States push for harsher school discipline practices to address student misbehavior

School administrators and teachers are concerned about ongoing problems with student conduct that are disruptive and difficult to deal with. Several states are beginning to propose big changes about how to handle it. We hear from teachers across the country about their experiences and discuss the proposals and criticism around them with Thalia González of UC College of the Law, San Francisco.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As we near the end of another school year, administrators and teachers say they're concerned about ongoing problems with student behavior, conduct that can be more disruptive than before the pandemic started.

    In a moment, Amna Nawaz will have a conversation she recorded earlier about state proposals to deal with that.

    But let's start with what we heard from teachers across the country.

  • Joanna Rizzotto, High School Alternative Education Teacher:

    My name is Joanna Rizzotto. And I am a high school alternative education teacher.

    I used to say I used to worry about just a few kids. Now there — it's the opposite. It is probably just a few kids that I am not worried about.

  • Kristan Nigro, Kindergarten Teacher:

    I'm Kristan Nigro, and I am a kindergarten teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada.

    I am seeing things like students attacking other students or they're throwing furniture at other students. In one instance, I had a student open up a pair of scissors that she took off my desk and threw them at my face.

  • Precious Symonette, High School Creative Writing Teacher:

    My name is Dr. Precious Symonette. And I am a proud creative writing teacher at Miami Norland Senior High School.

    Many students are overwhelmed. They are going through a lot of different things. And, unfortunately, many schools are not built to address those things.

  • Jennifer Heiter, High School English Teacher:

    My name is Jen Heiter. And I am the English department chairperson and senior English teacher for Bremen High School in Bremen, Indiana.

    So, what we have seen here at Bremen High School and I believe around the country is an extreme uptick in mental health issues with our students.

  • Joanna Rizzotto:

    We're seeing that many students are more fearful, more wary of putting themselves out there, more anxious in general. And that anxiety can present itself in a number of different ways. It can look like unchecked anger. It can look like isolation.

  • Kristan Nigro:

    The last couple of years have been very interesting. We have definitely seen a spike in behaviors. It could be anywhere's from hitting, biting, spitting, throwing furniture. And so, at times, it's a little unsafe in the classroom.

  • Precious Symonette:

    Many students may not be willing to dig a little deeper and kind of explore what they may be feeling, right? So it is easier to do something in the classroom to get kicked out, right?

    That way, I'm getting what I want. I don't have to deal with that teacher. I don't have to deal with what I'm working through. So let me get kicked out. Let me leave this place, right? But I do feel like the better option would be to get them to stay.

  • Jennifer Heiter:

    What were not equipped to do is to identify students needs when they have mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other things that normally do hit in the high school and middle school ages.

  • Kristan Nigro:

    It's a shame because we're there to educate the future of America. That's what we want to do. And we're having a really hard time doing it with the behaviors that are presenting themselves.

  • Jennifer Heiter:

    I would suggest that our legislators respond to this by putting more money into training teachers. And I would ask the question, are we responsible for our students' mental health? If so, and if we're the ones who need to respond to it, then we need to be trained adequately to respond well, because a lot is hanging in the balance here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In response to concerns about students' behavioral issues, including some violence, a number of states are now moving to change their laws, putting forward bills that empower teachers with greater disciplinary powers.

    That has raised more questions and concerns about the impact on students.

    Thalia Gonzalez tracks all of this closely. She is a professor at the U.C. College of the Law in San Francisco. She joins me now.

    Professor Gonzalez, welcome, and thanks for joining us.

    As you have been tracking, lawmakers in a number of states are now moving forward, proposing bills that make it easier to discipline students, remove students, including harsher penalties for younger kids.

    Before we get into the details of some of those bills, why are we seeing so many of those bills right now? What's the argument behind that?

    Thalia Gonzalez, University of California College of the Law, San Francisco: I think the argument is exactly what you're hearing from the teachers, right, which is about safety.

    The problem is, is that the argument isn't matching safety with healthy school communities. And we have spent so much time moving past punishment and really thinking about what is in the best interests of educating our children. And we have forgotten in this moment, in this post-COVID reality, or, if you can call it that, where our young people, our teachers are sitting at the front lines in these places of tension, that we actually have to promote and build those positive school climates.

    So, it's much easier to go for the tool that was in existence before and say, just get out, right? We heard that as well, right, before from teachers, saying it's much easier to just leave the classroom. So it is all of that, right?

