How Can School Discipline Systems Promote Justice?

School discipline policies are not talked about a lot. However, when we do talk about the health of schools and the ability of students and families to flourish, these policies must be included in the conversation. School discipline is the system of rules and punishments in schools. So, it is the rules that students must follow and the consequences for breaking those rules. There are some discipline systems in schools that do a good job of helping all students and families. However, there are also some discipline systems that are hurting students and families. This FAQ focuses on what discipline systems that help all students and families flourish can look like. It then considers what we can do to include helpful discipline policies in our schools.

Schools should be places that help all students grow and thrive. They should provide an environment where all students are able to flourish. In schools with positive environments, all students feel safe and welcomed. The dignity and worth of every student and family is respected. Teachers encourage all students to think critically and try hard. They expect all of them to succeed in class, and they help all of them to grow and learn. In these schools there are fewer suspensions and expulsions, higher student achievement, and better attendance records.

Schools that have discipline systems that honor all students and families tend to have these positive school environments. Good discipline focuses on helping students heal their relationships and change their behavior. This means that the school staff helps students understand how their choices can hurt others. Restorative justice is an example of a practice that gives students the chance to correct what they did wrong. It has everyone involved in a conflict, both students and teachers, talk about how they felt. Then, the practice has everyone talk about how they can fix the conflict. This practice teaches students to consider how other people feel and how to repair relationships. A resource to learn about other types of restorative practices is available through the Advancement Project.

Good discipline also encourages school staff to find the root causes of students' behavioral problems. Then, it has them try to help students and their families deal with those root causes. These discipline practices do not erase the consequences of a student’s actions, but they do try to teach students how to do better in the future. Overall, they stress treating students with both justice and mercy.

For positive discipline systems to be most effective, schools must recognize the wider community in which students live and grow, in particular their families. Parents should be involved in helping to resolve the conflicts their students have in school. Parents have the primary role and responsibility of raising their children and school discipline policies should encourage and empower parents in this role. All students should grow up in a home that helps them learn how to deal with conflict and teaches them how to have healthy relationships. However, this is not always easy for families to do. By working together, schools and families can support each other in disciplining and teaching students.

Additionally, students are not just students. They are sons and daughters, they might be Scouts or Guides, soccer players, and church members. Their identities in their homes, communities, and schools are all important and shape how they act.  All of these roles must be understood because students do not just grow and learn in schools. They are also growing and learning at home with their families and in their communities. Families, schools, and communities all shape children who are students. Schools should work with families and communities to create positive discipline systems that recognize these realities. If these areas of life work together to teach students how to treat others, heal relationships, and respond to conflict, then students will be better able to grow and thrive in all areas of their lives.

Unfortunately, there are schools in the United States that do not yet use positive discipline systems. For example, in many schools zero-tolerance rules are still an important part of the discipline system. With these rules, every student gets the same punishment for breaking the same rule. Uniformity not fairness is the foundation of these systems. As a result, the school does not teach students how they can fix the conflicts, or what other choices they can make in the future. This might sound like a fair system overall, but there are several problems with it.

Zero-tolerance rules were made to deal with violent threats, such as a student bringing a weapon to school. However, these rules and consequences do not look at the whole situation. For example, if one student brought a knife to school to hurt people and another student packed a knife in her lunchbox to cut an apple at lunchtime, then they would receive the same punishment. The different reasons the two students brought a knife to school are often not considered. In fact, most schools would call the police on both students. While the first student is putting people in the school in danger on purpose, the other student is not. The student who brought a knife to school to cut an apple at lunch probably did not know about the rule, or know its importance. The school could have worked with the student’s family to explain the school’s rules and help the student fix the problem. Instead, the student received the same punishment as the student who wanted to hurt someone. This story helps show that one punishment cannot fit two different situations fairly.

Also, zero-tolerance rules are not always used the way they are supposed to be used. Some schools use zero-tolerance consequences on students who break non-violent rules. These non-violent behaviors include disrupting class, skipping school, and breaking the school dress code. Many schools call the police to handle these conflicts. As a result, these punishments are used to remove some students from the school instead of correcting them and helping them deal with the root problems. By pushing and keeping some students out of school because of non-violent actions, schools are taking away their chance to grow, thrive, and have an education. They also are not being taught how to resolve conflict or getting help to change. Evidence also shows these punishments affect students of color and students with disabilities the most. These students are also more at risk to later be incarcerated. This experience is called the school-to-prison pipeline, and it happens in schools all across the country.

To better help all students and families, we need to encourage all schools to use a positive discipline system. As citizens, there are many ways to do this. One thing we can do is talk to teachers and school administrators about how zero-tolerance rules can be hurtful for students and families. This would be a chance to talk about what other actions they can take as well. For example, if a student is found drinking alcohol at school, then the school can focus on getting the student help with their substance abuse problem instead of calling the police, and having the student punished as a criminal. Many teachers do not know the problem with current school discipline rules. It is important to show what other different discipline systems other schools are using. There are even models that can be used to help schools get started with new discipline systems. Also, we should talk to teachers about the positive practices and rules they can use in their classrooms and schools. Students can also be included in making and implementing new discipline rules, as they may also have important insights.

Another way we can encourage schools to change their discipline systems is by talking with school board members. Some discipline rules are created at the state and federal level, but many are made locally. School boards make policies and set the vision for the district. Both government and non-government run schools have boards we can talk to. However, it is also important to advocate for these changes state and nationwide. To do this we can individually write and talk to our state and national officials. We can also organize other people to join us.

Finally, it is important for us to work with our communities. We can encourage churches, police departments, and other groups in the community to get involved. They can also use positive discipline practices and rules with students. As a community, we can all focus on helping students and families deal with the root causes of problems. Overall, informing our fellow citizens and policymakers is a crucial part of helping schools use a positive discipline system. The goals is to make sure that all schools are places where all students and families can thrive.

School discipline is not talked about much, but it can deeply impact students and families. Schools that use a positive discipline system focus on making relationships healthy and fixing the root causes of misbehavior. They use both justice and mercy to discipline students. These rules do not get rid of the consequences of students' actions. Instead, they use them as a chance to teach students how to do better in the future. Overall, these policies work to honor and protect the dignity and worth of all students and families while creating schools where they all can thrive. As parents, teachers, and citizens, we should support the use of positive discipline systems in all schools.

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