LumiNola via iStock
LumiNola via iStock

When Aspen Cotterell was a student at Cheldelin Middle School in Corvallis, Oregon, she would regularly get detention for being late, unprepared, and running in the hall trying to get to class on time.

From 2008 to 2010 when Cotterell was a student, Cheldelin had a policy called Option Two, which framed detention as a matter of choice. Option One was coming to class prepared and on time. Option Two was to be late or unprepared and receive automatic detention.  Cotterell, now a student at Oregon State University, has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and her diagnosis makes it difficult to keep track of time. She would end up in detention constantly.

“Option Two made me terrified of being late, to where even in college, if I’m late, my instinct is to skip,” Cotterell said. “It was the first time I felt that school wasn’t supporting me, but against me.”

In 2019, the son of Corvallis High School teacher Matthew King was suspended for hitting another student. King’s son had two disabilities and a history of trauma, and the incident led to his fourth suspension. Although all parties involved agreed that he was not a safety risk to other students, he received an automatic three-day suspension in accordance with district protocol.

These incidents illustrate how despite reforms, punitive disciplinary policy has remained widely used in the past decade, resulting in severe consequences. Black students and students with disabilities are significantly more likely to be suspended than white students, increasing their likelihood of dropping out of school and entering the carceral system. Research on detention shows that it is counterproductive to student learning and can damage student-teacher relationships.

In the past 20 years, American school discipline has gone through a major shift. From the 1970s until 2013, zero-tolerance policies that cracked down on students for low-level infractions such as tardiness or talking back led to skyrocketing suspension rates and cavernous racial disparities in discipline. But after 2014 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education criticized the overuse of suspensions and expulsions and their disproportionate use on students of color and disabled students, school districts across the country instituted new methods of school discipline, many adopting research-based approaches such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

The Corvallis School District, where I attended school, has followed the trajectory of schools across the nation, transitioning from more punitive measures to PBIS, and has seen the number of out-of-school suspensions in the last 10 years drop by half. But while suspension rates have fallen nationally, racial disparities and disparities affecting disabled students have remained. In the Corvallis School District, Black students are 3.5 times more likely to get suspended than white students, and disabled students are twice as likely to get suspended. 

Option Two was one among a slew of zero-tolerance disciplinary provisions that the Corvallis School District implemented in the 2000s. But in 2011, the schools began to backtrack from their more punitive policies. Lisa Harlan, the principal of Cheldelin at the time, changed her mind about Option Two after reading about adolescent psychology and trauma. Risky adolescent decision-making is largely caused by a lack of development in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for making choices and understanding consequences. Students who have endured trauma face additional challenges with executive functioning. 

“If you see undesirable behavior from students, those coping strategies might keep them safe somewhere else,” Harlan said. “Any behavior teachers don’t see needs to be taught.”

Following a national trend away from punitive discipline, Corvallis schools began using PBIS to teach positive behavior. The crux of the PBIS approach is that students can only meet behavioral expectations if they are taught and reinforced. School discipline is carried out through a system of actively teaching positive behavior strategies, rewarding students who meet expectations, and using data and evidence-based approaches to address more repetitive or serious negative behaviors. The goal is to change behavior, not to punish. 

Schools implementing PBIS have significantly reduced the use of suspensions overall. But PBIS hasn’t ended disproportionate discipline on Black children and disabled children, with different implementations of PBIS showing varying results of success. Researchers have also questioned whether PBIS can be unbiased when behavioral norms are shaped on white, western values. 

King, the Corvallis teacher and parent, also advocates for trauma-informed education. He believes schools have rushed to implement PBIS without ensuring proper, consistent practices.

“We gave students reward cards whenever they did something we liked, but you are supposed to hone in on one or two explicitly stated behaviors and systemically reinforce them,” King said. “We say we’re a PBIS district, but we would be way off if someone were to audit us.”

King believes school districts must abolish suspensions except in rare cases where a student poses a safety threat. Exclusionary consequences disproportionately affect students who face trauma—often students of color and disabled students—and fail to solve underlying issues. Training teachers in collaborative problem solving, mediation, and restorative justice would help solve the vast majority of problems. 

King uses these tools in class to address the root causes of conflict. When a student in his class made an offensive comment about another student’s gender representation, the targeted student did not want to participate in class anymore. King had a conversation with the offending student, asking him why he made the disrespectful comment and explaining the importance of ensuring the emotional safety of the class. King asked the student if he could figure out a way to voice his opinions while ensuring his classmates felt welcome. The student offered a solution—to speak up, but avoid hurtful comments—which King presented to the targeted student. The targeted student agreed that the solution was acceptable and felt safe to once again participate in class. 

“The most powerful intervention schools have is to surround kids with positive relationships of reciprocity that are key to thriving in life and healing from trauma,” King said. “Why would we take this away through punitive discipline?”

This article was made possible in part through a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Sravya Tadepalli is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Her writing has been featured in Arlington Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and the textbook America Now. Sravya...