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The Unintended Consequences of the Well-Intentioned Rethink Discipline Movement
Posted by Ann Costantino on 12th June 2017
Photo Source: Obama White House Video Screenshot


The Very Long History Leading to Baltimore County Public Schools’ Discipline Policy Changes

Speaking in front of a patriotic backdrop of colorful U.S. Department of Education and American flags, in July of 2009, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new White House plan called Race to the Top (RTTT), a federal education initiative in which states would be incentivized to satisfy various education reforms that were supportive of raising the bar and closing the racial achievement gaps.  Among the reforms: performance-based assessments for teachers and the most well-known reform being Common Core State Standards.

The President said: “Today I want to talk about what we can do to raise the quality of education from kindergarten through senior year. Because improving education is central to rebuilding our economy, we set aside over $4 billion in the Recovery Act to promote improvements in schools.  This is one of the largest investments in education reform in American history. And rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it. That’s how we can incentivize excellence and spur reform and launch a race to the top in America’s public schools. That race starts today.”

States were encouraged to implement reforms with the promise of grant money from the $4.35 billion set aside for the initiative.  And in 2010, under the leadership of former Maryland State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and Governor Martin O’Malley, Maryland applied and was awarded a $250 million Race to the Top grant, 50% of which would go to qualifying local (LEA) school systems in Maryland.

That year, and under the leadership of former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joe Hairston, BCPS was awarded a $17.4 million grant for its Race to the Top participation, to be used August 2010 to September 2014.  Approximately $700,000 of the grant was carried over to 2015, with a termination date of June 30, 2015, unless spent by the system.

The purpose of the RTTT grant was to boost student achievement, reduce gaps in achievement among student subgroups, turn around struggling schools, and improve the teaching profession.

In 2011, through a joint effort between the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Justice (DOJ), Education Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder announced another program, called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative.

It was then that the U.S. Department of Education included a new RTTT program requirement for states’ eligibility to receive grant money.  The requirement was that districts with students of color or disabilities that had a disproportionate suspension and expulsion rate among races, must conduct a root cause analysis and develop a plan to address these root causes.

The goal was to gather the data, convene a group of stakeholders and experts in the fields of education, criminal justice and behavioral health and have them “come to a consensus” based on recommendations and disaggregated data on discipline, to dismantle what is commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In 2012, the Maryland State Board of Education set out to discuss discipline regulations of Maryland Public Schools’ discipline policies.  As outlined in a letter to parents, underscored was that “No student comes to school ‘perfect,’ academically or behaviorally. We do not throw away the imperfect or difficult students. Wise school discipline policies fit our education reform agenda because those policies show all students that we want them to receive a world class education.”  

A task force then began convening to discuss draft regulations on the state’s school system discipline policies.

In 2014, President Barack Obama announced the formation of My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative which focused on improving early child education and keeping young men of color out of the juvenile justice system.

Speaking about My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama delivered an impassioned speech, stating: “It’s about helping more of our young people stay on track. Providing the support they need to think more broadly about their future. Building on what works – when it works, in those critical life-changing moments.”

A Federal My Brother’s Keeper Task Force was soon erected and charged with tracking implementation of the recommendations outlined in its initial 90-day report issued in May 2014.

Its key action plans included having kids entering school ready to learn, reading at grade level by third grade, graduating from high school ready for college and career, completing postsecondary education or training, successfully entering the workforce, reducing violence and providing a second chance.

Obstacles were identified in fulfilling the Keeper’s promise.  Chief among them was an interrupted education.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, black students make up 16% of the student population, yet are 32-43% of suspensions of the entire student body.

Their white counterparts make up 31-40% of the suspensions and expulsions, yet are 51% of the student population.

In Maryland, African Americans make up about 34% of the student population, yet 64% of the total student population’s suspensions. And depending on which national statistic is being referenced, black children are suspended at least three to four times more than white students, thus increasing the likelihood of their being pulled off track from successfully entering the work force as a high school or college graduate, thereby dimming their lights of what could and should have been their bright futures.

Chart from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights

To help end this trend, in January of 2014, Department of Justice Attorney General Eric Holder and former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, released a Joint DOJ-ED School Discipline Guidance Package.

The new discipline initiative was introduced at a talk with panel participants including, then, Maryland State Schools Superintendent, Dr. Lillian Lowery, and took place at the Academies at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore. Secretary Duncan opened his speech saying “We’re gathered here today to talk about school discipline—which, far too often, is not applied equitably or as effectively as it could be in our nation’s schools.  So today, the Departments of Education and Justice are joining together to release a guidance package on school discipline for a broad range of stakeholders–educators, principals, district administrators, school board members, charter school heads, school resource officers, counselors, social workers, parents, community leaders–and, importantly, students themselves.”

