Dec 04
Dictionary showing the word 'discipline'

The New World of Student Discipline for Students With and Without Disabilities


The pandemic has ushered in a new era of student discipline, both in and outside of the school building. A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than 80 Percent of U.S. public schools report that the pandemic has negatively impacted student behavior and socio-emotional development.1 I have worked as counsel to schools for 25 years and have never seen such a high level of aggressive student behavior – from brawling and bringing weapons to school to cyberbullying and scathing social media posts. For example, Duval County schools in Florida saw a 47% increase in infractions for fighting in 2021-22 compared with the 2018-19 school year — the last that was unaffected by the pandemic. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, the increase was 26%.2 Schools must respond, but while a renewed focus on student conduct seems universal, specific challenges can vary from district to district and student to student. Local context, school culture, and school resources are just a few factors at play. For example, some districts are observing fewer but more severe student behaviors. Others report an overall increase in behavior challenges. Some places are practicing zero-tolerance policies and enacting strict crackdowns on students. In my own work, I have never encountered so many suspension and expulsion hearings. The use of police in schools is a related consideration that continues to be a polarizing issue but is a topic deeply intertwined with the many approaches to student discipline. The George Floyd killing and other high-profile allegations of police aggressiveness led to a wave of activism calling for the removal of armed officers from schools.3 In some places, metal detectors and other security screening devices are being installed; in others, a very different approach is taking root. Many schools are expanding the use of restorative practices and experimenting with alternatives such as community service in lieu of suspension.4


Another factor worth noting is that, in my experience working with schools, parental anger and aggressiveness have increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic. Parents are advocates for their children, of course, which has always been an essential aspect of the student experience. But sometimes they go beyond what is reasonable and in response to disciplinary measures taken by schools because of extreme student behavior, they can become hostile – verbally and physically – threatening educators, school leaders, and even other students and parents. Many observers have found this to be much more prevalent in the last few years. One reason for the increase may be that the remote education demanded by the COVID crisis prompted parents to contact teachers 24/7, rather than mainly during regular school hours. Inevitably, some of those exchanges are hostile. Commentators have suggested that such unrestricted contacts seem disproportionately “aggressive and accusatory”  since the start of the pandemic. 


I am not a mental health professional and cannot offer expert thoughts about the causes of this heightened level of aggressiveness in schools. Common sense would suggest that the pandemic ratcheted up a host of anxieties – such as heightened stress, grief, isolation, and mental health needs – and those are expressing themselves everywhere. Schools are no exception. Whatever the underlying causes, with student behavior currently in the spotlight, it is critical that school leaders not forget about the intersection of behavior and students with disabilities. Sobering data highlight that students with disabilities are still disproportionately subjected to exclusionary discipline compared to other students. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued non-regulatory guidance addressing the disciplinary exclusion of students with disabilities. This guidance should serve as another ringing of the alarm bell. It is time to take tangible action toward reducing disproportionately (of all kinds) in student discipline. When we examine students with disabilities across categories of race and class, it seems clear that Black and Brown students and students living in poverty are experiencing harsher disciplinary action at much higher rates. COVID has also increased the need for mental health resources and support. In many instances, support for students with these needs has been lacking. Any conversation about student behavior should be rooted in equity and mental health. 


We can learn from and replicate the successes of states and districts that have dramatically lowered disciplinary exclusions, provided robust therapeutic support for students struggling with mental health challenges, and minimized the presence of law enforcement. We can ensure that remote learning is used responsibly and ethically and does not contribute to improperly removing students from instruction.  And through targeted legislation, local policies, and school practices, we can eliminate the disproportionate representation of students with disabilities experiencing exclusionary discipline. It will not be easy, but it is a complex challenge we all must take on. The alarm bells have been ringing, and it’s time to acknowledge the heightened challenges and take these issues seriously.