learning disability, in terms of their test scores, in terms of the kind of school they went to, and said the only difference is one kid is suspended or expelled for the first time. And when that incident happened, we found that it tripled the likelihood that that student was going to come into contact with the juvenile justice system the next year.

CONAN: It's a correlation, not necessarily cause and effect.

THOMPSON: That's right. We weren't obviously able to account for every single possible variable. It would be impossible. But again, we were able to look at more than 80 variables controlling for all these different potential factors. So it does demonstrate an interesting relationship, certainly, between that student being removed from the campus and then contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.

And we also found similar adverse impacts in terms of academic performance.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Thompson, co-author of "Breaking Schools' Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Student Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement." We'd like to hear from those of you as teachers or school administrators - if you dealt with a discipline problem and how it turned out, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Monica's(ph) on the line with us from Vallejo in California.

MONICA: Well, hi, thanks for taking my call. I entered the public school field because I felt that we needed to do some reforms in terms of how we're teaching our kids. The study is absolutely fascinating because anecdotally I can certainly support it many, many, many times over.

I've subsequently retired, by the way, because I got frustrated, and I now work with behavior support systems. My story, dramatic and tragic as it is, is of a boy who in his early high school years, in 1980s, was repeatedly and repeatedly suspended for the kind of behaviors that we're just talking about, but it started with the little stuff: ditching school.

Ultimately, to cut to the chase here, that young man because of a lack of any kind of values, re-education, any kind of interventions to change his behaviors, ultimately committed and was convicted of a dreadful murder.

That's an extreme, but we are doing this over and over and over again to our children, and if we're responsible for teaching, let's teach them everything that they need to know. Thanks very much for this discussion.

CONAN: All right, Monica, thanks very much for the phone call. Joining us now from his office in Plano, Texas, is Douglas Otto, where he's superintendent of the Plano Independent School District, and thanks very much for being with us today.

DOUGLAS OTTO: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, I'm sure you've read the study. What do you learn from it?

OTTO: Well, I was surprised at the statistics. I think it's a great study in terms of being an eye-opener for all of us, and I think it's kind of a call to arms.

CONAN: Call to arms in what way?

OTTO: To take a look at the number of suspensions and expulsions and the effect that it has on the ability of the student to eventually graduate from high school and go on to bigger and better things.

CONAN: How do you do it in your school system, and does it vary from the descriptions you've read of other places in Texas?

OTTO: Well, we've had in place for almost 30 years a system of special programs for students that fall behind for whatever reason, whether it's behavior or just can't keep up. I mean, we try to do a lot of interventions and catch them early. And so as a result, we have graduation rates that I think are outstanding.

But it's a lot of hard work because we have the same disproportionate amount of discipline, meaning suspensions and expulsions for minority students, and so we're constantly working on the issue.

CONAN: And as you look at those statistics, it's - that is an eye-opener too.

OTTO: Yes, it is, there's no question. It's kind of a sad tale about our schools and our city and our nation.

CONAN: Is it a problem of society writ large, or is it a problem of the schools?

OTTO: Oh, I don't know. The disproportionality of the number of students, especially African-Americans, is - it is appalling, and I don't know. I suspect that it's not just schools, but we are at the point of intervention, the single most important point, where hopefully we can do something about it.

CONAN: And because of that disparity, are you going to be questioning recommendations for suspensions or expulsions now?

OTTO: Well, we always have. We have a system in place that I think provides some pretty good filters. So I think the key is - discipline's not a bad word but an inappropriate amount gives it a bad name. But I do think that, you know, parents want safe, secure classrooms for their kids. And so when you do have problems, you have to deal with them.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Breaking the rules, many students try it, not everyone gets caught. But the numbers of those who do and get disciplined may surprise you.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center today found that 60 percent of kids in a study of public secondary schools in Texas got suspended or expelled, but the punishments varied greatly, depending on which schools the rule-breakers attended.

Teachers, school administrators, call and tell us about a discipline problem you had to deal with and how it turned out: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Michael Thompson is with us from our bureau in New York. He's director of Council of State Governments Justice Center, co-author of the study we're talking about.

We're also speaking with Douglas Otto, superintendent of the Plano Independent School District in Texas. And let's see if we can get Jeff on the line. Jeff's calling us from San Jose.

