School Discipline, Part I: Framing School Discipline and National Data

by Matthew Hurt and Kathleen Smith

This is the first of a three-part series on school discipline. The authors present the information and then provide discussion questions. We hope the discussion will further an understanding of the complexity of school discipline and safe and orderly schools. Part I of this series frames school discipline and provides the latest national data from the Office of Civil Rights. Part II dives into Virginia data regarding suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests and context for Virginia’s disproportionality concerns. Part III discusses how discipline has been “reframed” in recent years.

School discipline is not a simple problem. There are some aspects that educators have a great deal of power to address and other aspects that are outside their ability to influence. Recent events have also likely caused school discipline to become more complex and difficult to address.

From an Administrator’s Experience

When Dr. Matthew Hurt was an assistant principal in a K-8 school 20 years ago, discipline was among his main duties. By working with teachers, students, parents, and staff, disciplinary infractions declined each year.

He learned early-on that suspending students was like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch. The practice gave students a vacation where likely no one was there to help them catch up on their work. As it provided no disincentive to stop negative behaviors, the administration focused on in-school suspension. Staff found this was a significantly better deterrent. With in-school suspensions (ISS), the school employed an individual who worked with the kids to make sure any missed instruction was mitigated. For smaller infractions, students would be assigned to ISS during their lunch and exploratory classes (PE, music, etc.) so they wouldn’t miss any core instruction. Kids hated missing the social time with their peers, and this provided great incentive to improve their behavior.

The second lesson Dr. Hurt learned is that the administration had to support teachers with discipline. Teachers realized that what they did in their classrooms was prized, and that they were supported for not tolerating any shenanigans while teaching. Their instructional time was extremely precious. The administration supported the in-class disciplinary measures that teachers implemented and told them to send kids to the office as soon as their behavior became untenable. Students realized quickly that once their teacher sent them out of the classroom, consequences were quickly and progressively meted out.

Like every other school, this school enrolled students who frequently needed discipline, and a lot of time was spent with those students. The administration’s philosophy was that if a student was misbehaving, there were usually factors that must be taken into consideration. Disciplinary consequences were consistent regardless of those factors, but they realized there may be some mitigating interventions that could be applied to improve future behaviors. Many of these students lived in chaotic and sometimes violent homes. Staff realized that they had to double their efforts to ensure that these students had stability during the school day and realized that teachers and administrators were there to support their efforts to be successful at school. The administration spent a lot of time working with parents to find out their perspective about their kid’s behavior. They also worked with outside agencies to better coordinate necessary services. The more successful school staff were at identifying student social/emotional needs and mitigating those, the more successful they were at mitigating their negative behaviors.

Alternative, More Restrictive Placements

There were also a very few students whose needs surpassed the staff’s ability to provide for them. For example, Dr. Hurt dealt with one transfer student who exhibited extremely bizarre behaviors upon registering for school in an elementary grade. The behaviors worsened very quickly to the point that one of their most with-it teachers called for assistance on a regular basis due to disruptive, violent outbreaks. Initially, Dr. Hurt was able to work with the student to bring him out of class. These behaviors continued to worsen to the point that the student would not leave the class and staff had to evacuate the other students. Throughout all of this, his mother was engaged to identify the issues causing the misbehavior. She soon enrolled her son in home school, but then re-enrolled him at Dr. Hurt’s school three years later. The bizarre behaviors were immediately evident and escalated much more quickly. Fast forward a few weeks later, this student was admitted to a residential behavioral health facility by his mother.

Federal law requires that all students be provided a free, appropriate, public education. Unfortunately, that free, appropriate, public education for all students is not always in their neighborhood school. Public schools are equipped to provide this to most, but not all, students. Schools must balance the educational needs of such students with the safety of the general student population, and the ability to provide for both. Sometimes public schools cannot provide the specific educational needs of a student. Sometimes schools can’t provide for the safety of the student population when a given student is enrolled. Alternative placements are necessary from time to time.

National Data from the National Center for Juvenile Justice for 2022

Crime data reported from the National Center for Juvenile Justice for 2022, can be found below. The report used both self-reported data and data from sources cited within the document. Few of the data are available specifically for Virginia. Public schools serve everyone and are microcosms of the communities they serve. This kind of data is important as it provides some of the causal factors related to discipline and safety within a public school. In most cases, public schools can do nothing about factors such as poverty or homicide; however, each day, educators must mitigate these factors and ensure that children, no matter what outside conditions exist, learn.

