school discipline in a democracy

I recommend an important paper by Aaron Kupchik and Thomas J. Catlaw entitled “Discipline and Participation: The Long-Term Effects of Suspension and School Security on the Political and Civic Engagement of Youth.” This is the context that concerns the authors:

Since the early 1990s there have been sweeping changes in school discipline policies and practices. Schools across the U.S. have tightened their security practices and increased the punishments they give to students …. It is now common to find armed police officers, drug-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, and zero-tolerance policies in all types of schools and all areas of the U.S. Existing research documents several problems with these new school discipline and security practices, including: the increasing marginalization of poor students and youth of color …, unnecessary denial of future educational opportunities due to suspension and expulsion …, and increases in the numbers of students who are formally prosecuted in the juvenile and criminal justice systems (known as the “school-to-prison pipeline”)  …. This body of research consistently finds large discrepancies in punishment rates between white youth and youth of color, where African American and Hispanic American students are far more likely than whites to be punished, even when controlling for self-reported rates of misbehavior.

The authors cite our work on how schools that serve low-income and minority students suppress civic engagement. They then use a federal longitudinal dataset to test the effects of school suspensions on voting once people reach early adulthood. They find a pronounced suppressive impact, which they explain as follows:

Following prior research, we speculate that the observed negative effect of suspension is because suspension short-circuits dialogue and student involvement; it removes a student from the school rather than responding constructively and therapeutically to problematic behavior. Research on suspension finds that it is administered in ways that alienate students from the school and from the school’s authority structure, leading them to view school staff as unfair, arbitrary, and uncaring.

It is possible that the most important reforms we could make to enhance civic engagement would not involve exciting new programs of civic education, but rather repealing widespread policies that suppress the political engagement of our least advantaged students.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.