AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Safety with Dignity: Alternatives to the Over-Policing of Schools
Student discipline in many of New York City’s neediest schools is aggressive, impatient, and harsh. This situation is exacerbated by a systemwide school-police partnership embracing stringent policies that target particular groups of schools. Together, these policies tend to push individual students into the “School to Prison Pipeline,” a devastating cycle whereby students are kicked out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system.
However, some schools are recognizing that these methods of discipline are simply ineffective: not only do they fail to correct behavioral issues, they inform a school climate that eclipses schools’ ability to educate students. In light of criticisms along this vein, these schools have adopted alternative policies to address safety and discipline that turn around the axis of respect, clarity, and fairness in disciplinary procedures, and expectations of responsibility for student safety on all members of the school community. And these schools are seeing safer campuses and improved relatively high student academic outcomes as a result of their efforts.
Safety with Dignity: Alternatives to the Over-Policing of Schools examines seven of these successful New York City schools—schools that have developed viable strategies for addressing safety while promoting and protecting students’ rights for some of the city’s most underserved populations. Compared to schools with traditional discipline models (the eighty-nine schools with permanent metal detectors) and to twelve “Impact” schools—those with high reported levels of crime that were targeted for enhanced policing—each of these seven schools provides a safe and successful learning environment. They have demonstrated higher student attendance and lower rates of police-reported incidents of varied types. Students and staff in the schools describe an overall school culture that echoes trust and respect.
The study found that, while the seven profiled schools serve similar students (predominately black and Latina/o students with a higher-than-average eligibility for free or reduced lunch), they differ significantly from schools with metal detectors and/or Impact Schools in many critical ways. Those schools we characterize as “successful” have higher four- and seven- year graduation rates, average daily attendance, and student stability, alongside lower drop-out and police-involved incident rates. Furthermore, more students report plans to attend college.
Interviewers also report overall positive feelings about how safety, as well as other school matters, are handled by staff and students. School leaders within the seven schools understand the importance of infusing safety and discipline strategies with the needs of their specific student populations, and this manifests itself in clear communication among and between teachers, administrators, School Safety Agents and students. The idea of student voice in school rules also pervades the profiled schools, as each school structures viable ways for student voice to be incorporated into school climate and policies (such as “fairness committees” that actually integrate students into the discipline process). This student focus also plays out in the kinds of services these schools provide for students, focusing on the “whole” child rather than solely academic needs. While some schools hold teacher trainings on how to identify medical and mental challenges faced by students, others connect students with internships and counseling. All seven of the profiled schools understand that in-house services that support students’ nonacademic needs are necessary to create a safe and successful school environment. Overall, we find that these seven schools integrate elements of safety into all aspects of schooling, not simply when handling discipline matters, in a way that emphasizes respect, flexibility, and buy–in from all members of the school community.
While there is no single “cookie-cutter” solution to appropriately manage school safety for all schools, the principles of a peaceful, open, and nurturing learning environment are universal: dignity and respect for all members of the community, open lines of communication, clear lines of authority, and unambiguous, fair rules and disciplinary procedures. To begin this process, schools must reexamine their use of zero-tolerance discipline; allow students, teachers, and principals a greater role in developing meaningful rules and consequences; and develop positive, nurturing relationships with School Safety Agents. We hope that the findings of this paper influence the way individual school safety policies and practices—as well as those at the district level—are developed as well as implemented. What these findings primarily point to is that highly punitive discipline strategies aren't necessarily required to create a safe and successful school.
Former Senior Editor, Annenberg Institute for School Reform