• In 2019, about 1 in 5 residents in the U.S. were younger than 18 — 22 percent or 73 million;

• The proportion of children living in poverty in 2019 was at its lowest level since 1975. Fourteen percent of children ages 5-17 lived in households below established poverty levels;

• In 2019, 3.8 million youth ages 12-17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode;

• The teenage birth rate has declined considerably since the early 1990s. However, in 2019, the birth rate for youth ages 15-17 was 6.7 live births for every 1,000 females;

• Although the high school dropout rate declined in the past five years, more than 470,000 youth left high school in 2019;

• In 2019, child protective services agencies received about 84,600 maltreatment referrals each week;

• The number of children in foster care has increased 8 percent since 2012. There were an estimated 424,000 children in foster care in September of 2019;

• Serious violent crimes in which youth 12-17 were victims were 83 percent less in 2019 than 1994. In 2019, rates of serious violent crimes against Black (10.3), White (10.4) and Hispanic (10.9) per 1000 were about the same;

• Youth younger than 18 accounted for more than 1 in 5 victims of serious violent crime known to law enforcement. Sexual assault victims accounted for more than half of all child victims of serious violent crime;

• Nearly 6 out of 10 violent crimes with youth victims occur in a residence;

• On average, 1,334 youth under the age 18 in the U.S. were murdered each year between 2010 and 2019;

• In 2019, 9 of every 10 murder victims ages 5-17 were killed with a firearm;

• Since 2009, suicides have outnumbered homicides among youth ages 10-17. The number of suicide victims in 2019 was 80 percent higher than homicide victims;

• In 2019, nearly 1 in 5 students reported having been bullied at school and about 1 in 6 reported having been cyberbullied;

• In 2019, about 1 in 36 high school students reported carrying a weapon to school;

• In 2019, nearly half of high school seniors reported they had used an illicit drug at least once and more had used alcohol. Marijuana is the most-used illicit drug, and alcohol use and vaping nicotine are widespread at all grade levels;

• After reaching an historic low in 2013, the number of homicides committed by youth increased 27 percent through 2019. Juveniles were involved in 1 in 14 homicides in 2019.

Dr. Kathleen Smith spent 25 years in classrooms where nearly all students were below the poverty rate. Teachers and administrators faced many challenges much like the statistics presented above. Day-to-day things that were not normal became accepted as normal. Parents would call to let a teacher know they had witnessed a student going through a dumpster looking for food. Some children had no coats. Homework was an impossible task if the parent was high or intoxicated. Sometimes the water or electricity was turned off due to non-payment. Some teachers often felt the need to “love the children to learn,” resulting in the unintended consequence of lowering the teacher’s expectation that certain students could learn. Others turned a blind eye to certain behaviors when they shouldn’t have. Just when the teacher thought he/she had witnessed all that could be witnessed in terrible situations, something worse was witnessed. This wasn’t racism; it was coping with the intention of helping, not hindering.

Further Discussion Questions

That nearly 6 out of 10 violent crimes with youth victims occur in a residence demonstrates that discipline outside of the school is just as alarming as inside the school. What factors from the national data would be good indicators that school safety is questionable?

If one thinks about an average classroom of 20-25 high school students, and the national data represent a microcosm of a community, the classroom teacher may have to accommodate a rape victim, a cyber bully, a student with a weapon, a depressed student contemplating suicide, a student in foster care, a pregnant female, someone who lost a sibling to homicide, or an alcoholic. What does this tell us about teacher retention? Principal retention? Could the teacher inadvertently lower expectations for all students while attempting to mitigate learning for some of the students? Are we expecting too much of educators?

Consider that in the same classroom described above, 100 percent of the students were Black or 100 percent were White. Can we compare this classroom to the Virginia average or national average overall? When we compare all of Virginia’s data in one indicator (all students who were suspended in Virginia) or all of the nation, and make policy from those overall numbers, are we making it difficult for locations that do not represent the norm; for example, Lexington as compared to Petersburg?

Matthew Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a coalition of non-metropolitan school districts. Dr. Kathleen M. Smith has been an educator since 1975. She has served as Regional Director for the Mid-Atlantic States for Advanced l Measured Progress and Director of the Office of School Improvement with the Virginia Department of Education.