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NAACP Legal Defense Fund Applauds Introduction of Bipartisan Bill to Reform Approaches to School Discipline

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10/12/11

Washington, D.C. – Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (“LDF”) joined other civil rights and education groups in supporting introduction of the Positive Behavior for Safe and Effective Schools Act (PBSESA) - a bill to fund positive, preventative approaches to discipline in U.S. schools. The bipartisan bill, sponsored by U.S. Representatives Danny Davis (D, IL -7th), Todd Platts (R, PA- 19th), Bobby Scott (D, VA-3rd), and Chris Murphy (D, CT-5th), focuses on alternatives to harsh and exclusionary discipline, and highlights School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports (“SWPBS”) as an appropriate use of funds under several titles of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  An earlier version of the bill was introduced by then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007.

SWPBS, an evidence-based approach to school discipline, has been shown to reduce disciplinary referrals, improve school attendance rates, support gains in academic achievement, and improve teacher perceptions of safety and morale.  Over 10,000 U.S. schools have adopted SWPBS to improve school discipline and support a healthy learning environment – with marked results. For example, Alton Middle School, the third largest school in Illinois, which has utilized SWPBS since 2007, has recorded a 32 percent drop in disciplinary referrals; a 26 percent drop in suspensions; and marked decrease in racial disparities in discipline between students of color and their white peers.

“Support for practices like SWPBS could not come at a more critical time,” said Eric Gonzalez, Education Policy Advocate for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  “Our nation’s discipline rates are at their all-time highs – double those of the 1970s.  Students deserve better and educators need options.”  

As discipline rates increase dramatically, racial disparities in school discipline only continue to widen.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, African-American students are nearly 3 times as likely to be suspended and 3.5 times as likely to be expelled as their white peers.  Latino students are 1.5 times as likely to be suspended and twice as likely to be expelled as their white peers.

Beyond their discriminatory impact, exclusionary discipline policies such as “zero tolerance” are proven to be ineffective at best, and are often counterproductive because they fail to keep schools safer and undermine student achievement.  Research from leading professional organizations offers a stern warning on the harms of “zero tolerance” discipline and reliance on suspensions, expulsions, and arrests to address school behavior.   According to the American Psychological Association, reliance on “zero tolerance” has counterproductive impact – it has not resulted in proven gains in school safety but is associated with school drop-out, involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and lower school-wide test scores.  Advocates, parents, and educators alike have called for alternatives.  Other organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found similar results.  And a recent study by the Council of State Governments regarding the impact of school discipline in Texas found that suspensions and expulsions significantly increase the likelihood that students will repeat a grade, fail to graduate, and/or become involved in the juvenile justice system.

“We simply cannot close the so-called ‘achievement gap’ or end the ‘dropout crisis’ if we don’t take a hard look at disciplinary practices,” said Matt Cregor, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  “There is a clearly emerging ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ in this country and it is at its worst for young males of color. We must act immediately at the local, state, and federal levels to dismantle it.  Approaches like SWPBS and restorative practices can aid us in this effort.”

 Positive Behavior for Effective Schools Act:

  • Supports schools moving toward discipline reform by permitting State education agencies to use funds under Title I of the ESEA to provide technical assistance and support to schools as they implement SWPBS. Schools may use funds to improve school climate and academic achievement.
  • Shifts the focus from Individual Incidents to Overall School Climate by amending the needs assessments for use of funds under Title II of the ESEA, so that the needs assessments may take into account improvement of school climate in awarding subgrants for professional development.
  • Focuses on Solutions instead of Problems by amending the ESEA’s Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities provision to include support for programs, such as SWPBS, that improve school climate and reduce discipline problems.  It also amends school counseling provisions, to ensure that applications for grants should include information on the need for behavioral intervention services, such as SWPBS.