Representatives from League of Education Voters and community-based organizations recently traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, to learn more about the discipline reforms that have been implemented by Baltimore City Public Schools with great success. This is the fourth in the series, Lessons from Baltimore: Transforming School Discipline.

By Linda Mangel, Education Policy Director, ACLU of Washington

Children’s misbehavior should never be something they can’t recover from.

Linda Mangel, ACLU of Washington
Linda Mangel, Education Policy Director, ACLU of Washington

That was the overarching message I heard on a recent trip to meet with leaders and advocates from the Baltimore City School District. Thanks to a generous invitation from the League of Education Voters (LEV), I recently joined other education advocates, clergy, and LEV staff on a “scouting” mission to Baltimore.

About six years ago, Baltimore school leaders adopted the basic principle that student misconduct should never mean the end of a student’s education. They recognized that not only do suspensions and expulsions not work as a form of deterring future misconduct, but that these frequently spell the end of a student’s education. And, they recognized what we know to be true in Washington; that students of color are suspended and expelled far more often and for longer periods of time than their white peers, even when they engage in the same conduct.

Baltimore decided to stop suspending and expelling students from school for most forms of misbehavior—while some students may need a break from a particular class or may need to be removed from their home school for a time, no one should lose their right to an education for breaking a school rule.

One of the most important steps Baltimore took was to replace harsh discipline practices with a restorative approach. This focuses on having students who misbehave take responsibility and make amends for their actions, through such means as apologizing or performing community service. Rather than simply punishing and ostracizing students through suspensions or expulsions, restorative discipline addresses the needs of all parties involved (victims, community, and offenders). And efforts are made to repair the situation and return the student back to their classroom.

LEV and the ACLU have been advocating for this approach here in Washington. What we learned from our visit to Baltimore was that if you have committed school leaders, sufficient support and training for your teachers, community groups in your corner, and lots of patience, incredible change can happen (and it doesn’t take a whole lot of money).

The results have been impressive. In the first year suspensions dropped by over 36%, and in the past six years suspensions have dropped 67%. This reduction has been accompanied by a 20% reduction in chronically absent students, improved graduation rates, and improved overall student performance and student conduct.

Across the country in places such as Oakland, Denver, Baltimore, and Chicago, these restorative discipline efforts are having similar results. Suspensions and expulsions are way down, test scores and graduation rates are up, and the overall school climates have vastly improved. All by simply taking the time to get to the bottom of a student’s misconduct rather than just getting rid of the student.

Here in Washington, in places like First Creek Middle School in Tacoma, Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, and in every school in the Highline School District, administrators and teachers have started using alternative approaches to school discipline. All have seen the same positive results as Baltimore—suspensions are down, grades are up, and overall student behavior has improved.

After the visit to Baltimore, I returned to Washington with a renewed conviction that we can make this happen here at home. Our school leaders are passionate, our teachers are innovative, and our communities are beginning to call for precisely the kind of change in discipline that we saw in Baltimore. The ACLU looks forward to continuing to work with LEV and others to see these alternatives to suspension and expulsions adopted by schools throughout Washington.

Linda Mangel is the Director of the ACLU-WA‘s Education Equity Program which works to ensure that all students have equal education opportunities. This program focuses on collaborating with state and local policy makers to expand protections and opportunities for students, and works directly with school districts to promote voluntary compliance with federal, state and local civil rights laws. The ACLU is particularly focused on trying to transform school discipline to employ restorative rather than punitive practices. Prior to working at the ACLU, Linda worked for the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Linda also has worked as a Title IX consultant for school districts throughout the Northwest.

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