Skip to main content

Search NYU Steinhardt

A Black girls sits alone in a classroom staring down at her assignment

Suspending Suspensions: Time to Reexamine Discipline in Schools in the Age of COVID-19

By Richard Welsh

A storm is brewing in America’s schools, that if left unaddressed, will likely have longstanding and wide-reaching consequences. As the society grapples with racism in the criminal justice system brought into stark relief by George Floyd’s killing, it is time we pay more attention to one of the ways in which the tentacles of racism may shape the next generation–school discipline.

Like many aspects of our lives, school discipline is riddled with challenges and uncertainties with the onset of COVID-19. Social distancing or practices to prevent the spread of the virus such as keeping students six feet apart will dramatically alter how schools function. Schools are reopening in a charged environment of heightened stress and trauma. Yet, reductions in school funding are occurring in most districts[1]at the exact moment when more services are needed to support the academic and mental health of students and educators traumatized by COVID-19. As educational stakeholders respond to and recover from the pandemic, school discipline will occur in the shadow of an historic response to anti-black violence that will undoubtedly shape this generation of K-12 educators and students. How educators (principals, assistant principals, and teachers) enforce mask-wearing and social distancing, and adjust their disciplinary practices in response to the changes in the physical and emotional schooling environments will likely shape the rates of and racial disparities in suspensions. The anecdotal evidence is mounting across the nation–students are being suspended from virtual learning for dress code violations and being jailed for not doing homework.[2] These troubling stories provide cause for concern.

The School Discipline Dilemma

The crux of the school discipline dilemma is that Black students are particularly prone to be excluded from classrooms due to perceived misbehavior. Research has linked this lost instructional time to a reduction in student achievement and an expansion of the racial achievement gap.[3] School discipline was an important educational equity issue prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2015-16, African American students were three times more likely to receive an out of school suspension (OSS) relative to their White peers.[4]Racial disparities in suspensions have acquired greater significance given the substantial lost learning time, additional trauma and stress, and myriad racial inequalities exposed by COVID-19. COVID-19 has compounded the school discipline dilemma and raises important questions about how educators should manage behavior in ways that do not racially discriminate. Is it appropriate for K-12 students to wear pajamas to class? Is it fair to exclude these students as punishment? Is it equitable to exclude students from virtual classes for minor disruptions? These are examples of the myriad questions district and school leaders will be forced to answer that will undoubtedly have an impact on racial disparities in suspensions and student outcomes.

Suspending Suspensions

Policymakers and practitioners have differed and dithered on the contributors and solutions to racial disparities in suspensions. This has led to school discipline policy becoming increasingly polarizing.[5] As districts prepare to reopen and contend with the challenges of engaging and disciplining students in remote and hybrid learning environments, suspending suspensions warrants serious consideration given the research evidence and contemporary circumstances.[6] A case-by-case handling of disciplinary infractions may afford flexibility but also raises equity concerns about discriminate discretion. Transparency concerns will fester if districts allow disciplinary consequences to go unrecorded or make any attempt to suppress school discipline data. As such, districts should implore school leaders to track and document the use of disciplinary consequences in remote learning environments. Moreover, the need for an overarching direction and strategic approach in school discipline has been made ever more apparent and urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic. The moment of crisis offers an opportunity to overhaul the school discipline playbook. It is only when we accept that suspensions are not efficacious in rectifying student behavior or improving student achievement, and thus, off the table as an acceptable disciplinary consequence (with the exception of severe offenses), will the necessity of innovation spawn the expansion of effective non-exclusionary methods to discipline students in schools. Moving forward, a thorough interrogation of the use of non-exclusionary consequences such as parent conferences and the progression of disciplinary consequences that precede suspensions are necessary as districts shift away from exclusionary discipline. Instead of replicating racial disparities in suspensions in remote learning and hybrid environments, policymakers and educators can pivot to probe the philosophy of excluding students from classes (virtual or in-person) for minor disciplinary infractions and brainstorm new ways to discipline students. This requires a proactive rather than a reactive approach to school discipline.

A Proactive Approach to School Discipline

Policy changes (e.g., amending code of conducts for remote learning environments) may be helpful but programmatic changes (e.g., counseling for students) and personnel adjustments (e.g., support teams to assist teachers with disruptive students) should also be prioritized. Resources to support students will be crucial. Mental health, tutoring, and special education supports are a few of the assistance strategies that will be needed to help budding minds process the disruption of COVID-19 and get back on track. Furthermore, the discipline of students with disabilities will be a more pressing concern within this larger conversation. How districts support school leaders is also key to ensure that principals are not left on an island. Principals and assistant principals will need to be supported so that they can better support their teachers. Community and professional development for educators will help lessen the feelings of being overwhelmed by the task of responding to and recovering from the pandemic. Districts can coordinate school discipline specific professional development and practice sharing sessions that allow for innovations in behavior management and student engagement in remote learning environments to be refined, shared, and replicated. School-community relations should play a larger role in school discipline in the age of COVID-19. Data emerging from surveys highlight parents’ call for smoother communications with educators in remote and hybrid learning environments. National surveys also show that parents of color are worried about the impact of racism and discrimination in schools as their children return to virtual or in-person classrooms.[7]Now more than ever before, educators and families should be communicating and building trust as a way to reduce racial disparities in suspensions. A good starting point is reviewing and bolstering how schools communicate with parents and assessing whether technology is being leveraged in meaningful ways. In the prevailing racially charged environment, schools should be particularly sensitive in engaging Black and Brown families about the education of their children. An adversarial and aggressive approach such as reporting families to state social workers for students failing to attend online classes is unlikely to build trust and improve student outcomes. Social, emotional, and economic disruptions are ravaging American families and schools should look to ameliorate rather than exacerbate the educational disruption of the pandemic. Suspending suspensions is a reasonable step in that direction.