    It's the unwillingness to put money. It's a very short-term measure, and it's not thinking about how we're actually building safe and healthy schools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me give a few specific examples here, so folks know what we are talking about.

    In Arizona, for example, there's a bill that would lower the age students can be suspended to 5. So that now includes kindergartners. In Florida, teachers would have more authority to remove students who they deem disobedient or disrespectful. In Nebraska, teachers would be allowed to use force in the classroom to physically restrain students who they deem disruptive.

    On the spectrum of responses, are there disciplinary powers you think teachers should have and those they shouldn't?

  • Thalia Gonzalez:


    Teachers need to be able to have safe and healthy classrooms, right? And I keep using those words together because those actually are the essential components of what we're talking about. But what teachers shouldn't be forced to do is to make these discretionary decisions in the moment that says, you're disobedient, or you are disrespectful, or you engaged in disorderly conduct, because, so often, those are coded for other types of behaviors, right?

    So the North Carolina law, for example, that also exists includes inappropriate language and dress code violations. Dress code violations and inappropriate language aren't the things that aren't keeping our schools safe or aren't making teachers feel like they can't teach students, and children feeling like they can't be engaged in learning.

    So it's about a continuum of support, right? How are we thinking about multitiered interventions? What is it to turn to the evidence and say, where does positive behavioral interventions exist? Where do restorative practices exist? How do we put it into practice what we know works to ensure that the socioemotional and the academic learning is happening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the potential impact on students here? I mean, we know, given history and studies, that Black and brown students disproportionately face disciplinary measures when they are in school.

    What are you worried about the impact of this could be?

  • Thalia Gonzalez:

    I'm just worried that the data has already been so disturbing.

    We know that nonwhite students, and particularly Black children, are disciplined more severely across every category. Just this year, "Scientific American" released a study that half of the 250 kids expelled, expelled from preschool, younger than age 5, were Black boys, right, and that, nationally, preschool children are suspended more than once, and who are those children? Those are Black kids.

    And so we just have to have a real clarity that these offenses and the ways in which we're then pushing young people out of their schools lead to a whole set of lifelong consequences.

    So it's not just, oh, the disparities exist, the discipline gap exists, and, ultimately, a student decides to not come to school, stop engaging in the classroom. The risk factor of missing 15 days of school for a suspension means you are seven times more likely to drop out, but that that means that you will have less access to jobs, housing, participating in society, voting, and even your life expectancy.

    And then, of course, I think there's so much evidence about entry into the juvenile adult systems. Rice University's Education Research Consortium just released data that, for every suspension a student faced, they are 7.5 percent more likely to contact the juvenile justice system.

    And who those young people are, are Black students, are Latinx students, and our Native and indigenous students as well. But I also want to bring attention to the fact that it's not just in the context of race or in the context of gender, but students who are also experiencing learning disabilities, right?

    Our historical data, our current data shows us, across all categories of disciplines, suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, it is students with disabilities who can lose as much as three times as much instructional time from discipline, and that that's most acute for our Black students in particular.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Gonzalez, dare I ask, what's the answer here? I mean, teachers need a way to be able to control and keep safe classrooms.

  • Thalia Gonzalez:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    We know students have behavioral issues after what they have endured the last few years. Budgets are finite. What can people do?

  • Thalia Gonzalez:

    We looked at exactly what we have been doing so far, right?

    There's been incredible investments over the last decade in what are whole child and multitiered systems of support. That's the academic, that's the behavioral, and that's a socioemotional. That's the evidence-based, trauma-informed, high-quality core curriculum.

    So what does that mean? Positive behavioral interventions have longstanding records of having positive outcomes, socioemotional learning, all-in legislation as well, restorative justice, all-in legislation.

    So instead of the laws that we're talking about, we should be scaffolding up those and then also coupling those with investments in mental services, because when you have multitiered system interventions, you flip the script. You increase graduation rates, right? You increase academic achievement, you increase test scores, you increase grade completion, you engage students.

    There are less truant. They're coming to school. And you have positive climates. And that's when children thrive, and that's when they can learn.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All right, that is Thalia Gonzalez, professor at the U.C. College of the Law in San Francisco, joining us tonight.

    Professor, thank you.

  • Thalia Gonzalez:

    Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Listen to this Segment