JEFF: Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm actually a teacher in San Jose that actually deals with the kids that get suspended and then fall down to us to try to rehabilitate these kids. The problem is, is that both society and as schools, when you see kids struggle, for some reason, instead of taking resources and really trying to support those kids, the resources are pulled.

I mean, if you could look at the small, little campus that I'm on, you can see the fact that the way that the kids are even viewed and treated is truly amazing. We do not spend enough time and enough resources to try to truly rehabilitate those kids.

And one other comment: It's not only African-Americans. Since I'm in California, a lot of Hispanic kids get booted for reasons that are - you know, you kind of question, okay, the kid got into a fight, or the kid did this. Was that really justification in removing this child from a mainstream campus and putting them into a small segment where there are a lot of kids with juvenile problems and with behavior problems and academic problems? It's very unfair, the whole system.

CONAN: Douglas Otto, I want to ask you about that. Is the bar too low for removing kids, as our caller suggests, from mainstream classes?

OTTO: I think Jeff raises a good point. I think in some cases the bar may be too low. That's why I think in each campus in America, there needs to be some kind of filtering system, where you have to ask some pretty difficult questions, and only with the right answers can you remove a child from the classroom. I just don't think it ought to be automatic.

And let me say one other thing that Jeff commented on. One of the first things to go in a budget crisis are those funds that help kids that are in trouble. It's happening here in Texas. So a school district has really got to commit to helping these kids. And if they don't, then, as Jeff indicated, the programs will be cut. The bar is too low. Jeff's right.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: And Michael Thompson, I wanted to ask you about another of his remarks. Were Hispanic kids treated more harshly? Did the numbers bear that out?

THOMPSON: Well, certainly, we did see more Hispanics involved in the school discipline system as a percentage than we did whites, not to the same level of African-Americans. So it fell somewhere in between.

One of the things that we were able to do that was really interesting was, again, to create these statistically identical profiles of different students with one exception, and that being their race. And when we found sort of creating - all things being equal, the one difference being the student's race, we found that Hispanics were not more likely than whites to be involved in the discipline system.

So it was about equal likelihood, whereas with African-Americans, it was greater likelihood for a discretionary offense. When it was a mandatory offense, in which the state law requires that that person actually be removed from the campus, we saw African-American being less likely than white students to be suspended or expelled, whereas we found Hispanics more likely to be removed from the school campus for a mandatory offense.

CONAN: Douglas Otto, where does this study go from here? As everybody knows, state budgets are in crisis all over the country, and there are many problems that your school district will face as a result. But this conversation, are we talking about conversations among school administrators, among teacher's organizations? Where do we go from here?

OTTO: Oh, I think so. I think all kinds of conversations have to take place. This should serve as a coffee-table book for educators. However, I think, as far as - I talked to Michael in Austin when we presented the study. I think we need to take a look at those schools that were successful and had much lower suspension and expulsion rates and go in and find out why. I think that's a natural follow-up to this study.

CONAN: Douglas Otto, thanks very much for your time today. We'll let you get back to work.

OTTO: Thank you.

CONAN: Douglas Otto, superintendent of schools at the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas. And let's get William on the line. William's calling us from Berkeley.

WILLIAM: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

WILLIAM: So I had a comment and a question, if I have time.

CONAN: Go ahead.

WILLIAM: All right. So my comment, I'm a teacher. I used to teach in Connecticut, and now I sub in the Oakland Unified School District here in California. But I had a young student, he was constantly in trouble, always having discipline problems, violence against staff and students alike, stole things on field trips.

One of the best things that we did for him was to get him out of the school and away from friends, because then he went to a parochial school. They had a different discipline system, and he was making A's and B's. So I think sometimes removing students from a school may be beneficial.

But my question was about the discipline. I was wondering about the schools that had a lot of formal expulsions and suspensions and whether or not they went through the line of discipline with informal punishments like detentions before giving the kids formal punishments.

CONAN: Michael Thompson?

THOMPSON: We weren't able to look at that because in the - we were looking at statewide school records, statewide education system records. And the informal disciplines that you made reference to were not actually recorded. But I want to agree with the point made that for some kids, in fact, suspension or expulsion may actually be the right move, could help correct behavior and in fact could create a better climate for the other students left in the classroom.

The interesting question, as other callers have also raised, though, is for the student who's repeatedly cycling through the discipline system. And we found 15 percent of the kids between seventh and 12th grade were suspended or expelled 11 or more times.

