Rethinking School Discipline

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A few years back, the Center for Public Integrity authored a report on school discipline disparities among students of color and students with disabilities in Virginia and other states. While the study itself isn’t without controversy, the disproportionate impact of exclusionary discipline for those students is well supported, and the study helped catalyze the conversation on reforming school discipline practices.

Consider students with disabilities. The emphasis on exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspension, expulsion or other practices that remove a child from the learning environment) follows from the historic legacy of excluding children with disabilities from “regular” education classrooms as part of a system of segregation.  This system of segregation, born from stereotypes and stigma surrounding disability, is no longer acceptable to most people.  Neither should the de-facto segregation that can result from exclusionary discipline policies.  That deprivation of education is seen as an appropriate punishment for even minor offenses reflects a paradigm that is at worst discriminatory and at best fails to address the underlying causes and needs of students with disabilities.

That’s why I’m encouraged by the conversation that’s taken place on Senate Bill 170.  Lawmakers and advocates – including Just Children and Voices for Virginia’s Children — have advanced legislation to curtail exclusionary discipline in Virginia schools for several years, but none of the bills got out of the legislature. School representatives warned of the consequences of taking disciplinary tools from teachers and administrators.  Some lawmakers were concerned that retaining disruptive students would harm other children.  Compromises that proved little better than the status quo couldn’t make it out of subcommittee.

However, Senate Bill 170 represents a tenable compromise that will limit exclusionary discipline for very young children while maintaining schools’ discretion to remove children in extreme circumstances.  As critics of SB 170 note, the bill won’t provide for services that could address the underlying causes and needs of students who act out or have difficulty complying with classroom norms.  We agree that the conversation on what happens instead of removal and how to better support school should continue and that lawmakers should make it a priority.  SB 170 isn’t necessarily the stuff of advocates’ dreams, but it moves Virginia forward in transforming the school discipline landscape.  The benefits will hopefully accrue to all young children in Virginia, but particularly to children with disabilities.