Discipline in American Public Schools: Minority Students and Alternative Discipline Practices By Markeisha Hill


This paper analyzes the effects of current disciplinary procedures in American schools and criticizes the methods as systematically disempowering and disenfranchising students, particularly low income minority students. Through literature review, auto-ethnography, and theory I hope to demonstrate the relationship between discipline practices and the hidden ideology in American schools that affect a student’s future achievement and success. Research found that students who are exposed to punitive discipline are less likely to engage civically and think individually and critically. As punitive discipline affects more low income minority students, this problem has far reaching implications on wider societal issues such as poverty, employment and the prison industrial complex.

Key Words discipline, American schools, punitive discipline, zero-tolerance, school to prison, restorative justice, alternative discipline, school to prison pipeline, minority students 

At precisely 8:15 a.m the bell for homeroom rings and all of the students scurry to their classes. Some students may have their heads down, walking briskly and some may walk with a leisurely pace while chatting to friends. No matter how they are moving, all of the students at SLV[1] Magnet High know they must be in class by 8:20 or face consequences. If they are not in class at this time they will be forced to sit in the Time Out Room , or T.O.R., until first period begins. There are other actions that could potentially get a student sent to T.O.R such as being disrespectful to a teacher or administrator, wearing the wrong color shoes or socks, not wearing a belt, wearing a hat or even wearing perfume your teacher finds distasteful. Dress-Code violations are taken very seriously and result in the student sitting in T.O.R copying lines all day or until their parents can bring them a change of clothes. From the most minor infraction to the most severe, SLV has a Zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discipline. At any moment a student’s education could be disrupted by being sent to TOR at the discretion of the over-worked, underpaid teachers.

In the halls of my high school, SLV, you could hear vague mumblings of protest against unfair arbitrary policies, the lack of understanding with administrators, and the unjust decisions of teachers. The most frequent measure of disciplinary action was for a student to be sent to the Time Out Room as mentioned before. High school students are between the ages of 13 and 18 and it is inappropriate to refer them to a room for a “time out”. The idea being reflected here is that the adults at school are babysitters instead of educators, reinforcing unequal power dynamics and valuing behavior over learning. This is just one of the many examples of the alienating disciplinary policies that my high school had in place. While I was there, extreme attention was placed on the behavior of students and very little attention was paid to academic performance until it was time for the state standardized tests. True enough, behavior was a serious issue at the school; students were prone to

talking back, breaking little rules and fighting. However, I would argue that the rates of disciplinary actions against students do not accurately reflect students’ wrongdoing and in some cases may exacerbate it.

Over the past 40 years, the rate of removing children from school as a disciplinary measure has almost doubled (Rausch 2005:3, Skiba 2002, Skiba 2000 ). Along with the increase in suspensions and expulsions is the fact that although African American only make up only 17% of the student population, they make up almost 36 % of the out of school suspensions and 32% of expulsions, even with socioeconomic status not taken into account. African American students are suspended almost 3 to 4 more times the suspension rates of white students, with more severe consequences (Rausch 2005: 3, Skiba 2002 , Skiba 2000). The archetypical child with behavior problems is a male, from a low socioeconomic background, in special education, and low achieving academically. The child is also statistically African American. The purpose of this paper is to use discipline research to formulate a holistic model of discipline that caters to the specific needs of low income and minority students. In order to do that, I will first explain the different forms of disciplinary actions taken against students starting with zero-tolerance policies. I will then demonstrate the relationship between high disciplinary infractions and low achievement followed by establishing how discipline driven ideology in schools is working within a larger social context and finally I will offer an alternative disciplinary action plan.

[1] Name is abbreviated for confidentiality


The research for this paper was gathered through Wesleyan Library resources and Google Scholar. A combination of journals,websites, books, and articles were consulted and the information consolidated. Key words for the search included “minority” “school discipline” “alternative discipline” etc. I am also drawing upon personal experience of discipline in American schools, specifically at the high school level.


