National, state, and local research, policy and advocacy to improve the lives of kids

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Building Healthy Communities Project to Measure School Climate

On July 1, 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the most comprehensive reform to California’s school funding system in 40 years. Under LCFF, every district must develop a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). The LCAP is a three-year plan which is updated annually and includes measurable goals for student outcomes corresponding to eight priority areas.

School climate is one of the eight priority areas that must be addressed within each district’s LCAP. While there is no single definition of school climate, measures of school climate can include “(a) order, safety, and discipline; (b) academic supports; (c) personal and social relationships; (d) maintenance of school facilities; and (e) school connectedness.”

Research has shown that students who attend schools with a more positive school climate do better academically. One proven way of improving school climate is to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Effective alternatives to punitive discipline strategies include Restorative Justice (RJ) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) models. At their core, these models encourage respect and strengthen relationships while also holding students accountable for their actions. Implementing such alternative approaches to school discipline can lead to lower suspension and expulsion rates and improve school climate, attendance, and student achievement.

In contrast, punitive school discipline practices negatively impact children. For example, 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 within one year of the original incident.

Schools can suspend or expel students for a number of reasons. “Willful defiance” – intentional disobedience of or disrespect toward an adult or authority figure – is one of the reasons schools cite when suspending or expelling students. When students are suspended or expelled for willful defiance, they miss out on valuable instruction time for minor offenses that can include behaviors such as eye rolling, coming to class late, or talking back to a teacher. And instead of reducing disruptive behaviors, punitive discipline often exacerbates student misconduct.

Punitive school discipline policies also disproportionately affect historically disadvantaged students. Evidence indicates that English language learners, students with disabilities, and African American students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than other students. In fact, African American students can be up to three times more likely to be suspended than their peers.


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