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Three Things School Boards Should Do for Student Discipline

An empty classroom

As a former teacher and school leader, I strongly believe that site-based autonomy can empower educators to improve student outcomes. Now, as a policy advisor to local school board members across the country, I am careful to consider the appropriate lines between governance and management. A board that meddles too much in the day-to-day affairs of the school district can greatly interfere with and undermine the work of professional educators. It might therefore seem odd that I would advise school boards to get involved in student discipline at all.

However, it is the role of the school board, via policymaking, to establish the “rules of the game” in alignment with the community’s values and research-based educational practices. I find school boards often fail to leverage their policymaking role to raise standards and expectations for educators. Instead, board policy typically reads as mundane statements of compliance or flowery conceptual commitments that can’t ever be measured or verified for Accountability of implementation.

A school board’s student discipline policy is an opportunity to raise the bar for educators’ practices and ultimately improve student well-being.

It’s important to note that setting standards are different than directing staff – the board’s role is to define what schools should achieve within values-based boundaries, not to dictate how the work is actually to be done. In the case of student discipline, the board should set broad parameters for student discipline practices and, most importantly, establish boundaries that ensure ineffective and harmful practices are avoided. But the detailed code of conduct should remain an administrative document.

To achieve this aim and leverage policymaking for a positive impact on children, school boards should consider the following provisions in any student discipline policy:

  1. Maximum Limits on Suspension – though rarely (if ever) found in board policy, a school board should establish maximum limits for how many times a student may be suspended, how many cumulative days a student may be suspended, and require alternative, restorative discipline approaches after these limits have been reached. The logic here is simple – if a student has been suspended repeatedly, and the behavior is not improving, the chosen consequence is not serving any corrective purpose. Continuing to suspend a student in these cases is costing the child precious instructional time and is equivalent to abdicating the fundamental responsibility of educators to identify the cause of misbehavior and teach students the skills they need to be successful.
  2. Prohibit School Police (“School Resource Officers”) research has failed to establish any clear connection between the presence of School Resource Officers (SROs) and increased school safety outcomes. Some studies have confirmed the opposite effect, such as SRO presence resulting in unnecessary involvement of law enforcement, reinforcing a school-to-prison pipeline for children – especially Black children. Oakland removed its school police beginning in the 2021-22 school year without any notable detrimental impact and likely creating the space for more positive behavioral interventions in schools that promote long-term student well-being.
  3. Measurable Accountability – school boards should, in policy, require specific, recurring reporting to the board on standard metrics of performance with regard to student discipline. These metrics should include important indicators such as the risk ratios of certain groups of students receiving exclusionary discipline consequences vs. their peers, the percentage of students suspended multiple times and/or multiple days, disaggregated by race and school, the number of school-based arrests, etc. Too often, board policy will only defer this type of reporting to the Superintendent to determine the data that will be presented. The reality is the appropriate metrics for monitoring discipline are universal and timeless, and there is no reason this level of specificity shouldn’t exist in policy.

This is not an exhaustive list of guardrails to include in discipline policy, but these three ideas are both uncommon and worth prioritizing for their potential lasting positive impact on students – both socioemotionally and academically. Despite the potential impact, you would be hard-pressed to find these elements in any school board policy in the country. School board members should lead on these issues on behalf of children and the community. Parents should advocate for their school boards to pass discipline policies that foster positive and healthy educational environments for all children.