Zero Tolerance Policy

The prominent disciplinary practice in American schools is zero tolerance, which has its origins in early 1980’s military anti-drug policy (Verdugo 2002: 52). It has been found that almost 90% of American public schools had some form of zero tolerance policy in place (Verdugo 2002: 51). In a research report for Indiana Education Policy Center, Russell Skiba defined zero-tolerance as being used “ primarily as a method of sending a message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, by punishing all offenses severely, no matter how minor” (2000). It was originally meant to target serious offenses such as having firearms at school, violence, and drugs and alcohol however it has grown to be used in whichever case the individual school may see fit. The key in this is that all infractions, major or minor get treated with the same amount of severity and there is no differentiation of punishment between cases (Rausch 2005: 5). Zero-tolerance means to make an example out of students that misbehave and seeks to scare other students. In some ways it is a prevention tactic. However, the expansion of the policy to non-serious offenses such as dress-code and inappropriate language has rendered it to be unnecessarily harsh and unforgiving. Zero-Tolerance can result in suspension which is defined as “ temporary, forced withdrawal from the regular school program” and it can be either in school (detention) or out of school (Pane & Rocco 2014: 12). More severely it can result in expulsion or “forced withdrawal from school” (Pane & Rocco 2014: 12). Skiba outlines a few cases where zero-tolerance practices dictated a harsher punishment to students than the situation called for, including ten day suspensions for both a student having a pair of nail clippers at school and because a student wrote an” obscene” story (2000). The American Psychological Association also found that the policy does little to help improve school safety or student behavior (2006).

Zero-tolerance policy is relevant because it works as the justifying force behind disciplinary actions. Richard Verdugo found that zero tolerance policies are especially implemented in low income, minority communities (2002). He lists several school discipline policies that are associated with zero tolerance which include: school uniforms, closed campuses (meaning students cannot leave grounds for lunch), controlled access to school, drug sweeps, random metal detector checks, students passing through metal detectors, and police being present at the school (Verdugo 2002:53). These policies are associated with schools with higher minority and poor populations. The insistence on such strict disciplinary procedures in low income minority schools is related to the higher expulsions the aforementioned groups face.

Punitive/ Exclusionary Discipline Practices

Exclusionary discipline operates from the idea that removing disruptive students from school helps both the disruptive student and the general learning environment. However, studies have shown that this is not the case. Students who get suspended or expelled are more likely to become involved with the justice system and schools with high suspension rates perform lower on standardized tests (Skiba 2000: 49). School discipline may lead to “missing instructional time, developing a negative academic identity, becoming truant, and possibly dropping out of school (Weinstein 2000: 456). Likewise, there are concerning studies that have found this sort of discipline to be ineffective. Exclusionary discipline can act as a “reinforcer” instead of as a “punisher” , which in turn causes students to misbehave more and not less (Rausch 2005: 8).Despite the claim that zero tolerance policies and exclusionary discipline improves the learning environment, there is very little empirical, peer reviewed evidence to back it up (Rausch 2005: 6). The idea that suspension/expulsion deters students from misbehaving again is completely unsubstantiated. In fact, most students who get suspended/expelled are repeat offenders; one study found that students who are suspended in the sixth grade are more likely to be suspended again over the next 4 years (Rausch 2005: 8).

In a detailed report on the effectiveness of exclusionary discipline practices, Rausch found that removing a child from the learning environment, even if meant to discipline the child, reduces “opportunity to learn” thereby negatively impacting the student’s overall academic achievement (2005: 6). Several reports have found that some schools are so discipline focused that actual learning opportunities are shorted in favor of disciplinary actions. This works two ways- first by reducing a student’s literal time learning (an estimated 462 hours of student’s instructional time lost each year) and by reducing the time teachers and administrators can dedicate to creating a workable educational environment ( an estimated 160 hours spent on referrals each year) (Rausch 2005: 9). This loss of educational time can be heavily felt. School discipline rates have been theorized to have a negative relationship with achievement, however this data is also contradictory and cannot account for all the factors between socioeconomic status, disciplinary history and school achievement. What is known is that there is a negative relationship between a student’s discipline records in the sixth grade and their subsequent math and reading achievement scores in seventh and eighth grades. In summary, Rausch’s report found very little evidence substantiating the pedagogical idea of exclusionary discipline and more evidence that suggests the detriment such practices have on achievement (2005: 20).

