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School Discipline Trauma and Strategies to Disrupt the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

Black and Brown students with severe mental health issues become lost in a system that never valued their identity nor acknowledged its role as a continual perpetrator of trauma. “Rather than schools serving as essential elements of a community’s support system for children, they are more frequently the settings where the problems facing African American male students emerge and worsen over time” (Noguera, 2014, p. 115). School discipline codes hold students accountable for their actions; however, zero-tolerance policies continue to inflict lasting trauma on Black and Brown students. As schools strategize to mitigate in-school trauma on Black and Brown children, school systems and educational leaders must also analyze and reevaluate discipline policies that continue to impact Black and Brown students negatively. School systems must rethink the idea of discipline. Schools must use trauma informed educational practices and social-emotional supports to disrupt the school to prison pipeline.

Shared Justice, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, shares, “the school-to-prison pipeline refers to a national trend in which school policies and practices, directly and indirectly, push students out of school” (Maxine, 2018, para. 2). Schools contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline through zero-tolerance policies. “Zero tolerance policies require school officials to follow previously outlined harsh punishments on students for various levels of infraction” (Maxine, 2018, para. 2). Students receive punishments for small incidents such as out of school uniform, making excessive noise, unexcused school absences, or using school property without permission. In many cases, students are removed from classrooms, suspended, or expelled. Many school systems involve the police or school resource officers to deal with the most “difficult and challenging” students. Early exposure to law enforcement in schools set students on a path of false criminalization due to in-school disciplinary responses. Students in elementary schools are learning the social norms of the society around them. Although disciplinary codes outline infractions and leadership responses, excessive noise is a subjective determinate. Although absence exists at all school levels, elementary school children do not control whether or not they are present for school. As a result, a zero-tolerance policy establishes criminal records for students for infractions outside of their control.

New York City has a long history of zero-tolerance policies and police utilization to manage discipline and student behavior. In June 2019, the New York City Department of Education and Mayor de Blasio agreed to remove the New York City Police Department from school buildings.

The new agreement represents a major shift in school discipline practices that should curtail the harmful impacts of the school to prison pipeline and make school a safe and supportive place to learn, particularly for students of color," Donna Lieberman, executive director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, says. "For too long, New York City public school students have had to face an overly punitive disciplinary system that treats them as criminals, even as elementary school students (Camera, 2019, para. 3).

The removal of NYPD officers from NYC public schools is a step to address Black and Brown students' inequities who receive suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement at higher rates based on data from the Civil Rights Database. According to data, Black or African American students make up 24.5% of students in New York City, and Hispanic or Latino students make up 40.9%. However, the data highlights Black students', those defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and Non-IDEA, suspension at 45% to 51%, and expulsion at 60%. In isolation, the numbers for Black students with disabilities mirror the previous statement, showing that the most marginalized and underrepresented Black and Brown students receive the harshest punishment levels. The

NYCDOE Citywide Behavioral Expectations 6-12 (2019) states:

New York City believes that overly punitive discipline methods are not in students' best interests, fail to advance school safety, and can harm students’ long-term potential. Research has shown that students facing disciplinary measures, and the schools they attend, are better served by providing positive supports that teach students the social, emotional, and behavioral skills necessary to participate and learn. (p. 5)

Although the NYCDOE messages the above statement, students' discipline is still under local school leadership discretion. An outline of student infractions and interventions supports school leaders in determining a discipline response. A progressive ladder categorizes student behavior as such “Level 1 — Uncooperative/Noncompliant Behavior; Level 2 — Disorderly Behavior; Level 3 — Disruptive Behavior; Level 4 — Aggressive or Injurious/ Harmful Behavior; and Level 5 — Seriously Dangerous or Violent Behavior” (“Citywide Behavioral Expectations 6-12,” 2019, p.31). At levels one and two, teachers may remove students from classrooms. Removal from classrooms serves as a procedural step for teachers to build a case on negative student behavior patterns. According to disciplinary response, the most egregious levels of behavior are levels 3 through 5. At level 3, a student may be given a Principals suspension from one to five days and the harshest punishment of a Superintendent's suspension from six to fifteen days. Twenty-three support and intervention options are outlined, including parent outreach, collaborative problem solving, conflict resolution, referral to guidance and mental health experts, restorative justice practices, and social-emotional supports. Evaluation of students classified under IDEA may include a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA), resulting in a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP). The FBA and BIP's purpose is to understand if student behavior results from their disability; school leaders cannot remove students with disabilities from classes if such is the case. However, school leaders help special educators target specific behaviors to push students out of the school environment.

During the June 2019 announcement of NYPD removal from New York City public schools, the Mayor and Chancellor announced the expansion of social-emotional learning and restorative justice practices in all NYCDOE schools. Social-emotional learning and Restorative Justice practices will “provide students with the tools they need to name their emotions, overcome conflicts, and repair relationships” (“Mayor de Blasio Announces,” 2019). The goal is early intervention. Social workers will help school staff support students and develop safe and productive social-emotional learning supports in all New York City elementary schools. Restorative justice training will occur at the middle and high school levels to foster supportive learning environments and address student behavior's root cause.

Discipline codes must exist in schools, but zero-tolerance discipline codes have historically harmed and traumatized Black and Brown students. The removal of law enforcement and the changing role of school safety officers allow school leaders to evaluate individual records on unfair disciplinary practices and how schools may inflict unintended trauma on the most marginalized students. As a result of this initiative, school leaders must capitalize on the moment. The support of the New York City government and the NYCDOE will allow school leaders the opportunity to strategize and implement new and engaging ways to discourage unwanted and undesirable student behaviors in school. Restorative justice practices, social-emotional learning supports, and school social workers allow for the most vulnerable population of students to receive the services and supports needed in the school environment. The use of alternative discipline practices improves student, parent, and community relationships with schools. Students can spend more time in the classroom learning material at the same rate as their peers.


*Camera, L. (2019). New York City Limits Use of Police in Schools. US News & World Report; U.S. News & World Report.

*Citywide Behavioral Expectations to Support Student Learning Grades 6-12 including the K-12 Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and the Discipline Code Effective. (2019).

*Maxine, F. (2018, January 18). Shared Justice. Shared Justice.

*Mayor de Blasio Announces Major Expansion of Social-Emotional Learning and Restorative Justice. (2019, June). The Official Website of the City of New York.

*Noguera, P. A. (2014). Urban Schools and the Black Male “Challenge”. (H. R. Milner & K. Lomotey, Eds.; pp. 114–128). Handbook of Urban Education. New York Routledge.

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