Former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan (left); former DOJ Attorney General Eric Holder (right) Photo credit: Getty Images

The guidance package provided information on how school districts could “administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin” and included a Guiding Principles document that was designed to improve school climates with action steps school administrators should take.

Action Steps Checklist:
-Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.
-Prioritize the use of evidence-based prevention strategies, such as tiered supports.
-Promote social and emotional learning.
-Provide regular training and supports to all school personnel.
-Collaborate with local agencies and other stakeholders.
-Ensure that any school-based law enforcement officers’ roles focus on improving school safety and reducing inappropriate referrals to law enforcement.

In July of 2014, and three weeks after the Obama Administration called for a nationwide shift to rethinking discipline, while under the leadership of former Maryland State School Superintendent Lilian Lowery, the Maryland State Board of Education approved new discipline regulations.

The goal was to, by the 2014-2015 school year, have local school boards across Maryland revise their discipline policies and remove zero-tolerance practices.

Among the bullet points introducing the newly adopted regulations was “Schools should avoid the unnecessary criminalization of students, which is prompted by frequent school resource officers, police, and juvenile justice system involvement.”

A month before the State Board’s approval of new discipline regulations, on June 10, 2014, under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. S. Dallas Dance, BCPS’ Board of Education approved the revision of BCPS’ discipline and behavior polices, polices 5550  and 5560.

Both policies included changes consistent with removing zero-tolerance language, revising sentences from “(students) are subject to discipline” to “a student may be suspended which may result in expulsion” and revisions from the word “required” for assignment to alternative programs or expulsions, to “may be necessary.”

Consistent with Rethink Discipline’s challenge to states, and the Maryland State Department of Education’s policy changes and directives, BCPS had begun to remove its zero-tolerance policies in advance of the State Board’s vote to encourage local school districts to do so.

A few months later, in the fall of 2014, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) awarded almost $2 million to BCPS and the University of Maryland at Baltimore, to “study school safety (at BCPS) by focusing on students with emotional and behavioral health issues.”

The goal of the study was to “collect national-level data; to convene stakeholders to identify and share best practices; and to conduct innovative research and evaluate pilot projects in school districts.” 

BCPS received this grant as part of a randomized controlled pilot study of 44 of its schools to “evaluate the impact of a new comprehensive emotional and behavioral health crisis response and prevention intervention on school safety.”

Stating that “schools across the country are struggling with how to formulate comprehensive and effective programs to address the mental health needs of students and thereby help preserve school safety,” the pilot study of BCPS, with research conducted by the University of Maryland at Baltimore, would purportedly provide evidence for the country on “the effectiveness of a large-scale, multifaceted, mental-health-focused intervention.”

Throughout this time and beyond, Superintendent Dance and the President of the University of Maryland at Baltimore (UMB), Freeman A. Hrabowski, participated together in three of four meetings for President Obama’s Advisory Commission for Excellence for African Americans, where the group also discussed the disproportionate race discipline practices in American public schools. Meeting transcripts here:  April 18 2014, September 14, 2015,  April 18, 2016, October 10, 2016

The $2 million award given by the NIJ for the UMB study of BCPS was intended to “produce evidence about what works in such areas of school safety as effectiveness of school resource officers and mental health professionals, violence and bullying reduction, and effectiveness of such restorative justice interventions as youth courts.”

It was also intended to “examine potential unintended consequences of school safety efforts, including the excessive use of exclusionary discipline and arrests of students.”

[The Post reached out to the National Institute of Justice, The University of Maryland and Baltimore County Public Schools for more information and a copy of the study or documentation on its findings.  The NIJ responded that statistics were not yet available, due to the work involved in collecting and processing the data, UM was not available for immediate comment, and BCPS responded that the information would have to be requested formally with a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request.]

On May 5, 2015, BCPS’ Behavior Policy 5550 was revised again, upholding the no zero-tolerance discipline policy it had previously adopted, and in July 2015, the Departments of Education and Justice together introduced Rethink Discipline, a movement which – as the name implies – was created to look at discipline policies in schools that contribute to the racially incommensurate suspensions and expulsions and to come up with alternate ideas of how to handle discipline issues.  The initiative was launched as part of President Barack Obama’s My Brothers’ Keeper initiative.