There is also evidence that suggests that exclusionary discipline is ineffective due to the gross inconsistencies in administration of punishment and other factors such as teacher bias and the principal’s individual relationship to discipline, or in other words, the subjectivity of a student’s misbehavior (Rausch 2005: 22). African American males are viewed as more aggressive and troubled than their white counterparts. Ann Arnett Ferguson describes the American Public school system’s attitude towards Black male youth as “operating as part of a hidden curriculum to marginalize and isolate black male youth in disciplinary spaces and brand them as criminally inclined” (581).

The long term effects of punitive discipline are to be taken very seriously. In a report in Youth & Society, Aaron Kupchik and Thomas Catlaw found that students who have a higher history of suspension also tend to be less likely to vote and engage civically (2015). The authors also found that the current discipline system “may socialize students into docility and obedience, whereby they accept authority of adults…” (2015:1). Schools cannot be training grounds for a       “vibrant democratic polity if they suppress the development    of students’ political and civic capacities” (Kupchik & Catlaw 2015: 2). It is widely established that schools are the incubators of a student’s future civic and political engagement. However, it is equally true that “ democratic

knowledge should be delivered democratically rather than through the punitive methods used in today’s schools (Kupchik & Catlaw 2015: 4). Citing Apple and Beane, the authors illustrate the six ways schools should prepare students for civic engagement: [By instilling…] an appreciation for an open flow of ideas,“faith in the individual and collective capacity of people” to solve problems, critical reflection, “concern for the welfare of others and the common good and a “concern for the dignity and rights of        individuals and minorities” (Kupchik & Catlaw 2015: 4). In order to do this schools must emphasize participation- participation in planning and concerns that affect students and this sort of participation has been positively linked to academic achievement and involvement (2015: 4).

Current school discipline practices have been linked to 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 or (Kupchik and Catlaw 2015: 5). Kupchik and Catlaw reference Kupchik’s earlier work, Homeroom Security, and claim that school discipline’s “primary mission” is to enforce rules simply for the “sake of the rules themselves and not the betterment of students” and this causes the students to believe they are “powerless”and “potential criminals” rather than “citizens who deserve respect” (2015: 5). The authors assert that this readies students for a lacking civic and political engagement and that it especially affects students of color since they are the main targets of most disciplinary procedures. Therefore, punitive discipline practices are affecting student’s future and the future political landscape of America. If schools are socializing student to be passive citizens, the democratic foundations of this country come apart, and a great disservice is being served to taxpayers. The call for a change in discipline practices reaches beyond academic achievement partially due to, as mentioned before, the school to prison pipeline.

More urgent however, is that several academics make important points about the connection between school discipline and incarceration rates, or the school to prison pipeline. The Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education defines the school to prison pipeline as “ the formal and informal education and law enforcement

processes and policies that push predominantly Black and Latino male PreK-12 students out of school and into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. In the 1980’s, schools adopted “alternative education” in efforts to reduce juvenile delinquency. This essentially means that K-12 students who are seen as “antisocial” or misbehaving could be transferred to an alternative learning facility . Over the course of the mid 90’s, the number of “alternative education programs” rose to 47%. Today, there are over 11,000 programs serving middle and high school students (Pane & Rocco 2014: 7). Alternative education is supposed to help remove kids away from negative influence and provide the students with the extra attention needed to bolster their academic and behavioral performance, but some research has found these programs to lead to “ failure-oriented and juvenile delinquent identities” and feelings of alienation (Pane & Rocco 2014: 8). Revealed in this is evidence of the American public school practice of “tracking” or placing students on certain trajectories based on early evaluation of achievement. The “good kids” are put on the track to make good grades, go on to college and find meaningful labor. The “bad kids” are put into a system that will eventually lead to unemployment or imprisonment (Pane & Rocco: 2014).

The trajectory of the school to prison pipeline looks like this: office referrals for disruptive behavior, suspension, expulsion, school failure, dropping out juvenile incarceration and eventually the student ending up at an adult prison (Pane & Rocco 2014; 4). Currently, schools have adopted the same discipline methods that are used in the juvenile and criminal system. Minor infractions of disobedience get students “pulled out of schools and into the school to prison pipeline” (2012 2). Despite overwhelming evidence that exclusionary and punitive discipline do little to undermine misbehavior, there has been a recent surge in a strengthening of the relationship between school discipline and law enforcement, with 41 states requiring students be referred to law enforcement for certain school behaviors (2002 :3). In conjunction with technical surveillance and police presence, more students are being sent into the juvenile system for infractions that previously would have been handled at the school administrative level (Gonzalez 2002: 4). The significance is that many of these behaviors are minor infractions. Only about 6.7% of suspensions were the result of a serious violent crime, the others fall under categories of insubordination and disrespect (Gonzalez 2012: 4). Students are now being entered into the criminal justice system for actions that are not inherently criminal thereby affecting the student’s likelihood of matriculation and future success. Because the current punitive discipline practices alienate students from the school community “pushout” occurs. “Pushout” refers to the removal of students from the school environment. Dissatisfaction and disengagement is a large factor in a student’s chances of dropping out in school; about 10 percent of dropouts have been found to have been suspended or expelled in the previous two year period (Gonzalez 2012: 6).

