Research shows that “principals are essential to improving student achievement and narrowing persistent achievement gaps between students in underserved communities and their economically advantaged peers.” In fact, one study asserts that “there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader.”

Many schools are described as “troubled” because they struggle with creating a positive, inclusive, and safe school environment for all staff and students. This can be a result of ineffective and punitive discipline approaches rather than those that are supportive, inclusive, and designed to support the social, emotional, and academic well-being of students. The research on the negative impact of these types of exclusionary school discipline policies, such as zero tolerance policies, is extensive and clear: They are ineffective at changing student behavior or making schools safer.

NASSP and LPI on School Discipline

On May 1, NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), along with several other education associations, co-hosted a hearing about creating safe and inclusive schools for students. Speakers discussed research-based policies that support better learning environments and the role of the federal government in protecting student civil rights—as well as backing state and local efforts to eliminate discriminatory practices. LPI’s latest report by Jessica Cardichon and Linda Darling-Hammond, Protecting Students’ Civil Rights: The Federal Role in School Discipline,dives deeper into the negative impact of such discriminatory policies, with recommendations about how to promote inclusive schools—a position for which NASSP strongly advocates. Read the complete School Discipline Position Statement from NASSP here.

Further, research shows that without the proper staff training and support, these policies can be applied in a discriminatory manner based on a student’s race, gender, disability status, or LGBTQ status. Rather than improving student behavior and supporting students so that they can succeed in school, these practices and their application can unfairly punish and alienate a select group of students, force counterproductive interactions with the criminal justice system, and have negative life-changing consequences for the student. Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection report show that, under such policies, historically underserved students—such as students of color and those with disabilities—are disproportionately suspended and expelled compared with white students. This was a key reason the Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued a school discipline guidance in 2014: to make schools safe for all students.

The guidance suggested a series of evidence-based policies and practices that can be instituted at the school level to reduce exclusionary discipline practices and their discriminatory application and impact. The role of the school principal in leading the way in these efforts is critical and includes:

  • Replacing zero-tolerance policies and the use of suspensions and expulsions for low-level offenses with strategies that teach social-emotional skills
  • Providing targeted support for teachers and other school-based staff to help ensure a climate that fosters commitment and bonding to school and contributes to students’ behavioral change
  • Creating relationship-centered schools that support strong family and community engagement
  • Providing training on implicit bias and asset-based youth development for teachers, administrators, school resource officers, police, juvenile court judges, and others dealing with youth
  • Working with state or district policymakers to develop and implement model school discipline policies and agreements that clarify when educator discipline versus law enforcement discipline is warranted, including replacing referrals to law enforcement for nonviolent, noncriminal offenses with effective, staff-led strategies for classroom management, conflict resolution, and mediation

Many states, districts, and schools adopted these less punitive and more inclusive approaches to school discipline, and evidence suggests they work. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Indicators of School Climate and Safety 2017 survey suggests that schools that adopted the practices and policies in their guidance were on the right track. The percentage of public schools recording incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes, as well as the percentage of public schools reporting such incidents to police, were both lower in 2015–16 than in prior survey years.

Despite this progress, the Trump administration rescinded the guidance and all supporting resources in December 2018. Even without this federal resource, school leaders still have the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that school discipline practices foster a positive school climate. Principals are in a key position to develop, implement, and advocate for evidence-based and equitable school discipline practices in their district, and they have the power to create learning environments that can support the success of all students within their schools. The lack of federal support in this area is not a reason to retreat from these efforts; it is a call to action for principals to step up even more to meet the needs of their students and implement research-based policies that support safe and inclusive schools.


Jessica Cardichon helps develop federal legislative and regulatory strategy and co-leads the Learning Policy Institute’s policy team. She is also a member of LPI’s Educator Quality and Deeper Learning teams and is the lead author of Advancing Educational Equity for Underserved Youth. She received her EdD and MA in politics and education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She also earned a JD from Pace University School of Law.


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