The thrust of the movement intended to inform schools that suspensions don’t work, that removing students from instruction did not help to improve either student behavior or school climate, that they had negative consequences and result in negative student outcomes such as lower academic performance, that they lead to higher rates of dropout, failures to graduate on time, decreased academic engagement, and future disciplinary exclusion.

Researchers for the initiative found that African-American students were three times more likely than their white peers to be expelled or suspended, that African-American and Latino students made up 40 percent of the student population, yet over 50 percent of the students were referred to law enforcement or involved in school related arrests.  Also found was that racial disparities of out-of-school suspensions start early and that the overwhelming majority of suspensions are determined at the “discretion of local school officials and not mandated by state law or policy.”

In November of 2015, the University of Maryland College Park’s Maryland Equity Project, released a report on out of school suspensions across Maryland’s 24 school districts, illustrating such disparities between white and black students, from 2008-2014.

A risk ratio for African-American students compared to white students showed a steady increase in disparate suspension rates.  In other words, they found the trend troubling, gap widening, and the issue worsening.


In the same study, however, Baltimore County Public Schools, Maryland’s third largest school system and 24th largest in the country, was found to be most improved in reduction of African American suspensions and the second most improved for a reduction in suspensions for the entire student population.

Source: Maryland Equity Project’s November 2015 Policy Brief

In May 2016, BCPS’ Behavior Policy 5550 was once again revised, maintaining the absence of a zero-tolerance discipline approach; and that summer, in August of 2016, the second Secretary of Education under President Obama, John King, and the U.S. Department of Education released a document, Guidance to Schools on Ensuring Equity and Providing Behavioral Supports to Students with Disabilities.


President Obama’s second Secretary of Education, John King, Photo Credit: DC Gazette

Stating that “Current law allows educators to remove students with disabilities from their classrooms if the student violates a code of conduct. Data indicates students with disabilities are disciplined at far higher rates than their non-disabled peers,” the documents aimed to address what the White House saw as uneven discipline practices and exclusion for disabled students.

The letter included two resource documents for school leaders to assist teachers with classroom management strategies and school-wide behavioral efforts that aimed to “create safe and effective environments where all students are given an opportunity to positively engage in their education. 

Also highlighted was “the disproportionate rate at which black students, particularly black males, receive out-of-school suspensions.”

Chart from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights

 In an effort to encourage fair discipline practices among all school staff members, in August of 2016 the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice disseminated guiding principles and rubrics to the State Departments of Education and local school systems.  The purpose was to guide each school in the hiring and frequent training of all school resource officers (SROs), where appropriate, in order to ensure that proper discipline interventions occurred at the school-police level. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice created SECURe Local Implementation Rubric to help school districts and law enforcement agencies “determine the type of school-police partnership that would be most effective in their communities.”  These rubrics for schools also included encouraging administrators to evaluate SROs regularly, as well as to praise them for a job well done.

At the Maryland State Department of Education level, there is a clear plan set forth under State Superintendent Karen Salmon.  If at least one student group within a school is found to have a risk ratio of 3.0 or higher, then that school’s discipline process will be questioned. For instance, the MSDE used as an example that if a middle school’s suspension and expulsion rate for students with disabilities is 18%, and the statewide suspension and expulsion rate for all students in Maryland middle/high schools is 6%, then the risk for suspension/expulsion for that student subgroup in that middle school is three times (18 / 6 = 3.0) higher than that of middle/high school students statewide.

According to a January 2017 letter from Dr. Salmon to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Maryland is currently one third through a three-phase implementation process to reduce and ultimately eliminate unbalanced suspension and expulsion rates between races as well as for students with disabilities:

Phase 1: Data Review, January 2017 – June 2017, focused on the dissemination of data and information gathering from the local school systems for the purpose of tracking discipline trends.

July 2017 marks the beginning of Phase 2: Root Cause Analysis, which will focus on convening teams to analyze and act upon school suspension and expulsion data.  The teams, whose members will reflect the diversity of the school systems, will be charged with reviewing the disproportionality of discipline among races and disabilities.

Phase 3, which is Full Implementation of the initiative, is set for July 2018 – June 2019.  At that time, local Maryland school systems will be required to prepare and present a plan to the MSDE on reducing and eliminating the impact of discrepant discipline policies.

Local school systems will then be required, within that year, to construct and demonstrate strategies aimed at reducing disproportionate suspensions, with an expectation to completely eliminate the race and disability discipline disparities within three years’ time, thus completing the mission of Rethink Discipline.





This article is Part 1 of 3
Next Up: “Rethink Discipline” Initiative, Part 2: An Attempt to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline



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