The school to prison pipeline disproportionately affects minority students, particularly Black males. The current suspension rate of Black students is 33.4%, which is 2 to 5 times higher than those of white students (Pane & Rocco 2014:3). The reason for these discrepancies are likely due to prejudices and racism held by teachers and administrators .According to Pane & Rocco, “Black students are labeled as troublemakers and potentially dangerous after the first disciplinary incident. They become prime targets for teachers to refer to the office and for principals to suspend from school” (2014: 3). In turn, Black students are written up more frequently for less serious infractions with harsher consequences than their white peers. The reason can also stem from a general lack of cultural understanding between teachers and their minority students. Things such as “cultural humor, play fighting, and overlapping speech”are being interpreted as “ disrespectful or disorderly” when in actuality, these are just characteristics of many students cultural behavior (Pane & Rocco 2014: 6). Either way, these views have serious effects on the students because once one is placed into the cycle of disciplinary citation, the stakes rise.

Gregory Weinstein’s research is concerned with the specific reasons why African American students have excessive disciplinary citations. Generally, Weinstein is arguing that African American students develop coping mechanisms that include defiance and the “right to respect”. When teachers are not seen as trustworthy, African American students are more likely to be disrespectful. This phenomena can be mitigated through teacher’s having high expectations and showing they care (2008). Conversely, Weinstein cites that some teachers view African American students as being more “defiant, disrespectful and rule-breaking” than their peers (2008) . The lack of mutual respect between the African American students and the teachers, could possibly lead to more disciplinary incidents.

Majority of disciplinary citations against low-income minority students fall under the category of “ authority conflicts”, or conflicts that concern disobedience and disrespect (Weinstein 2008: 457). The category itself is subjective, and points to the role teacher-student relationships plays. Weinstein stratifies African American students responses to authority between defiance and cooperation. He states that African American students use a “right to respect” coping strategy which means they put on a tough exterior as a way of combatting the inequalities they face in schools (2008). However, when students trust the authority, misbehavior rates drop. Research has found that students respond differently to different teachers and this does implicate individual student-teacher relationships as sites of possible resolution to the discipline gap (Weinstein 2008: 469). Because of the nature of the question “How can teachers become more trustworthy” and the reflexive question “How can students become more trusting”, empirical research has not been done in depth. But ethnographic researchers have found that teachers who are “warm” and “demanding” have more effective classroom management, though this research has not been given much attention (Weinstein 2008: 458).

The results of these aforementioned disciplinary procedures are felt by students. In an ethnographic study, Nicole L Bracy reveal student perceptions of school safety and security measures. Majority of students felt safe at school and found high level security measures to cause feelings of powerlessness. The author cites several factors that contribute to student misbehavior including “ teachers with punitive attitudes, rules that are perceived as unfair, unclear and inconsistently enforced, and discord between teachers and administrators” (2011: 367). There is literature on procedural justice that suggests that when one feels that the rules being enforced are fair, one is more likely to comply and this leads into the importance of students opinions on current discipline practices (2011: 367). Students with “non-police security” tend to feel that rules are fairer than students with police presence on campus. Most students found the presence of an SRO, or security officer, was unnecessary and ineffective and were adverse to the idea of their school being subjected to additional security measures as they would likely add inconvenience and frustration (Bracy 2011). The emphasis on discipline and the resulting distraction from academic learning is also alluded to. One student states “I feel a lot of people [get] distracted and [don’t] stay on task [because of the fear that] they were going to get in trouble” (Bracy 2011: 377). Students revealed their disdain for “discipline for the sake of discipline” and how nonsensical many of the rules were. These frustrations manifest themselves in misbehavior and lashing out instead of controlling behavior. If students were instead actively participating in the governance of their school, rules set forth would arguably be more respected and seen as fair, improving disciplinary performance. Unfortunately, Bracy illustrates that students are not currently in agreement with most of the discipline policies in their schools. They view the punishment process as unfair, arbitrary and ineffective (2011: 380). Once students begin to feel alienated and powerless, they become complacent in the school’s disciplinary system, sometimes causing the student to “accept their fate” and continue inappropriate behavior, as it does not make a difference. In this way, we can see how democratic participation in school can help control behavior, in most cases even more so than harsh unyielding discipline.

