Discriminatory School Discipline Practices Could Fuel the Juvenile Justice System

September 7, 2011 - 5 minute read

School Boards across the country struggle daily with determining appropriate consequences for students’ behavior.  Their challenge is to respond to inappropriate student behaviors in a manner that provides discipline to the student, minimizes any hindrance to the disciplined student’s academics, maintains a safe environment for the other students, and does not disrupt the academic environment.  Two recent studies highlight another issue to be considered in the discipline dilemma — the impact of typical discipline actions on juvenile incarceration rates.

A recent Texas study, Breaking School Rules: a Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement looked at individual school records and school campus data pertaining to all seventh grade public school students in Texas in 2000, 2001 and 2002.  The study found that: (1) nearly six in ten public school students were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh and twelfth grade school years; (2) African-American students and those with particular educational disabilities were disproportionately likely to be removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons; (3) students who were suspended and/or expelled, particularly those who were repeatedly disciplined, were more likely to be held back a grade or to drop out than were students not involved in the disciplinary system; (4) when a student was suspended or expelled, his or her likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system the subsequent year increased significantly; and (5) suspension and expulsion rates among schools – even those schools with similar student compositions and campus characteristics – varied significantly.

Nearly three-quarters of the students who qualified for special education services during the study period were suspended or expelled at least once. The level of school disciplinary involvement, however, varied significantly according to the type of disability. For example, students coded as having an “emotional disturbance” were especially likely to be suspended or expelled.  In contrast, students with autism or mental were considerably less likely than otherwise identical students without disabilities to experience a discretionary or mandatory school disciplinary action.

Similar results were shown in a December, 2010, Southern Poverty Law Center  special report entitled Access Denied: New Orleans Students and Parents Identify Barriers to Public Education.  This study provided numerous recommendations including:  ensuring that all students receive due process protections before they are removed from the school as punishment and banning the use of school suspensions and expulsions as punishment for minor infractions including uniform violations, being late for school and possession of legal items considered “contraband,” like candy.

These studies both find a substantial and increasing link between school discipline and juvenile incarceration.  The explosion in the rates of juvenile incarceration, especially among minority youth is a financial, social and moral catastrophe.  Just this week, the Annie E. Casey foundation released a report calling for reducing juvenile incarceration and turning instead to alternative in-home or community-based programs that can provide equal or better results at less cost.  Administrators  of urban school districts need to join with community-based advocates, parents and students to develop creative discipline procedures that can be implemented without discriminatory practices for the sake of the students and the sustainability of the community.  The New York Times editorial “One Way to Guarantee More Trouble” which discussed the Texas study, provides some initial thoughts on this topic.  Rodney & Etter, LLC will be exploring this issue and creative options with members of CUBE, COSA, law enforcement officials, and the juvenile justice  system in future issues of The Counselor.

The law firm of R&E specializes in school violence cases and has worked with experts involved in mass school shootings such as at Columbine and other places.  In February 2011, the firm represented the Orleans Parish School Board in a school shooting case involving assailants entering school grounds to carry out what the judge called the “gangland-style assassination.”   For further information, contact Roy Rodney or Norlisha Parker Burke.

About the author:  Norlisha Parker Burke is an Associate with Rodney & Etter, LLC, a diverse litigation defense firm located in New Orleans.  She is an expert is the defense of civil cases involving violence on school property.  She can be reached at 504-483-3224, by e-mail, and on LinkedIn

Tags: , ,