School discipline has long been at or near the top of the list of public concerns about education. Indeed, polls show that student discipline was the public’s top concern 50 years ago, in 1969, and for 15 of the next 16 years. More recently, education reformers’ concerns have focused more on how students are disciplined than how disciplined they are. Arguments that suspensions are unproductive, harmful to recipients, and unfairly administered by race led the Obama administration to tackle the issue through 2014 federal guidance encouraging leaders to seek alternatives to exclusionary discipline and reduce racial disparities in suspensions. This was criticized as a top-down overreach, and subsequently scrapped by the Trump administration without any further substantive action. Despite the federal walk-back, pressure for centralized solutions remains, as evidenced by the pending California legislation that would ban all suspensions for disruptive behavior.
That noted, polls also reveal a great deal of support for alternatives to suspension. Fordham finds that 81% of teachers view restorative justice practices as somewhat effective alternatives, and PDK finds that two-thirds of all adults see mediation as more effective than detention or suspension. One of the drivers of this appeal for alternatives is pronounced distrust of disciplinary practices. PDK finds that only 59% of all parents trust their child’s school to administer discipline fairly—a number that falls to a mere 40% among black parents. This racial disparity is understandable given that 15% of black parents report having a child suspended or expelled from schools, double the percentage of white parents. These views are aligned with the pressure in education reform circles to move away from suspension and reflect some sympathy for the Obama and California regulatory moves.