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5.13 Discipline and Safety: Who Rules the School?

School discipline is important, but there’s a catch…

5.13 Discipline and Safety

Chaos and learning don’t generally mix well. Discipline is a critical element of a functioning school, and international research suggests that order in the classroom is an essential quality for an effective place for learning.

Order in the classroom

Some teachers are masters at bringing their classes to order, and their techniques are worthy of study. Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion offers practical tips based on successful teachers. The New Teacher Center (a Full Circle Fund grant recipient) helps train coaches for new teachers, who may struggle to establish order in their classroom. Learning the techniques of classroom control is a part of most teacher induction programs.

When kids get into trouble at school, teachers must decide how to respond. Should they ignore it?

When kids get into trouble at school, teachers must decide how to respond. Should they ignore it? Should they call a parent? Should they call in the principal or another school leader? Should the student sit in the corner, or in another room? Each case is different, and the range of responses can be enormous. Schools and districts create discipline policies to help teachers respond acceptably and to communicate with students and parents about behavior expectations and the consequences for bad behavior.

In most states of the south, the range of responses for school discipline may still include spanking, slapping and other forms of corporal punishment. Proponents of these practices, which are prohibited under California law, argue that they serve an effective deterrent purpose, and that administering them is less damaging to students than suspension or expulsion, which remove students from the learning environment. Opponents argue that inflicting physical pain is barbaric and sets a bad example for conflict resolution. In order to have some way of creating consequences for bad behavior, some schools (and many more teachers) create positive reward systems for good behavior, such as special recognition, in-class movies and the like. Withholding such incentives can help create consequences that students care about.

Danger in the classroom: Zero tolerance?

Each year more than 200,000 school-age children in California are arrested. About half that number end up in a juvenile court, and in turn about two-thirds of those children are declared wards of the state. Obviously, some adolescents find their way into further trouble.  More than 10,000 students in California are in a state or county juvenile incarceration facility, at enormous cost to the public. For those interested in learning more, the California Legislative Analyst Office’s primer on California’s Criminal Justice System is a helpful source.

5.13 Arrested

The US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) collects data about school safety and crime. The data are eye-popping. For example, in the 2011 survey seven percent of students in grades 9-12 reported being threatened or injured with a weapon, such as a gun, knife, or club, on school property. Ten percent of teachers in city schools reported being threatened with bodily harm.

Federal law requires that students who bring guns to school be expelled. California, like other states, also has zero tolerance for additional offenses…

Sometimes things get out of hand. Under a policy called zero tolerance, federal law requires that students who bring guns to school be expelled. California, like many other states, also has zero tolerance for additional offenses, such as brandishing a knife, possessing controlled substances, and sexual assault. At the time that these mandatory expulsion laws were passed, states often added additional provisions that gave local districts the option to suspend or expel students for a variety of other offenses. Districts in turn adopted their own policies and approaches related to “zero tolerance” in an effort to assure that schools are safe and based on the theory that stringent behavior codes would work to prevent the most serious misbehaviors.

Unless a student’s misbehavior requires police involvement, a school’s main official disciplinary options are detention, suspension, and expulsion.

In 2011, the Justice Center and PPRI sponsored “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” an extensive analysis of empirical data about disciplinary practices in the state of Texas. The report quantified what many suspected: boys end up in trouble in school more often than girls, and black and Latino students end up in trouble more often than white and Asian students.

There is a real possibility that detentions, suspensions and expulsions may actually do harm.

Vigorous and fair enforcement of rules seems like a good idea, but there is disappointingly little evidence that zero tolerance improves outcomes for students. In fact, there is a real possibility that detentions, suspensions and expulsions may actually do harm. Removing young people from the active learning environment may turn those students toward permanent school failure without making schools safer or more effective.

Alternatives to Zero Tolerance

A growing chorus of researchers, educators, and advocates say that alternatives to zero tolerance do more to result in safe, orderly campuses. They argue that students can and should be explicitly taught how to behave in the school setting, even under provocation. They make the case that a more flexible approach to discipline can keep a much greater number of students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

A 2008 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) set out principles to guide local schools and districts toward more effective discipline policies.The report takes the position that local policies should make it absolutely clear to students, staff, and parents that certain behaviors or offenses are unacceptable under any circumstances. But the report further recommends:

  • Expulsion is reserved for only the most serious offenses that place other students or staff in jeopardy of physical or emotional harm.
  • Focus is on keeping students in an active learning environment, even in a separate facility if necessary.
  • Teachers/staff have a cascade of escalating options for discipline, plus a clear method for making appropriate discipline choices.
  • The disciplinary policy specifies a continuum of possible actions and consequences and provides guidance to school personnel regarding permissible or recommended consequences for a given severity of behavior.
  • Behaviors subject to disciplinary action are carefully and clearly defined.
  • Teachers and staff have discretion in handling all but the most serious or serial infractions.
  • Local communities institute systems in which education, mental health, juvenile justice, and other youth-serving agencies collaborate to develop integrated services.
  • The system assures that juvenile offenders who are not a danger to others remain in school.


Behavior programs aim to modify an area of behavior for a specific age-group. Some are preventative programs for all children and others work as interventions. Restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems (PBIS) are two common examples. The research literature also makes a strong case that parents and community members have a strong role to play.

All California school districts must include school climate outcome measures beginning with their 2014-15 Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

All California school districts must include school climate outcome measures beginning with their 2014-15 Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The required indicators include pupil suspension and expulsion rates, to which local measures of safety and school connectedness can be added.

Organizations such as the Ella Baker Center (a Full Circle grant recipient) provide a valuable public service by intervening to help at-risk kids stay in school and out of trouble. Full Circle has also supported the Niroga Institute, which has studied approaches to reducing school violence and conflict by teaching students techniques of self-control through the practice of yoga.

This lesson concludes this chapter on “places for learning.” The next chapter examines the “stuff” of learning, including curriculum, assessments, technology, and more.

Join the Discussion

  • What are your school’s policies for responding to student misbehavior? Are those policies effective?
  • Find your school’s School Accountability Report Card (SARC). Does it accurately reflect student safety in your school?
  • Does your school invest in programs to help students learn to manage conflict and “take it down a notch?” Do the programs work?

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  • lb2vta@yahoo.com says:

    I would like to see a separate lesson on the topic of school safety for situations such as: Lock Down, Wind Storms, Earthquake. Discipline is somewhat related to safety in my opinion, but there are major gaps with respect to child safety protocols at school.