School Climate & Discipline
Students in positive school climates feel safe at school, connected to peers and supported by teachers and staff. They also do better academically, are more likely to graduate, and are less likely to participate in risk-taking behaviors like drug use and gang involvement. Despite the importance of school climate, only 45% of students in California feel highly connected to their school– a key indicator of a positive climate.
Students who have been expelled or suspended are six times more likely to repeat a grade, five times more likely to drop out of high school, and three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system. Yet, over 500,000 suspensions were issued in California schools during the 2013-14 school year.
Reducing suspensions and expulsions is a critical way to improve school climate. Unfair, punitive school discipline policies negatively impact kids and disproportionately affect historically underserved students, including English language learners, students with disabilities and African American students. For example, African American students are up to three times more likely to be suspended than their peers.
Alternatives, like restorative justice practices, which encourage respect, strengthen relationships and still hold students accountable, can lead to lower suspension and expulsion rates and improve school climate, attendance, and student achievement. In 2012, Oakland Unified School District expanded schoolwide restorative justice programs to select middle and high schools. Since this time, participating schools have cut suspension rates by half from 34 to 14%, decreased chronic absence among middle school students by nearly 25% and increased four-year high school graduation rates from 45 to 72%. Alternative discipline models are also linked to higher student achievement, making it the better choice for schools and for our state’s kids.
Pro-Kid® Policy Agenda
California should improve school climate and student engagement by working to eliminate inequitable suspension and expulsion policies, which result in the loss of valuable instructional time. The state should overhaul teacher and administrator training and professional development to emphasize positive discipline practices and to increase awareness of how trauma can be a contributing factor to behavioral issues.
In the last few years, California has made notable progress in reducing student suspensions and expulsions. This is partially due to a new state law banning suspensions for willful defiance, a subjective category of overly broad and minor offenses, for K-3rd grade, and expulsions based on willful defiance for all students. The new law is especially important for students of color, LGBT students and students with disabilities who are disproportionately impacted by suspension and expulsion. Some districts, including San Francisco and Los Angeles Unified School Districts, have banned willful defiance suspensions for all grades. This will help ensure California children don’t miss out on valuable class time for minor offenses. More training and stronger efforts to eliminate willful defiance suspensions in the upper grades are still needed.