“When teachers don’t know what to do with unruly students, they sometimes look to the easiest solution they have at hand,” Jason Berkenfeld LAW ’17 said in an interview with The Politic. “Our schools have a problem with how quickly [teachers] turn to severe punishment.”
In Connecticut, when students misbehave, many teachers send them home or to in-school suspension. According to a report by Connecticut Voices for Children, a nonprofit organization that promotes the wellbeing of children through research and advocacy, children enrolled in Connecticut schools in 2006 and 2007 missed over a quarter of a million days combined due to out-of-school suspensions.
“The negative impacts of exclusionary discipline on a student are varied,” said Alexandra Ricks, an associate policy fellow at Connecticut Voices, in an email to The Politic. “We are in favor of laws…that encourage handling any behavioral issues within the school/class when possible.”
Educators have long debated how to effectively discipline students. Some teachers prefer traditional methods of demerits and detentions while others prefer positive reinforcement. On the extreme end of discipline are suspension and expulsion, which start as early as preschool and can disrupt a student’s education.
“While the traditional approach of suspension and expulsion [gives] teachers an easy out for dealing with difficult students and uncomfortable situations, it [doesn’t] help schools fulfill their mission to educate students, help them graduate and become successful adults,” said Connecticut Appleseed, a nonprofit that serves low-income residents, in a 2011 statement.
When tension escalates in the classroom, teachers often resort to harsh disciplinary measures. In many cases, these measures can be avoided. Another study by Connecticut Voices found that, in 2011, roughly one in 200 students was arrested for behavioral issues. And at least 11 percent of those arrests were “easily avoidable.”
“We have to be doing something wrong if some teachers think that that is their only option,” Berkenfeld said.
The problem begins during the preschool years, before children even start formal schooling.
Until a decade ago, practically no research documented expulsions and suspensions in American preschools. But in May 2005, Walter Gilliam, an associate professor in the Yale Child Study Center and of Psychology, as well as the Director of the Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, published a landmark study entitled “Prekindergarteners Left Behind.”
“Based on current enrollment rates, an estimated 5,117 prekindergarten students across the nation are expelled each year,” said the report. “This rate is 3.2 times higher than the national rate of expulsion for K-12 students.”
In an interview with The Politic, Gilliam attributed high preschool expulsion rates to the lack of federal laws mandating preschool attendance. There is no due process to protect preschool students from expulsion and suspension, a paucity that results in what Gilliam calls “soft expulsions.”
“Soft expulsions occur when a kid has a challenging behavior, leading the school to call the parents earlier and earlier in the day to pick up the kid,” Gilliam explained. “For working parents, this means preschool is no longer a viable childcare option anymore, and they eventually withdraw their child from the school altogether, if they’re not asked to leave first.”
Expulsion in preschool can result from something as simple as restlessness or misunderstanding. If a child is prone to bolting out of the classroom without notice or climbing on furniture, a teacher can classify this child as a “liability” to the safety of everyone in the classroom. Zero-tolerance policies make it even easier to justify extreme disciplinary measures because they allow administrators to immediately expel students who violate school policy, regardless of the specific situation.
For instance, Gilliam recounted a story of one preschool teacher who smelled something suspicious in a three year-old’s backpack. She eventually discovered that the boy had brought a stash of marijuana to school, and the student was suspended immediately, even though he didn’t even know what he had done wrong.
“The reason for the suspension was not because he was dealing,” Gilliam said. “It was because his mother’s boyfriend needed to hide the weed from the cops. It didn’t change anything.”
Similar policies prohibit children from bringing in objects that merely resemble weapons, such as water guns, and force administrators to promptly dismiss a student for having them, even if it is just an accident.
The 2005 study found that Connecticut had the seventh highest rate of preschool expulsions and suspensions in the country. Gilliam’s work helped produce two potential solutions to the problem: behavioral consultation programs for teachers and legislation that prevents preschools from using disciplinary measures as a tool to manipulate enrollment.
“Without this prohibitive legislation, they’ll just find another way to be choosy in the kids they select for the preschool,” Gilliam continued. “If we just have intervention without legislation, no matter how easy we make it to access the consultation programs, it’ll still be easier to sit down with the parents and tell them not to come back.”
Currently, Connecticut is the only state to have both a consultation program and prohibitive legislation. The state-funded behavioral consultation program began in 2002 and has since expanded. It offers several months of discipline consultation to teachers, free of charge. In 2015, Connecticut’s legislature placed a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through grade two.