Alternative Methods of Discipline

School discipline is supposed to ensure safety, create a learning environment, teach students successful social skills, and to reduce future misbehavior. However current punitive models are overly harsh and ineffective. There are many alternative practices that could be used in schools rather than punitive strategies. Russell Skiba outlines a few of these strategies to be graduated discipline, the use of suspension data, and preventive strategies. With graduated discipline, or common sense discipline, the consequences match the crime. Students are punished according to the severity of their infraction. This allows more room for fairness and case by case punishments. Using suspension data could be helpful by allowing troublemakers to be identified and helped, and not stigmatized and branded. By identifying problematic behaviors early on, school officials can intervene in a student’s behavior through counseling and other preventive measures such as conflict resolution, school wide anti-bullying programs, increased staff training and gang prevention (Skiba 2010:2).

Under the No Child Left behind Act, schools are required to only use “evidence based practices” to ensure the effectiveness of school policy (Skiba & Rausch 2006: 87). Unfortunately, the current discipline policy of Zero tolerance has been proven to be ineffective and detrimental to the education of students. Despite the evidence that insists on a renewal of public school discipline, policy has remained in favor of harsh practices (Skiba & Rausch 2006: 87). In their 2006 article, Skiba and Rausch identify punitive discipline as ineffective and describe possible alternatives.The first change called for is the use of exclusionary discipline only in the most extreme cases, as removing a child from school is the most extreme punishment that can be given (Skiba & Rausch 2006: 87). This appears to be obvious, but currently suspension and expulsion are the only discipline options available to administrators. In order to reduce the amount of exclusionary punishments given to students, it is important to implement comprehensive prevention programs. After the first level of response (prevention), administrators must identify problem students and use emotional/mental health interference to assist the child with behavior. The tertiary response is to deal with the remaining misbehaving students in an appropriate manner, which may include school removal (Skiba & Rausch 2006). The idea of this tertiary mode of discipline is to start discipline from the general school climate and work inwards to the small misbehaving population.

Because American schools face tremendous pressure from the federal government to improve academic achievement, attendance and dropout rates, it is difficult to implement programs that do not have an immediate connection to the issue at hand. Therefore many principals, for example, would be adverse to a program that focused on “interpersonal competence” even though it has great effect on student behavior (Skiba & Rausch 2006). Studies show that focusing on socio-emotional health leads to improved academic and behavioral performance but this data is not being used due to the inability of schools to frame it within the concerns of federal regulations. If educators could build a more controlled school climate that is positive and orderly, academic achievement and behavior would be addressed.

The preceding were possible preventive measures. Next I will discuss Skiba and Rausch’s work on behavior intervention. The prominent intervention model in education today is PBIS or Positive Behavior Intervention Support. PBIS assumes that behavior is learned and therefore attempts to provide teachers and students with the support and guidance necessary to teach students proper behavior. The program focuses on support at a school wide level, in specific school settings such as in the hallway or cafeteria, at the classroom level and the individual student level (Skiba & Rausch 2006: Scott 2004). The key is “locality” and allowing schools to address local needs, thus each program is developed by teachers, administrators and parents at a school and implemented to fit the school’s individual needs. Safe and Responsible Schools is another behavior intervention program similar to PBIS in that it seeks to change the school climate to be more positive. Through SRS, teachers and administrators are educated in behavior intervention and school policy is altered to reflect the needs of the school. By identifying the behavior issues specific to each school, officials can formulate the best response to reduce behavior issues (Skiba & Rausch 2006: 97).