So it raises the interesting question about a lot of kids for whom the suspension and expulsion is really not changing behavior, and so what can we do somewhere along the lines there to actually try different kinds of responses to try to actually see a change in behavior.

CONAN: William, thanks...

WILLIAM: One more comment - some of the best schools I've seen here in Oakland versus some of the worse, the best schools have systems in place where kids are rewarded for great behaviors and great grades. They have the kids actually taking part within the school and becoming a part of the school and helping run the school, being a teacher's assistant or running the library or staying after school and running after-school programs for younger students in the same school. So...

CONAN: Interesting point, William, thanks very much. Joining us now is Matt Cregor, assistant counsel of the education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He's with us from the studios of our member station in Boston, WBUR. Nice to have you with us today.

MATT CREGOR: Pleasure to be here, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I'm sure you looked at those numbers about the discrepancies of African-Americans being suspended or kicked out of school and had some questions.

CREGOR: No absolutely, and first we comment the Council of State Governments, as well as the bipartisan effort from Texas, to produce this study. This is - these numbers here are heartbreaking, and as the superintended said, this is a call to all of us as adults, as educators, to push forward.

But what we're seeing from these numbers from Texas is no different from what we're seeing across the country. And right now, over 3.3 million students are being suspended at least once each year. These rates are double what they were in the 1970s.

And as these rates continue to grow, the racial disparities therein only continue to widen.

CONAN: And we've seen some of the problem areas. Are there places that are doing better?

CREGOR: Oh absolutely. No, you know, across the country, as we look at these issues, there is work being done at the local, at the state and federal levels to address this. And I'm here today as a proud member of the Dignity in Schools campaign, which is our effort as parents, students, educators, advocates of all stripes to speak with one voice on these issues of what we no longer see as a dropout crisis but as a push-out crisis and to find alternatives, positive solutions to these problems.

Today, over 10,000 schools in this country are implementing the school-wide positive behavior support model that William called in and spoke about earlier. These are efforts to try to really clearly explain what the expectations are and reinforce them in schools in ways that are both positive and preventative.

The associated results include improvements in student test scores, reductions in disciplinary referrals and improvement in student and teacher perceptions of safety and morale, right.

In Denver Public Schools, it was a community organization, (Speaking foreign language), that led the charge to work with then-superintendent now-U.S. Senator Michael Brennan(ph) to revise the discipline code and change the culture of the school that resulted in a 40-percent drop in suspensions and a 60-percent drop in arrests.

It's these sorts of efforts that we really see inspiring us across the country.

CONAN: You are a former teacher yourself. I wonder: Did you have any discipline problems in your classes? And were - was suspension ever imposed?

I wonder, did you have any discipline problems in your classes and were - was suspension ever imposed?

CREGOR: Sure. No. So as a, you know, as a former fifth-grade teacher at a middle school in the Bronx, right, one of the first things that I learned was that if I didn't have a clear classroom management skills, I wasn't going to teach anything that day and my students weren't going to learn a thing that day. I would spend time with the mentor teachers that I had in my building who kind of picked me up by the nape or the neck and said, unless you get on the phone tonight to call each of their parents, introduce yourself, right, walk the block, make sure you know and connect to the relatives that are picking them up after school, the type of reinforcement, the type of bonds and the type of relationship that you want to develop with your students is not going to materialize, right?

So the work that we call upon our teachers to do is a lot in this country, but a key aspect of that is making sure those connections are in place in a manner that is going to positively influence the way we manage our classrooms and work with our students.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Jenny, and Jenny is on the line with us from St. Louis.

JENNY: Hi. I just had a story about - I'm an English teacher in St. Louis, and I had a student who - he was suspended over five times for verbal, physical harassment, all sorts of students and faculty. And we have a lot of students like that. And I find one of the reasons is a lot of the schools are working with funding from the state for enrollment rates. And if students are removed, they get less funding sometimes. So I find that students like this, they're often left in the system, because, obviously, the school doesn't want to give up on them, but it also is somewhat financially motivated.

However, this student that I had, I had written them up for referral over 12 times for the administration. Several emails, five to six phone calls home, and I told their principal that I would walk out of class if the student was returned to my classroom because my class had fallen so far behind because he harassed so many of my students. It was an unsafe, unproductive learning environment. And I feel like in that case, the student really does need to be removed from the school system and possibly given an alternative. I think alternative schools offer a lot of solutions to these discipline problems.

