What We Learned about School Discipline in 2016


School discipline represents more than just a strategy to deal with misbehaving children. It is also a measure of the compassion we have for the most troubled children.  As we review the highlights of Louisiana’s school discipline news in the past year we can reflect upon what we have learned.

In January 2016, we kicked off the year with a column by Jarvis DeBerry that proposed a shift in the way schools and lawmakers look at children and their misbehavior.  DeBerry commented on a report that demonstrated how many New Orleans children are have been exposed to trauma. A survey of 1,200 New Orleans children 10 to 16 years old showed 54 percent of them have lost somebody close to murder.  About 40 percent have seen somebody shot, stabbed or beaten, 38 percent have witnessed domestic violence, and 18 percent have seen a person murdered. The article’s takeaway was that children are “sad, not bad.”

Yet, during the spring legislative session, we were reminded that schools continue to ignore the causes of children’s behavior and opt for punishment in lieu of support.  The Louisiana Weekly published an article in May: “Louisiana school suspension rates soar above national average.” Louisiana school children are suspended at rates 130% higher than the national average, with elementary children experiencing suspension at 200% higher rates. The article reported on two house bills (HB 833 and 372) introduced in the 2016 session that presented opportunities to address the issue.  Unfortunately, both bills failed as a result of powerful opposition by school boards, superintendents and teachers who did not want to give up their decision-making autonomy.

However, over the summer, a couple of local heroes brought attention to school discipline issues and gave us hope. One article highlighted the story of Andrew Jones, an honors student and “standout athlete” who was blocked from participating in his graduation ceremony because of the Tangipahoa Parish’s policy on facial hair. He instead held his celebration at the African-American Heritage Museum, and his case gave rise to questions about racial bias and how schools reward and punish children. Additionally, Troi Bechet, an actress, singer, social worker, and founder of the Center for Restorative Approaches was featured in an article that explained how her organization is intervening in the school-to-prison pipeline. She explained that training young people and their teachers to talk out problems instead of resorting to suspension or expulsion can prevent students from dropping out.

In the fall, we saw the discussion about who gets suspended from public schools carry over into a new 24-member state panel, the Advisory Council on Student Behavior. The council is tasked with studying issues of school discipline and seclusion and restraint and making recommendations to the legislature. In particular, one of the meetings focused on the high rate of suspensions of elementary students, and the Advocate released an editorial calling on lawmakers to “Take a close look at early-age school suspensions.”

However, we were also reminded how far we still have to go, as the issue of corporal punishment has once again been raised. One news outlet reported that parents seemed mostly in support of the practice, despite a call by the Obama administration to end corporal punishment and reports of significant racial disparities.  

At the end of 2016, it is clear that we need to continue the dialogue about school discipline. However, the fact that the issue has made headlines numerous times throughout the year speaks to the possibility of change.  We can see signs of hope in the actions of our students, teachers, and community leaders, so that we might believe DeBerry’s sentiments will someday become the prevailing approach to discipline. Most recently, in an article about one school’s trauma-informed pilot program, a teacher was quoted: “I do respond differently. I attempt a more compassionate approach to understand the behavior and then guide the student to other more appropriate responses.”  Change is slow, but perhaps the discourse of 2016 has signaled a shift in the way we think about discipline.

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