Failings of the Current U.S Exclusionary Discipline Regime and Possible Positive Alternatives

By Gavin Alvarado

Photo by FangXiaNuo


Disciplinary action and exclusion always stokes discussion regarding its issues of disparity and overuse. Advocates of traditionalist teaching styles might argue that disciplinary action in both its current and historical forms instill in students a deep respect for authority and a fear of repercussions for wrongdoings. Alternatively, with the development of newer disciplinary strategies in the modern era, others advocate for a more holistic, less punitive approach.


In the past, corporal punishment served as the de facto method of student discipline in the United States. In the absence of regulation regarding disciplinary measures and actions, this form took precedence in school systems of all types. The 1977 US Supreme Court ruling Ingraham v. Wright, however, left the issue up to individual states’ discretion resulting in widespread outlawing of corporal punishment and a decline in its popularity. It was in the wake of this disciplinary vacuum that exclusionary discipline rose to prominence as the most common practice within US schools. The new standard of discipline shifted from physical harm to removal and ostracization of students within their learning environment. To that end, the use of exclusionary discipline is often characterized as less physically and emotionally harmful than alternatives such as corporal punishment. This is not necessarily the case, however.


In fact, data shows that the use of exclusionary discipline is highly correlated with negative outcomes in a variety of areas applying to both individuals and institutions. These outcomes include academic stagnation, such as a widening of performance gaps between students affected and unaffected by exclusionary discipline. An increased rate of academic disengagement and a heightened dropout rate is also common. Additionally, from a socioemotional standpoint, removal of students from a classroom setting has the potential to negatively impact their self-perception. This can manifest in a few ways, including a perception of the school and institution as uncaring and adversarial, as well as a feeling of alienation from one’s teachers and academic cohort. The consequences of exclusionary practices may even extend beyond the individual and affect the broader learning institution. For instance, the widespread overuse of exclusionary discipline in schools can have the associated effect of eroding educational stakeholders’ (students and school community members’) perception of the quality of the school’s climate and learning environment. This, in turn, has the potential to reduce stakeholders’ continued investment in improving school climate and learning opportunities, thereby contributing to further suspension/expulsion of students who are now more disengaged. Keeping these factors in mind, coupled with the fact that the discipline in and of itself does not even correlate to a reduction in misbehavior or future disciplinary interventions, it is no wonder that the discourse surrounding alternative behavioral interventions has sparked discussion in recent years.


The search for alternatives is now even more crucial, especially considering the effects of the recent coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and remote learning resulted in the decoupling of students from their respective learning environments and broadly limited exposure to in-depth academic and interpersonal connections. Exclusionary discipline during this period of time dipped significantly, with most if not all students learning virtually, but quickly returned to record highs following the return to in-person learning. The atrophying of social skills in conjunction with the trauma and insecurity associated with the pandemic worked to increase the incidence of antisocial and negative behavior by students. This also intersected with schools being understaffed and teachers being overworked and uncared for in a financial and socioemotional capacity. The result is instructors that are socioemotionally drained instructors that are more willing to employ exclusionary discipline against students that are equally as vulnerable.


The appropriate alternative may in fact reside in positive behavior intervention and support (PBIS). These disciplinary interventions are distinct from those of corporal and exclusionary discipline in that they focus less on punishment and more on the restorative benefits of an intervention. For instance, within certain school districts such as in Dallas, the shift towards PBIS practices has resulted in a decline in crucial lost learning time for students. In the Oakland Unified School District, meanwhile, the usage of restorative intervention as opposed to exclusion resulted in a 61% drop in suspensions over the 7-year course of the program. Even still, post-pandemic effects have managed to stifle progress. Restorative practices have faltered in the face of both teacher understaffing and student socioemotional apathy.


To that end, to transition away from the detrimental practice of academic exclusion and employ PBIS in schools, even in the wake of the pandemic, a few measures must be taken in order to ensure the new programs’ efficacy. Firstly, there is a serious need for staffing within schools in order to fulfill the responsibilities of positive behavioral interventions. Anecdotally, it takes fewer man-hours to write a disciplinary infraction than to fully mediate students’ conflict or emotional trauma. Foremost, however, there is the simple need for socioemotional support and wellbeing for students and teachers in order to bridge the gap between both groups, thus reducing the need for the stopgap of exclusionary infractions. Over the pandemic teachers reported feeling a level of stress comparable to frontline workers and nurses, which only highlights the dearth of emotional supports and their importance in aiding teacher wellness. Further, an institutional and district-wide approach and initiative is also critical to minimizing the prevalence of exclusionary practices in schools. By encouraging academic institutions to abandon the harmful, discriminatory, and disparate practices associated with exclusionary discipline, further steps may be taken to protect the most socioemotionally vulnerable students. This is particularly important for BIPOC students who are both disproportionately targeted by exclusionary discipline within schooling and are also among the demographics greatest impacted by the health/racial trauma and insecurity of the pandemic.


By bolstering student and teacher social emotional wellbeing through critical support systems, a better synergy between the two may be reached, thus facilitating further progress in implementing PBIS and doing away with exclusionary discipline and infractions. This shift is doubly important for minority and marginalized students, for whom exclusionary disciplines have already entrenched racial and ethnic trauma such as via the school-to-prison pipeline. By making the move to restorative practices, there is the potential to create a more equitable and effective climate and learning environment for all members of the school and community.