CONAN: How does your perception - and there are per head payments in some places - but how does that square with the fact that the expulsion rate has more than doubled since the 1970s?

JENNY: I have no idea. I'm actually - this is my first year of teaching. And I had no idea what I was in for. But it was different than my high school experience. I don't remember this many people being suspended. And I would say I would say, in our school, a good 60 percent of our kids have been suspended at one point or another.

CONAN: Well, that would square with the statistics from Texas, which found that 60 percent of students between seventh grade and their senior year of high school were suspended or expelled, and many, more than once. Speaking to the experience of the student you had in your class. And do you know what happened to him?

JENNY: I don't. The last phone call I had where I contacted their parent, the parent cursed me out on the phone. And so I have not seen that student since. They were not returned to my classroom, which I was really appreciative of the administration on that one. But, yeah, I don't know what's happened to the student. And it does, it worries me. Because if we could have more funding for alternative programs, I feel like a student like that might be able to find his place and be given a few more options, because he might not be a mainstream learner, so he might be frustrated and acting out as a result of that.

CONAN: Jenny, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Good luck next year.

JENNY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the study that found that large numbers of students are suspended or expelled from school. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I wanted to follow up, Michael Thompson, on what Jenny was just telling us about. Obviously, there's the other side of the coin. Yes, of course, you have to work with the kids who are in trouble. Yes, they act out because they're falling behind or maybe because of other problems. But there is the rest of the class. The good of the group is important to remember here.

THOMPSON: No question. And, again, I don't think anybody is saying that suspension and expulsion shouldn't be tools that the teachers can't draw on to respond to student - certain student behaviors. But one of the things that was so interesting about the study, which actually the superintendent from Plano pointed out, was we looked at all the different schools in Texas and we were actually able to compare schools with nearly identical student populations, and we saw very different rates of usage of suspension and expulsion.

So what's really interesting is, is that there are administrations and teachers, who, in different schools but dealing with very different - different schools dealing with very similar student populations and yet relying on suspension and expulsion to very different degrees. And we've - when we actually looked further at some of those schools, we find that even though they rely on suspension and expulsion to very different degrees, the academic performance of those schools didn't differ dramatically.

So when we actually looked at some select schools, we found that it was possible to suspend and expel at very different rates and yet still achieve a similar academic performance. So there is a lot that schools can do with existing resources and with existing statutory frameworks to have a significant impact on student behavior and to rely differently on these suspensions and expulsions.

CONAN: Interesting. At the end of last month, in response to this study, the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan; and the Attorney General, Eric Holder ,announced the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative project between the departments of Justice and Education that will address the so-called school-to-prison pipeline and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system. And I wonder, Matt Cregor, have you had a chance to look at that, and do you think it's gonna be effective?

CREGOR: Sure. I think we are encouraged by what Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan have announced here. Because this is, once again, a clear indication of how national a problem this is. But it's also a clear indication that we have solutions, right, that there are efforts across the country that are leading the charge here. And in the South, in the Deep South, it's juvenile court judges, both Democratic and Republican, who looked at the discipline rates in their schools. In Clayton Country, Georgia, where the juvenile court judge said found 90 percent of the students being sent to his court were there because they were in misdemeanors, right - had saggy pants or whatever it was - but found that between 1995 and 2003, they had seen an increase from 35 arrests up to almost 1,300 arrests, right?

It was on him, as a judge, to say, these are not the students that belong in my court. These are the kids that belong back in the classroom. The resources that we have here to solve this problem are much different and targeted for youth who have much more severe problems than who's ending up with me, right? Because the kids who are coming to my court don't need the criminal record or the juvenile record that they're getting.

And the problem is, right now, the shift that we've seen, in my lifetime - not only as a student but as a teacher - away from an era when we could call home, to an era when we're suspending, expelling or arresting students for things that don't warrant it, is placing our students on the wrong track. And until we solve this problem, we will not end the dropout crisis or close this achievement gap.

CONAN: Matt Cregor, thanks very much for your time today. Matt Cregor, assistant counsel of the education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He joined us from WBUR in Boston. Our thanks as well to Michael Thompson, co-author of the study that we've been talking about issued by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Stay with us for the opinion pages next. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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