Suspending suspensions: rethinking discipline in K12 schools

Hard truth: America’s schools aren’t always known for being on the cutting edge.

That’s not to say there aren’t great schools doing really innovative work. But as an institution, the U.S. education system isn’t one to quickly turn its back on tradition.

Take a look at ongoing discussions about school schedules (i.e. are summer breaks outdated?), or ideas about classroom transformation, or the integration of education technology. K12 schools have a reputation for moving at their own pace.

But faced with competition from charter schools and other alternatives, more school leaders are embracing the need for change in a variety of areas, from the classroom to the front office—and some really innovative thinking is emerging as a result.

Take student discipline.

Last month, the New York City Public Schools unveiled a controversial plan to end suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. New York City is not the first district to try this approach, but given its size—NYCPS is the largest district in the nation—the decision is turning a lot of heads.

Roadmap to safety
As reported by Education Week, the change is part of a “roadmap” to safer schools implemented by administrators after a string of violent incidents in the district.

In place of suspensions, NYC schools are required to use alternative, positive, age-appropriate discipline methods. School principals will document their approaches and move to support students with positive reinforcement and timely interventions instead of suspension or expulsion, unless absolutely necessary.

The thinking: supporting behavioral changes and learning at a younger age will reduce instances of violence and discipline across the district over time.

“Students feel safest when lines of responsibility and rules are crystal clear,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his announcement of the new plan. “Today’s reforms ensure that school environments are safe and structured.”

The plan has met with criticism from both teachers’ unions and charter school advocates who say the experiment could result in an increase in school and classroom disruptions. The same groups also question whether the approach will get to the root of the problem: student behavior.

As United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew wrote in a letter to NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña: “It is easy to ban suspensions. It is much harder to do the real work so suspensions are no longer necessary.”

Support, not punishment
The district’s new roadmap to school discipline isn’t limited to policy changes, reports Ed Week.

The school district has also partnered with the NYPD to improve reporting and data collection around student arrests, citations, and incidences of handcuffing in schools. Police will also be examining the appropriate use of scanners and metal detectors in city schools. In an effort to improve the student experience, the district recently announced $47 million to support student mental health and improve school climate.

The details of these programs are still unclear. But the investment couldn’t have come at a more prescient time.

With passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act late last year, states are in need of non-academic measures of school and student success. School climate is one such metric. Student discipline is another. Given its status as a bellwether school district, NYCPS could provide a tremendous example of how non-academic indicators can be used to shape and evaluate the full public school experience.

Will other districts follow suit? Time will tell.

Does your school or district approach student discipline in a new or nontraditional way? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to develop a more effective approach to student discipline? Before you make any changes, consider asking your community what ideas it thinks might work best.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

4 Comments on "Suspending suspensions: rethinking discipline in K12 schools"

  1. As a School Social Worker in Memphis, Tennessee, I support this progressive decision to move toward reduction of school suspensions and more intervention to improve student behaviors that are connected to internal as well as external influences regarding students. Each student’s well being is influenced by environmental, racial, religious, political, socio-economic forces and many unknowns play a part underlying their inappropriate behaviors.

  2. Erroll L Franklin | August 14, 2016 at 6:13 pm | Reply

    The article is insightful. I believe the subject of school discipline and suspensions is relevant in today’s society. One of the caveats mentioned is student behavior. While educators are tasked with a plethora of responsibilities, none is more crucial than student behavior. Educators do not always possess the luxury of time when determining the cause (underlying or otherwise) of misguided behavior. Some schools do not possess the luxury of a school counselor who may be more apt to determine a cause. Unfortunately, in schools located in lower socio-economic areas, law enforcement is involved with incidences of student misbehavior. While some incidents may warrant the involvement of law enforcement, some schools often employ law enforcement as a means of student discipline. I believe this dilemma will not be solved (or resolved) until the public education system reconciles itself with its myriad of problems. Here are a few: Mismanagement of Funds; Apathy/Ignorance to obvious issues; the root cause of student behavior; and the real triumvirate of parent-school-community. More dialogue to follow……

  3. itsjustanevent | August 14, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Reply

    The “Tool Time” Approach for troubled and troublesome students. A summary of it can be found at:


    A longer article can be found at:


    This is an approach based on The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life, which in turn is based on Rational Emotive Behavioral Education, the psycho-educational version of REBT, the therapy by the same name developed by Dr. Albert Ellis. It’s an approach I volunteered to take with the most troubled and troublesome students at my wife’s high school after I retired from the classroom. My three oldest guys graduated on time instead of dropping out. One received the “biggest turn around in a student” award at the senior assembly.

    I believe the “tools” should be taught to all students as an ounce of prevention for all mental health, health, social, behavioral and academic problems and issues.


  4. Ross Green’s book, “Lost and Found: Helping Behaviourally Challenging Kids” is supportive of this shift in thinking. His web site: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/ also has support documents for the approach he proposes. It is hard work, but kids are worth it.

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