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What Americans say about…

How should public schools handle discipline?

About half of parents and two-thirds of teachers say school discipline is not strict enough. Americans endorse the concept of zero tolerance but offer less support when presented with practical application of such policies. Adults prefer mediation over detention or suspension when dealing with student misbehavior.

When it comes to school discipline, support for zero tolerance is less than it seems, mediation wins substantial support — and trust in school administrators is less than complete.

I feel like the schools don't know how to regulate between being too disciplined or not enough.

Meredith, 38, White mother of three in suburban New Jersey

There’s been a change in views over the years: In the first PDK poll in 1969, 45% of public school parents said school discipline was not strict enough. Today, slightly more say so (51%), and fewer say discipline is “about right” — 52% then, 45% now.

Among public school teachers, 64% say discipline in their own school is not strict enough. Forty-three percent say it’s about right.

Views on discipline matter in school ratings. Those who say school discipline is about right are nearly twice as likely to give their community’s schools an A or B grade than those who say discipline isn’t strict enough (67% vs. 36%).

2019 Views On School Discipline

Zero tolerance has broad support — 71% or slightly higher among parents, teachers, and all adults — when the policy is described as punishment for certain violations of drug and weapons policies or assaults. But when a common school situation is presented — a student who accidentally brings a folding knife to school in a backpack — half or more say they’d oppose applying a zero tolerance policy that would require automatic suspension or expulsion. Fifty-two percent of parents, 55% of all adults, and 57% of teachers say automatic suspension or expulsion should not occur in a case like this.

Violence is one of those lines in the sand that should have some strict policies around it. A pocket knife? Probably not. A gun? Yeah, totally. Marijuana? Probably not. Heroin? Yeah. Getting in a fight with a friend, and it turns physical? No. Full-on assault, or sexual assault? Yeah. There are lines. Establishing those isn't easy, but it is necessary.

Jed, 35, White middle school technology teacher in rural Washington

There’s a racial gap in response to this question. If a student accidentally brings in a folding knife that’s classified as a weapon, 52% of non-White parents favor automatic suspension, slightly more than White parents (44%). Among all adults, 57% of non-Whites favor automatic suspension, compared with 38% of Whites.

Racial differences also appear in parents’ trust in their school to administer discipline fairly. Fifty-nine percent of all parents trust their child’s school in this regard — but that falls to 40% among Black parents. Instead, 60% of Black parents distrust their child’s school when it comes to discipline. Notably, 15% of Americans who are Black say they’ve had a child suspended or expelled from school, compared with 7% of Whites.

In any case, trust is not deep. Just 14% of all parents express “a lot” of trust in their school to handle discipline. Among teachers, moreover, just a narrow majority (53%) trust the school where they teach to handle discipline fairly.

2019 Zero Tolerance

There is a potentially promising alternative: mediation in which the student who misbehaved and the student he or she mistreated meet together with a trained mediator to discuss the situation. Among all adults, 60% see this approach as effective, rising to 69% of parents and 72% of teachers. Moreover, two-thirds or more of parents, teachers, and all adults see mediation or counseling as more effective than detention or suspension in dealing with student misbehavior.

I would like to add some sort of mental health support services and community service offered to those students as they are suspended.

Sara, 27, Black early elementary teacher in urban Minnesota

The biggest gaps in views of which approach is more effective are partisan and ideological. Mediation is favored over detention or suspension by 79% of Democrats vs. 52% of Republicans (it’s 64% among independents) and by 82% of liberals vs. 53% of conservatives (it’s 67% among moderates).

2019 Mediation Vs Detention Suspension

Many schools have school-based police officers, raising another challenge: Which misbehaviors should be police matters and which should remain out of police hands? Attitudes are clear: Large majorities of parents, teachers, and all adults (78% to 93%) say bringing a weapon or drugs to school, distributing drugs in school, or a sexual assault in school all should be police matters. By contrast, about three-quarters say the school principal should handle in-school fights between students.

A next question is the extent to which schools should be involved in disciplining students for activities that take place outside of school. Generally, majorities say schools should not be involved in cases of weekend drinking or drug use, sexual assault outside of school, or other criminal activities outside of school. However, a substantial minority of parents (44%) say schools should be involved in disciplining students for sexual assault outside of school. And large majorities of parents, teachers, and all adults (75% to 83%) say schools should be involved in disciplining students who engage in another form of wrongdoing, one that’s not location-specific — cyberbullying.

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