WHEN the gunshots sounded outside Houston Elementary School, Rembert Seaward and Darryl Webster, the principal and the school social worker, scrambled to the ground and ducked for cover. But one young pupil remained standing and then started to laugh—“It’s nothing but some gunshots,” they recall him saying. He told them that he would regularly play with his father’s TEC-9, a brand of semi-automatic pistol. “You think they’re just six, what life experiences could they have?” says Mr Webster. “You’d be surprised. There’s no normalcy.” Nearly every pupil attending Houston Elementary in Washington, DC, is poor and many have a parent in jail. Some live in homeless shelters and have never had a birthday party, until Mr Webster hosts one. Unsurprisingly, misbehaviour is common. But unlike many other schools, disruptive pupils are hardly ever suspended. “We need to teach them that there is some degree of love in the world,” Mr Seaward says.
Across the country school principals and teachers—both in traditional public schools and charter schools—are rethinking their approach to suspensions and expulsions for bad behaviour. In the past few years many of the largest school districts have revised their policies to reduce suspensions. Liberal reformers, citing racial disparities in suspension and the criminalisation of young black men, would like to see further reductions. Defenders of the old disciplinary model, including Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, think that the pendulum has swung too far and is harming school safety. Both reach well beyond the current evidence.
In the 1990s school districts began adopting strict “zero-tolerance” policies for even minor infractions. One young pupil was suspended for chewing his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun; a nine-year-old was made to undergo psychiatric evaluation after threatening to use a rubber band to shoot a bit of paper at a schoolmate; a six-year-old was suspended for bringing a toenail-clipper to school.
Black pupils were nearly four times as likely to receive a suspension as whites in the 2013-2014 school year, the latest for which data are available. The same racial imbalances exist even for pre-school, where pupils are usually four years old or younger, and they have grown over time. The Obama administration issued guidelines noting that disciplinary policies could be racially discriminatory if they had a “disparate impact” on minorities—even if they were enforced even-handedly. This scared many districts into rewriting their rules to avoid a federal investigation.
Several complicating factors outside the control of schools, like the greater exposure of black children to poverty, crime and eviction, could account for their elevated rates of suspension and expulsion. One of the cleverest studies to try and assess actual racial bias used data on school fights between white pupils and black ones in the state of Louisiana, and calculated the differences in punishment. The authors found only a very slight disparity—the black pupils were suspended for an additional 0.05 days, compared with whites. The idea that there is a school-to-prison pipeline for young black boys, a phrase often used by reformers, is a bit shaky too. National statistics show that only 0.63% of public-school children are arrested at school or referred to the police.
“It would be the easiest thing in the world to cut the suspension rate to 0% tomorrow,” says Jon Clark, co-director of the Brooke Charter Schools, a well-regarded network in Boston. But simply refusing to suspend misbehaving children would be damaging for their classmates, whose learning would deteriorate in the face of disruption, and for their teachers, whose jobs would be made much more difficult.
Yet many schools are already turning to less punitive schemes. One programme, called Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support (PBIS), tries to improve schools by explicitly teaching good conduct as though it were any other subject. Another strategy, known as restorative justice, does not take offending children out of the classroom but teaches them to acknowledge that others have been harmed by their actions and then to make a plan to put things right. Both approaches seem to result in better behaviour.
High-performing charters have often been criticised for their strict disciplinary codes, which detractors claim are used to force difficult children out, thereby improving scores. That criticism may be dated, as many charters have revised their policies to be less severe. “We don’t do militaristic discipline—one of our main themes is love,” says Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Schools, a network of 25 charters in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, which uses restorative justice. Those who do misbehave are moved to a “peace corner” and then to a “restorative conference”.
KIPP charter schools, which acquired a reputation for excellent results and strictly regulated behaviour, has now relaxed its attitude. The network is “getting rid of its focus on detention and demerits” in favour of recognising “curiosity, grit and resourcefulness”, says Richard Barth, the organisation’s CEO. KIPP’s Philadelphia schools stopped using the “bench”, where misbehaving pupils were made to sit apart from classmates, in 2009, and has not expelled a pupil for several years, says Marc Mannella, the head of the regional office. Behaviour is kept in check in other ways. At KIPP Philadelphia Elementary, eight-year-old pupils practise centring themselves for the day ahead with a yoga session.