‘Discipline Reform’ Is in Obama Program to Help Young Men. What’s That Mean?

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2014

When President Obama announced “My Brother’s Keeper” Thursday, he identified school discipline reform as one key to supporting the success of young men of color.

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“My administration has been working with schools on alternatives to the so-called zero-tolerance guidelines—not because teachers or administrators or fellow students should have to put up with bad behavior, but because there are ways to modify bad behavior that lead to good behavior,” Mr. Obama said in announcing My Brother’s Keeper.

By building on the work already started—with some of the $200 million pledged by philanthropies for My Brother’s Keeper—“we can keep more of our young men where they belong—in the classroom, learning, growing, gaining the skills they need to succeed,” the president said.

The Atlantic Philanthropies, for one, has spent $40 million already on reducing discipline disparities and has pledged another $70 million for that work as part of My Brother’s Keeper. {snip}

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{snip} But increasingly, urban school leaders and state legislatures are turning to a range of strategies to make school discipline more positive and equitable.

Here are some examples:

 Making fewer offenses punishable by suspension or expulsion. Up to 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent behavior, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a recent speech highlighting new discipline guidance disseminated to schools. “Being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, tardiness . . . are all issues that must be dealt with,” he said.  But “is putting children out of school the best remedy?” 

Nearly a decade ago, Baltimore public schools changed the code of conduct, added more mental health professionals, and offered more mediation for behavior problems. They lowered suspensions from 26,000 in 2004 to 8,600 last year.

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 Creating a positive school climate. Schools are increasingly fostering a culture of positive behavior and addressing underlying causes of misbehavior—everything from mental health issues to substance abuse. The US Department of Education recently announced School Climate Transformation Grants that will help more than 1,000 schools offer training in research-based strategies.

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 Using restorative justice. This approach—which helps prevent conflict and requires students to make reparations if they’ve harmed people—has been a key strategy in a number of cities. As part of an effort in Oakland, Calif., it is integrated into more than a dozen schools so far to make discipline more positive and fair. At one alternative high school there, suspension rates were cut in half within the first year of shifting to restorative justice. 

 Practicing culturally responsive education. Some school districts are training teachers to be more aware of possible hidden biases that may lead them to discipline students of color more severely. {snip}

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