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Lesson 5.13

Discipline and Safety:
Who Rules the School?

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

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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 of an effective place for learning.

Establishing order in the classroom

Some teachers are masters at bringing their classes to order, and their techniques are worthy of study. Doug Lemov's books, including Teach Like a Champion offer practical tips based on successful teachers. The New Teacher Center 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. And, of course, teachers share their classroom control hacks on YouTube:

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

Schools and districts create discipline policies to give teachers guidance about what to do when stuff gets real. Students and parents need to understand behavior expectations and the consequences for bad behavior.

Corporal punishment in schools

School discipline may still include spanking, slapping and other forms of corporal punishment, in at least 18 states as of 2021. These practices are prohibited under California law. However, it’s still a debated method of disciplining students at school.

  • Those who support of corporal punishment options in school argue that it can serve a deterrent purpose, and that it is less damaging to students than measures that 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 create consequences for bad behavior, some schools (and many more teachers) develop positive reward systems for good behavior, such as special recognition, in-class movies, and more. Withholding such incentives can help create consequences that students care about.

Police in schools

Keeping discipline in a classroom can be distracting, especially when things escalate and emotions come into play. Teachers call on one another for help, or escalate issues to administrators. To support schools, some communities employ resource officers, which are badge-bearing police officers assigned to work in schools.

In the wake of multiple violent incidents involving police in 2020, the use of such officers in schools was increasingly called into question. While the research on the subject is nuanced, it is clearly true that the presence of police in schools leads to more arrests - disproportionately of students of color and other minority students. Having an arrest record changes a student’s life, and there is evidence that it can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. The ACLU discusses the effects of police presence on campus discipline in a report titled the Campus Police Toolkit.

Zero tolerance policies

Each year, thousands of 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. The siphoning of students to jail is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Placing students in a state or county juvenile incarceration facility is costly to the public in every sense. It's important to note, though, that the long-term trends are good:

For those interested in learning more, the California Legislative Analyst Office's primer on California's Criminal Justice System is a helpful source.

The juvenile arrest rate peaked in 1996 and has been declining for decades. This isn't to say everything is dandy, of course. Bad stuff happens to kids, and some of it happens in school. The US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) collects data about school safety and crime. The data are eye-popping.

A crime happened at more than three quarters of schools. Half a million girls felt unsafe.

For example, the 2019-20 survey indicated that a crime had happened at more than three quarters (77%) of schools, and nearly half of schools had reported an incident to police (47%). There were violent incidents in 70% of public schools, with 32% reported to police. In a 2019 survey, about 5% of girls aged 12-18 reported that they were "sometimes" or "almost always" afraid that someone would harm them at school, with the rate highest for the youngest respondents. The long-term trend is strongly in the right direction, but a rate of 5% represents half a million girls in America who feel afraid at school. As usual, averages conceal deeper patterns: the survey also found that nearly 7.5% of Black students aged 12-18 and 7% of Hispanic students are afraid of attack or harm during the school year, which is corrosive to a positive school climate.

Teachers don't necessarily feel safe at school, either. In a 2012 survey more than 7% of teachers in California reported having been physically threatened by a student, and more than 4% reported having been physically attacked. According to national statistics, threats and attacks against teachers are significantly more common in elementary schools than in secondary schools.

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

California law establishes that schools are gun-free zones. Federal law calls for zero tolerance — students who bring guns to school must be expelled. The rule is rigidly enforced. On your first offense, you're done.

Like many other states, California also has zero tolerance for additional offenses, such as brandishing a knife, possessing controlled substances, and sexual assault. When these mandatory expulsion laws were passed, states often added additional provisions to give local districts the option to suspend or expel students for a variety of other offenses. Districts in turn adopted their own zero-tolerance policies. The premise of these strict policies is that they help ensure that schools are safe.

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 an extensive analysis of empirical data about disciplinary practices in the state of Texas, titled Breaking Schools' Rules. 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.

Detentions, suspensions and expulsions 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 growing consensus among educators and researchers that detentions, suspensions and expulsions do harm. Strict and punitive disciplinary policies in middle schools lead to measurably bad outcomes for kids and for society. Removing young people from the active learning environment may turn those students toward permanent school failure without making schools safer or more effective.

Responding to these findings, schools in California are strongly reducing the use of suspension in school discipline. Still, the amount of school missed for discipline cases is pretty massive. According to data assembled by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, "In 2016-17, schoolchildren in California lost an estimated 763,690 days of instruction time, a figure based on the combined total of 381,845 in-school suspensions (ISS) and out-of-school suspensions (OSS)."

Alternatives to zero tolerance policies

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.

The APA recommendations include:

Expulsion is rare

Reserve expulsion for only the most serious offenses that place other students or staff in jeopardy of physical or emotional harm.

Separate if necessary

Focus on keeping students in an active learning environment, even in a separate facility if necessary.

Use discretion

Faculty have discretion in handling all but the most serious or serial infractions, using a clear method for making appropriate discipline choices with escalating options.

Define consequences

The disciplinary policy provides guidance to school personnel regarding permissible or recommended consequences for a given severity of the behavior.

Define behaviors

Behaviors subject to disciplinary action are carefully and clearly defined.


Local communities institute systems in which education, mental health, juvenile justice, and other youth-serving agencies collaborate to develop integrated services.

Prevention and Restorative Justice

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 is a process for working with students (both the victim and the accused perpetrator) to come to an individualized solution that repairs the harms caused by crime. Students often meet face-to-face in small groups to talk out their grievances and come to a personalized solution to the problem together. Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems (PBIS) is another common example. 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 in their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

All California school districts must include school climate outcome measures in their 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.