SRS has seen success, with a study having over a 20% decrease in out of school suspensions. However, alternative methods face many challenges in the quest for implementation. Skiba and Rausch cite a study that found that the implementation of a comprehensive violence prevention program in one middle school was ineffective, even with the assistance of highly trained personnel (2006: 95). The problem is that many programs are developed in “test tube conditions” that do not accurately replicate a school environment. Test tube conditions refer to the support, both monetarily and skill-wise, studies receive. Without the guidance of trained professionals and funding, public schools find difficulty in implementing preventive measures effectively.

Thalia Gonzalez’s article “Keeping Kids in Schools”, looks to the relationship between students and adults. Gonzalez argues that improving the relationship between students and teachers/administrators the discipline gap can be closed. The “restorative justice” method implores “conferences, meditations and circles” as a way of working through behavior problems and establishing relationships with teachers. Gonzalez gives a review of several states who have non-exclusionary discipline programs and her findings are hopeful.

Restorative justice means “ an approach to discipline that engages all parties in a balanced practice that brings together all people impacted by an issue or behavior” (Gonzalez 2012: 281). Through this method, conflict resolution occurs through face to face interactions in a safe environment and it allows for issues to be treated on a case by case basis rather than a strict zero tolerance policy. The methods have also been found to exacerbate disciplinary problems and do not help in reduction.

Based on the ineffectiveness of the current zero tolerance policies, restorative justice has the potential to revitalize school discipline in America. Restorative justice is categorized by emphasizing the community aspect of schools. The main goal of restorative justice is to “build community and create a safer environment” and it does so by keeping the students both accountable and supported (Gonzalez 2012: 286). Instead of sending students away from school and alienating them from their community, restorative justice focuses on how to “reintegrate…the student as a productive member of the school community” (Gonzalez 2012: 286). Counseling circles with students, parents and administrators are the original markers of restorative justice in schools, however, Gonzalez acknowledges the necessity of differentiating the implementation of restorative justice on a large scale per the individual school’s needs.

Other scholars, too, look towards teacher/student relationships as a place where disciplinary intervention can be most effective. Colvin et al researched Project PREPARE (Proactive, Responsive, Empirical and Proactive Alternatives in Regular Education). Project PREPARE introduces staff training tailored to individual school needs, using the Teacher-of Teachers model. It also provides empirical, evidence based response procedures to behavioral issues . The point is to use proactive responses to behavior the way a teacher would correct a student academically. If a student cannot understand a certain math problem, the teacher intervenes and adjusts the lesson based on the student’s error thus correcting the mistake. Under this logic, when a student misbehaves they should be turned towards the right direction, not immediately punished for acting out . Project PREPARE models behavior intervention after academic intervention and saw some success when implemented in certain schools.

Some measures of alternative discipline are conservative and work within the current discipline structure. For example, some scholars argue for small changes in punitive discipline such as switching after school detention with lunch time detention for non-serious infractions (Andrews et al 1998). Lawrence Kajs states possible alternatives to discipline could be the addition of due process, flexibility in punishment, and the use of an administrator’s discretion, aided by a list of “factors” that must be considered for each student individually. These “factors” include student’s age, gender, and grade level: student’s special considerations (special education); offense’s seriousness; circumstances surrounding the offense; student’s prior history of offenses; student’s attitude and socio-emotional development level; overall impact of offense on school members and community at-large; and resiliency level (grade point average, extracurricular events, teacher, parent, and community support) (Kajs 2006: 23). The relation between all of these alternative discipline structures is differentiation and support. It is advisable for any modification of discipline to have a few of the same base-line ideas:

  • Clear definition and communication about the difference between major and minor infractions, reserving severe punishment for the most severe actions.
  • Expanded discipline options for schools beyond suspension and expulsion
  • Evaluation of current disciplinary practices as effective or ineffective
  • Implementation of “preventive measures” that can reduce future misbehavior and repair relationships with alienated students
  • Increased communication and support between students, teachers, parents, administration with the inclusion of mental health professionals and counselors

Though all of these measures could help reduce the number of excessive disciplinary citations for minority low income students, I would argue that a complete drastic overhaul of the current discipline system is necessary to effect the most change, and in the following section I will address this issue.


