Indiana legislators could be on their way to doing something important for the state’s students. Bills have been filed in the House and Senate that would pull back from the harsh school discipline policies that have been in place since the “zero tolerance” philosophy swept the nation in the 1990s.
The measures, Senate Bill 443 and House Bill 1640, were introduced by Republicans Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee. And they have bipartisan support; Democrat Greg Porter is second author of the House bill.
“These are very good bills, with three or four noteworthy provisions,” said Russell Skiba, education professor and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. “It’s certainly encouraging that the leadership in both the House and Senate is behind this.”
The proposals result from recommendations developed last fall by the legislature’s interim study committee on education. The Children’s Law and Policy Initiative, the Indianapolis NAACP and other groups have been pushing for these sorts of changes.
Driving the bills is concern about overuse of suspension and expulsion, often for minor offenses. Research has found large disparities in how discipline is applied, with minority students punished more harshly than white students for the same offenses. Indiana has some of the worst disparities in the nation, according to federal data.
Both bills would:
- Provide state grants for programs to improve school climate and train teachers in classroom management skills that use alternatives to suspension and expulsion.
- Call on the Indiana Department of Education help develop teacher-preparation and professional development curricula that include “culturally responsive” techniques, positive behavior support and restorative justice in classroom discipline.
- Prohibit suspension or expulsion for offenses that are solely related to school attendance, such as excessive absences or tardiness; and require schools to implement individual attendance plans before referring students to juvenile authorities for truancy.
- Address the collection of data related to discipline, suspension and expulsion. The Senate bill would create a commission to make recommendations on data collection; the House bill would assign the task to the State Board of Education.
Skiba, a long-time critic of zero-tolerance discipline, said research supports what common sense would tell you: Suspension and expulsion don’t work. They take away learning time and cause students to fall behind, which often leads to frustration, acting out and more punishment.
“We’re right now on the tail end of the phenomenon of zero tolerance,” he said. “We had this belief, which was not data-based, that school violence was out of control and we needed to get tough. As a result we had 15-20 years of policies that were ineffective, that were not making schools safer and were resulting in negative consequences for kids.”
It’s still early in the legislative session, and these bills may face pushback. There are charter schools that embrace a no-excuses philosophy that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with zero tolerance for misbehavior. And some people will no doubt argue schools need to be able to toss out the bad apples so the “good kids” can learn.
But a recent study by Brea Perry of IU and Edward Morris of the University of Kentucky finds the opposite: More suspension and expulsion results in less learning even for students who aren’t removed from school. They examined three years of data for nearly 17,000 middle and high-school students and found that high rates of suspension and expulsion were closely correlated with lower academic growth for other students, even after adjusting for poverty, school order and other factors.
Skiba points out that eschewing suspension and expulsion doesn’t mean tolerating chaotic classrooms. “We need to use all the effective methods at our disposal to make sure we have safe classrooms that are conducive to learning,” he said. “But the key word is effective.”
Senate Bill 443 is scheduled for a Senate Education Committee hearing next Wednesday. It and the House companion bill deserve serious consideration.