School communities don't have to invent their own programs to reduce conflict — they can turn to organizations that already focus on the issue. For example, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has a strong record of helping schools intervene to help at-risk kids stay in school and out of trouble. The Niroga Institute has studied approaches to reducing school violence and conflict by teaching students techniques of self-control through the practice of yoga.

Schools are getting safer

Although there is plenty of room for improvement, there is also plenty of reason for optimism about school safety. By every available measure, schools appear to be growing safer. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) collects survey data about incidents, and the long-term trend is clearly good. (The chart shows the percentage of students aged 12-18 who reported having been a victim during the previous 12 months. using data from the survey. More data can be found in the 2021 Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety.

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

Updated July 2017, June 2018, October 2018, August 2021, August 2022, November 2022.


If a student brings a gun to school, what disciplinary action is expected?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder December 5, 2023 at 7:31 pm
The "Good Behavior Game" is a very low-cost approach with lots of research support, including a full analysis and endorsement from the What Works Clearinghouse. Watch this 6-minute, well-done video about it before plunging into the research.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 7:41 pm
How Are Suspensions Related to School Climate in California Middle Schools?
From West Ed

An analysis of suspension rates and school climate at California middle schools finds that climate improved the most in schools with the greatest declines in out-of-school suspension rates. And there was no evidence that reduced suspension rates led to reduced safety.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 6:56 pm
The details of juvenile justice and the education system is a bit of a mystery to many.
The legislative analyst simplifies this for us in its "Overview of Juvenile Justice System and Education Services in Juvenile Facilities."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 11, 2022 at 5:57 pm
CDE State Guidance for New Laws on Discipline 2021
Suspension can do more harm than good. Sending a student home from school does not address the root cause of a student’s behavior; it removes students from the learning environment; and it has a disproportionate impact on African American students and students with disabilities, among other marginalized groups that are underperforming academically and overrepresented in our criminal justice system. Legislation in recent years, reflecting extensive research, has sought to minimize the use and impact of suspension.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 24, 2021 at 9:10 pm
I recommend the documentary "Homeroom" that was first presented at Sundance and is now available on Hulu about a group of Oakland High School students working to remove police from their campus. This also happened to occur during the beginning of pandemic and death of George Floyd.
user avatar Madrigal July 12, 2020 at 10:26 am
Find the reason that kids are bringing guns to school, and start fixing the problem from there.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 9, 2019 at 7:36 am
I’d like to hear more about kids with disabilities who are expelled from school. Behavioral issues seem to be an easy out even for public schools. I have friends who are dealing with these issues constantly. One has been fighting to keep her son in school since he was five.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 4:52 pm
The alternatives to suspension especially (you have been chronically tardy, so we'll suspend you from school, has seemed an inane approach forever), are especially important to develop. Anything that will get the student back on the learning track is welcomed. Tardiness has to be deconstructed (some kids are chronically tardy because their parents can't or won't make the effort, other kids are late or ditching school altogether). Students who disrupt a class are a different kettle of fish--what is driving the disruptiveness has to be deconstructed carefully: an undiagnosed learning disorder? awful home situation? underlying ailment such as hypoglycemia? needing a different learning environment?
user avatar
Caryn January 30, 2019 at 10:14 am
Thanks Susannah, I think your comment really illustrates the complexities that California teachers face in the classroom. Leading a successful class is a breeze when you have a room full of...robots. But these are children who all come from homes and backgrounds that can differ dramatically even within the same zip code. We ask A LOT from our teachers in addition to actual teaching. Giving them the training and support to keep as many kids as possible in their classroom and learning certainly seems like a step in the right direction.
user avatar
nkbird August 10, 2018 at 12:58 pm
Zero-tolerance policies are *supposed* to provide clarity and ensure that rules are enforced equally for all groups. However spend enough time in school and you will experience something silly because of zero tolerance policies. On the one hand we seem to want to take judgement away from school leaders in case they made the wrong call... But on the other hand this sometimes means that they are constrained from making the right call.
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 14, 2018 at 9:53 pm
EdSource kicked off an informative three-post series on Restorative Justice in May 2018. I liked the first of the three posts particularly for the way it illustrates one of the themes of Ed100: education is by nature a personal undertaking, but education systems in California have to operate at massive scale. It's hard to scale up the soft-skills aspect of things that happen in classrooms.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 4, 2017 at 9:44 am
EdSource provides a way to look up California Suspension and Expulsion Rates.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 5, 2017 at 11:10 am
In California and other states, rates of student suspension have plummeted. As usual when there is a sharp change in a statistic about education, it's a good idea to squint at the data. The big change has more to do with policy than with the underlying reality. Suspensions are out of fashion as a penalty for misbehavior, for reasons that are based in logic: kicking students out of school might not help them. But the research on the overall impact of this policy shift is unclear. Does dialing back the use of suspensions make misbehavior worse? T74 summarizes the debate over whether "restorative justice" practices work.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 13, 2017 at 9:45 am
More on this subject from GreatSchools:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 3:24 pm

Why Are 19 States Still Allowing Corporal Punishment in Schools? Read the study from the National Education Association:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 9, 2015 at 10:48 am
Education pundit Michael Petrilli argues that disruptive students do particular harm to the education of "strivers," students in low-income schools that need and deserve support and protection. He proposes several policies:
user avatar
Mamabear March 20, 2015 at 5:06 pm
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.
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