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Over the course of my career as a school administrator and teacher, I’ve worked with students from kindergarten through high school, and unfortunately have seen too many harshly punished for their behaviors. I’ve seen students berated, suspended and arrested for behaviors that could have been either prevented or addressed with more care and empathy. All too often, student discipline is punitive versus instructive.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and here are some examples of situations that have been defused.

There was the student who, after being restrained by police officers, immediately stopped struggling once he was led around the corner, away from the view of his peers.

There was the student shouting and threatening me, who immediately calmed down once I asked a security officer to intervene as I calmly backed away and out of his line of sight.

And there was the student on the verge of punching a teacher, who confided in me privately that he just wished his parents would stop fighting, and that the pressure of school was too much on top of what was going on at home.

None of these students received harsh punishments. Violent encounters were avoided. All were heard and had their worries and concerns validated, and they learned to react differently. Most importantly, all were treated with care and humanity, and ended up with a life lesson learned instead of a police record.

Related: OPINION: Restorative justice isn’t a panacea but it can promote better relationships among students

Returning students to school safely amidst a pandemic will be a top time-consuming priority of the Biden administration, but establishing policies to treat students fairly, even when they misbehave, is urgent for the rights of students, both upon return and during virtual learning. While many of the typical behaviors that students exhibit may not present themselves during virtual learning, the time is always right for staff to receive training for when we return in person.

In Chicago, we’re preparing to welcome back students from kindergarten through eighth grade and all of us would benefit from guidance to re-establish expectations that acknowledge their current realities and abilities. For the past 11 months, students have experienced myriad mental health challenges due to isolation and lack of peer engagement.

Punitive discipline does not effectively give students the opportunity to learn from their choices and mistakes, and it does not empower them to become stakeholders in the school community. I’ve seen firsthand how punitive discipline can render student as social outcasts. This can damage a student’s self-esteem, sense of belonging and moral obligation to the community. Unfortunately, it’s significantly likely that the students who are punished in ways that push them out of school are Black or Hispanic.

Related: The promise of ‘restorative justice’ starts to falter after rigorous research

The Obama-era guidance on improving school climate and discipline helped school administrators learn what works most effectively to prevent and repair harm to a school community caused by student misbehaviors. As a result, many states adopted laws greatly reducing the likelihood that students would receive punishments that removed them from school. Educators also learned ways to prevent and intervene in tough situations through research and training, via de-escalation strategies to resolve unsafe scenarios, along with conferencing skills that allowed us to empathize with and build relationships among students.

Earning students’ trust takes take time, effort and an advanced degree of training to learn what works best. The Obama-era guidelines helped us understand how our own implicit biases impact our Black and Hispanic students in harmful ways, and how to counter these biases to create more equitable schools.

I’ve seen firsthand how punitive discipline can render students as social outcasts. This can damage a student’s self-esteem, sense of belonging and moral obligation to the community.

Under President Donald Trump’s former  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, all this guidance was rescinded, replaced by a Federal Commission on School Safety that invokes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to suggest that race should not be a factor considered when discussing student discipline.  The DeVos-era guidance acknowledges that societal factors influence behaviors and can cause myriad traumas that students bring with them when they come to school, but ignores the disparate impact on students of certain racial groups.

Black students are punished, suspended and arrested significantly more than their non-Black peers, studies have shown. We need to support all students based on their specific needs while deepening our own knowledge of issues of race.

School districts may need guidance on understanding the cultural backgrounds and values of families we serve, as well as a deeper understanding of the lived experience of students of different racial backgrounds around the country. Some may be caring for younger siblings or elderly family members or experiencing mental health crises. Many are taught important values at home that do not mesh with the rules imposed at school, thus resulting in punishment when rules we have created are broken.  All students face pressures of school and society simultaneously, and are still learning the skills to cope. Our top priority should be supporting our students based on their needs, with empathy, care and validation.

Related: What happens when instead of suspensions kids talk out their mistakes?

President Joe Biden and Miguel Cardona, his choice for education secretary, should reinstate Obama-era guidance and promote additional research, advocacy and a campaign on how supportive student discipline guidelines can improve both school climates and the lives of students. The prevalence of virtual learning and training makes it easier than ever to complete this work via video modules and activities.

There is no greater need than the emotional development of students, especially those who face hardships and especially during the pandemic that has forced thousands of them to learn online. States should be required to submit plans that provide schools with robust resources and periodic training that could lead to more equitable student discipline outcomes and stronger school climates — once students are safely back in school.

Chris Graves is principal at LaSalle Language Academy in Chicago and a doctoral candidate at Illinois State University. His research focuses on equitable student discipline approaches in urban schools. 

This story about student discipline was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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