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Perspective | Policing in schools and discipline disparities

The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the Oct. 24, 2020 broadcast of Education Matters — “Policing in schools and discipline disparities.”

As the work of the Forum’s Study Group XVI spotlighted, we know that students of color in North Carolina schools have significantly higher rates of both short- and long-term suspensions than their white counterparts. And while the state has lowered the overall rates of suspension and expulsions, what has not changed is the disproportionate representation of students of color in disciplinary actions. On average, Black students were approximately four times as likely as white students to receive short-term suspensions during the 2018-19 school year.

Research has shown that exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions and expulsions do little to improve student behavior, and could lead to negative feelings towards school. A 2015 study found that each suspension decreases a student’s likelihood of graduating high school by an additional 20%, and reduces the likelihood of enrolling in postsecondary school by 12%. We also know that every minute a student is out of their classes means that they are less likely to be on task and more likely to miss critical instruction.

These practices contribute to what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a system of policies and practices that push students out of school and into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. This year’s racial equity report card finds that the school to prison pipeline has three key entry points: academic failure, school discipline, and court involvement — and that students of color are overrepresented at each entry point to the pipeline in almost every school district in North Carolina. Once students enter the pipeline, it can be difficult for them to re-engage and be successful at school.

Another subject that frequently arises is the role of school resource officers, or SROs, in schools. The intended purpose of the SRO program is to create and maintain safe, secure, and orderly educational environments by placing law enforcement officers in schools. School districts across the country have begun to reconsider the role of SROs and police on school grounds. While some consider these officers vital to protecting students from violence, especially mass school shootings, others question whether the presence of police in schools has a disproportionate impact on students of color regarding discipline and arrests. More than a quarter of North Carolina school resource officers suggest that more or improved training would improve the job of a school resource officer statewide.

All of this data brings up the urgent question of what we as a state can do to reduce discipline disparities, equalize opportunities for Black and Brown students, and ensure all students are safe and well-equipped to access a sound basic education, as our constitution guarantees. Today we discussed a number of goals to work toward:

  1. Collect better data. We need to collect more discipline data at the school and district level that is disaggregated by race. Better data can help us shine a light on areas of disproportionality or disparity as well as lift up successes that have been gained.
  2. Revise or redesign codes of conduct to align with social and emotional learning and reduce the vague or subjective discipline categories such as disrespect, disruptive behavior or insubordination. Developing a code of conduct or code of character that is more strengths-based and focuses on supporting the whole child, while still striving for safety, can be an important step.
  3. Implement restorative justice practices. Restorative justice programs, when implemented with fidelity, have proven to be effective in decreasing the overall incidence of student misbehavior as well as reducing racial gaps. Restorative practices must include significant professional learning opportunities and be implemented with fidelity in order to transform school culture.
  4. Invest in more school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses. In North Carolina, our schools are significantly understaffed by these critical mental health professionals. The benefits of investing in school support personnel, however, are clear: schools with robust student support services see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, higher graduation rates, and improved safety; as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents.

The focus on equity and the whole child provides an important lens through which to consider discipline and restorative practices in schools. I would venture to say that each child comes to us in kindergarten wanting to learn and be successful. To ensure that comes to pass, we must transform our schools into safe, supportive environments that prepare our students for college, career, and citizenship, instead of employing harmful or exclusionary discipline practices in our schools that work against our collective learning goals. Together, we can work toward policy solutions that support equity and achieve positive learning environments for all.

Thank you for taking time with us to learn and think about education. That’s all for today, and we’ll see you next week.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.