The current discipline system in American schools is overarchingly racist, biased and flawed. African American and other minority students are being disciplined at a rate higher than their white peers, even after controlling for socio-economic status. The current discipline system is structured to target African American males and push them into the criminal justice system at an early age. The reason for this discrepancy is related to teacher bias due to stereotypes and lack of cultural knowledge, harsh unforgiving policies and purposeful criminalization of the school discipline system. I have discussed to some length both teacher bias and harsh policies such as zero-tolerance. I have also provided examples of alternative disciplinary practices that could be implemented into the school system. However, I have not addressed the limitations of such alternative practices and this leads to the third reason for discrepancies between discipline rates of white and Black students: the purposeful criminalization of the discipline system.

Durkheim states that “educational transformations are always the result and symptom of the social transformations [that surround them]” (23). This is ostensibly true in terms of the changing discipline in American public schools. The rise of zero tolerance and other punitive discipline correlates to a culture of fear about school safety, particularly in the case of guns in schools. Along with these concrete fears, there is the element of social control and design that works within the school system. In On Education and Society, Durkheim outlines the rise of the modern public school system and alludes to its inevitable failure (28). Quoting Erasmus, Durkheim illustrates the discrepancy between the educations available to the rich versus the poor as pervasive, as a “generalized education will not meet the needs of the majority”(28). In the context of today’s America, this theory rings out true. The generalized education in public schools does not fit the needs of minority students, low-income students and special needs students. As a consequence of this mismatch, these students are being left behind and filtered into menial wage jobs or the prison system. The generalized education in America is designed to build off of cultural norms and mores that may not apply to all students’ backgrounds. This manifests itself in these students being seen as disrespectful, dangerous, or just not worth the systems time.

Durkheim also states that education that is focused on the luxuries in life instead of the necessities is useless to the masses and creates “dreamers” rather than “men of action” (28). In terms of discipline, a discipline that is focused on “rules for the sake of rules” rather than rules that regulate a safe creative environment creates criminals and factory workers instead of professionals. Paulo Freire also addresses the mirroring between societal goals and the education system. Pedagogy of the Oppressed posits that education is a reflection of social order that is it is the space of oppression for the oppressed and the place of power for the oppressor. It is a space in which students are receptacles for the ideologies of the teacher, who functions as a representative of the oppressive state. Friere believes that no change can come about in this system, that the oppressor cannot correctly educate the oppressed as it fundamentally goes against the social order. The education of the oppressed is the liberation of the oppressed.

With these ideas in mind it is not hard to postulate on what discipline reflects about the social order and what end the discipline in public schools meet. The current disciplinary system targets minority students, who have been victims of historical discrimination, violence and oppression and it is carried out by the oppressor, which I would argue means the white majority. Teachers are stand in proxies for the desires of the state, so even in a school with a completely African American student body and majority African American staff, atrocities are carried out in the name of the state. The generalized discipline in America is structured to prepare students for the basic knowledge necessary to work at menial labor jobs. The regulation of school uniform and the emphasis on timeliness both work to prepare students for rote labor in which they must answer to a foreman of some sort. The students who refuse to follow these orders are sent into the prison industrial complex, which works in favor of the oppressive state. You either obey silly rules or the system will weed you out for disobedience. Let us recall the point made by Kupchik & Catlaw about schools being the breeding ground for democracy. In a zero-tolerance, punitive discipline driven school there is no democracy, only forced obedience, therefore students are being turned into passive members of society who will neither rise up nor speak out. Minority students are not just silently accepting a suspension; they are being forced to be complicit in their own oppression at a larger scale.

The discipline system is not failing. It is working very well to send African American males to prison, to cause minority students to drop out, to inadequately educate the low income. I believe scholars need to make more direct statements about educational issues roots in systematic oppression. In all of the literature I read I found many statistics showing the problem, but very few authors addressed the fact that punitive discipline is an ideology that is affecting our country’s potential for social change and

growth. A good hard look into the structure will reveal the implications of continuing such practices. What is necessary to discipline a child is synonymous with what it takes to foster a child’s individuality and curiosity, and this can not be handed down from oppressor to oppressed. Alternative forms of discipline will find it hard to change the discipline culture as long as the entire education structure is working towards the benefit of the oppressor and while larger society is influencing the interpersonal interactions between students, teacher and administrators. Because this is a tightly woven conundrum, a complete anarchist overhaul of the system in which the oppressed take on educating themselves is necessary.


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