Harsh School Discipline Practices Challenged

Last Updated: January 28, 2010

This article appeared in the January 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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Zero tolerance and other harsh school discipline practices are getting a second look in two states. Policies that impose stringent punishments without consideration of circumstances are coming under increased scrutiny nationally.
These one-size-fits-all approaches have been shown ineffective in curbing student misbehaviors and have created a school-to-prison pipeline that increases the likelihood that a student with disciplinary problems in school, including very minor or only alleged infractions, will end up incarcerated by a juvenile justice system or by an adult criminal court of law.
Curbs on Zero Tolerance Proposed in Georgia
Georgia state senator Emanuel Jones has pre-filed a bill that would require that students have a hearing before a judge prior to being incarcerated. Under existing law, children can be sent directly from school to jail. Jones says he believes the abuse of zero tolerance policies “cuts across both rural and urban school districts.”
Under Jones’ proposed amendment, schools would no longer be required to call police when certain disciplinary violations occur, although they could call if needed. The proposal has the support of the Georgia Association of Educators and the Georgia School Superintendent Association.
Discipline and School Funding Cases Linked in North Carolina
In King v. Beaufort Co. Board of Education, a student who received a long-term suspension for involvement in a school fight challenged the school board decision to deny her any education during the suspension. At issue is whether denying education to a student who has broken school rules violates the Leandro school finance case holding that all students in North Carolina have a constitutionally-protected right to a sound, basic education.
This is a novel use of a school finance decision in a disciplinary situation. The Court of Appeals rejected the argument in October, stating in its majority opinion that nothing in the school finance cases indicated that the fundamental right to an education applied in matters of school discipline, an area typically left to the discretion of the legislature. Plaintiff lawyers plan to appeal.
A group of advocacy organizations from around the country has submitted a friend of the court brief on behalf of the student plaintiffs. The brief argues that exclusionary discipline jeopardizes students’ fundamental right to an education and that school discipline should not be carved out as an issue separate from the Leandro-guaranteed education. The brief claims, “In effect each student’s fundamental right to an education would be conditional and subject to revocation provided a school official could offer a rational disciplinary basis for doing so.”
The brief was signed by Advocates for Children’s Services, The Advancement Project, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the ACLU, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, Education Law Center, and other organizations and individuals working with and on behalf of youth whose educational opportunities are jeopardized by the use of exclusionary disciplinary practices.
Nationally, North Carolina has the fourth highest suspension rate among states.
In a separate action, school board members in Wake County (Raleigh), the state’s largest school district, are asking that zero-tolerance policies be reviewed, and one board member has asked for a temporary suspension of the policies while the review takes place. Wake County suspends some students for the entire school year under its long-term suspension policies, which go beyond suspension rules set forth in state law. Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina recently released a report on the school-to-prison pipeline in Wake County.
Read more:
News about zero tolerance bill filed in Georgia:
News about the discipline case in North Carolina:
News about Wake County addressing zero tolerance:

Read more from the January 2010 Rural Policy Matters.