As students enter middle and upper school, the process for suspension and expulsion is more “legalized,” according to Gilliam. A 2007 statute adjusted the laws governing these types of discipline to ensure that students would only face out-of-school suspensions if their behavior posed a clear danger to others.
“The [previous] statutes [did] not provide for any flexibility when handling students and allow the school boards to work with the children to find how they should best be punished,” said Representative Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., former Minority Leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives, in a public testimony for the 2007 legislation. Cafero gave the example of a student who vandalized a school with racist material being forced to attend an NAACP meeting and write a report on it as punishment.
“Helping the student learn from their mistake by confronting the reason it occurred is better for the student and the community, rather than just removing them from the educational environment for a week,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with this approach. Joe Cirasuolo, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and former superintendent in both the Clinton and Wallingford school districts, told The Politic that the “matter of expulsion and suspension is being handled quite well” by Connecticut schools.
“Twice as a building administrator, I took a look at the students who were suspended [on] average for three days, [and] 80 percent were never suspended again,” said Cirasuolo. “It was an effective means of discipline.”
He also advocated for a mastery-based, student-centered learning approach as a way to prevent the need for extreme discipline in the first place.
“Students who are successfully engaged in learning tend to require less discipline. When [students] engage in learning, they don’t misbehave,” he said. “They start to own their own learning, and they thrive on it.”
Recent evidence seems to align with Cirasuolo’s observations. According to a report from the Connecticut State Board of Education, the use of extreme discipline has decreased in Connecticut schools.
The research also found disparities in the use of these disciplinary measures based on factors like race, socioeconomic status, and gender. For example, it revealed that the rate of sanctions against black and Hispanic males was two to three times higher than the rate of sanctions against their white counterparts.
“Our research [at Connecticut Voices] has consistently indicated that exclusionary discipline (expulsions, suspensions, and arrests) disproportionately impacts students of color, low-income students, and special education students,” Ricks said.
Evidence also suggests that early childhood suspension and expulsion disproportionately affect males and minority students. Last year, a study from the Yale Child Study Center found that “black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more suspensions relative to white preschoolers.” Even though black children only make up 19 percent of enrolled preschoolers, they represent 47 percent of preschoolers suspended one or more times. The same study also found that boys are three times as likely as girls to be suspended.
“When these [biases] lead to important decisions regarding how we choose to educate our youngest citizen learners, or deny educational opportunities through preschool expulsions and
suspensions, the potential for lasting harm is great,” concluded the report, which was released last year.
Despite the decrease in overall disciplinary measures, Connecticut Voices found that “school arrests, expulsions, in-school suspensions, and out-of-school suspensions all peak in ninth grade.” Students’ disobedience during this period might simply be attributed to a difficult transition.
Just as in preschool, punishments in higher grade levels disproportionately target minority and low-income students. Of all students receiving out-of-school suspensions in 2013, roughly a third were black and another third were Hispanic/Latino, even though these groups comprised only 13 percent and 20 percent of the student population respectively.
Alan Bruce, an associate professor of sociology and director of the criminal justice program at Quinnipiac University, told the Connecticut Post that it is not a difference in behavior that justifies this imbalance: It’s racism.
“The most fundamental question would be—are minority students more problematic?” Bruce said. “In other words, is their behavior worse? And the data suggests that their behavior is not worse.”
The ramifications of reactionary discipline are difficult to miss. Early childhood programs provide the necessary academic and social skills many children need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. Without them, kids can be left playing catch-up well into their elementary years.
“The negative impacts of exclusionary discipline on a student are varied, and those students [affected] tend to be less likely to graduate, have lower academic achievement, and complete fewer years of school,” said Ricks.
When students miss out on valuable class time, an achievement gap emerges. A report by the Connecticut Department of Education found that students who had been subjected to out-of-class disciplinary sanctions tended to score lower on the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Proficiency Test.
Extreme punishment in schools can also contribute to other major issues like mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. Statistics published by Community Coalition, an organization in South Los Angeles that works to reduce crime and poverty, show that two-thirds of all males in state and federal prison do not have a high school diploma. While Connecticut is slowly making progress to curb these practices, there is still plenty of work to be done.
“Today, we are having conversations about how to address issues such as criminal justice and mass incarceration, but the way we discipline in our schools has a direct link [to these issues],” Berkenfeld said. “We have to get our schools in the right place before we can fix these other problems. There are meaningful changes we could make. We just need to open up the dialogue.”