Love At First Sight: Rethinking School Discipline

The Dignity In Schools Week of Action Panel.

The Dignity In Schools Week of Action Panel.

In the context of school discipline, in my experience, students have regularly shared their pain and frustration of not being able to connect the discipline received to the infraction or explanation provided by adults who say they care about them.

This is just one of the many reasons why the Department of Education is committed to rethinking school discipline.

During the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in September, I participated in a panel discussing disparities in school discipline, specifically strategies to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Anita Sewell shared her story of being suspended for correcting her teacher about the history of civil rights activists. Sewell was frustrated with what she deemed a flawed lesson, and knew her tone of voice likely became inappropriate, but she also thought her voice was neither valued nor heard. I frequently hear versions of this story throughout the country in my role as Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

In October, I joined a panel with Miajia Jawara, a youth advocate and member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Miajia began by highlighting what felt like a positive experience, noting she was given an alternative to suspension by an educator who felt she was gifted and special – only to realize all of her classmates weren’t getting that same second chance. While appreciative, Miajia and other advocates struggled with feeling some students were placed on a pathway to juvenile justice and ultimately long-term confinement. This was amplified with the release of a fact sheet during the event showing the huge gap in investments between funding for schools and funding for jails in some states.

Anita Sewell passionately shares her experience.

Anita Sewell passionately shares her experience.

These examples, and many others like them, highlight the need for caring and concerned adults to consider how and why students face consequences in schools and communities. Rethinking school discipline should mean using data to inform us about where there may be harsh and unfair practices, as well as considering what it looks like to hold students accountable for their behavior in ways that support positive development and accelerate learning and achievement. Using tools like the story maps created by the U.S. Department of Education to view a district’s discipline story can move stakeholders from being unclear how they can help to action, and ensure all students’ rights are protected.

Recently the National Black Child Development Institute celebrated its 45th annual conference. I participated in a panel discussion where we were charged with analyzing connections between education and the criminal justice system. Jeremiah, an eight year-old, asked the crowded room of adults how he can be sure his teachers will keep him safe and secure at school. The fact that he felt the need to ask this question was not only heart-wrenching, but also showed that even our youngest scholars grapple with the messages we send them when we exclude them from schools. Jeremiah’s reality is also a reason why we are being proactive about taking steps to eliminate exclusion from schools for our youngest students.

Jeremiah and his brother Joshua addressing the audience. (Courtesy: William Lee, NBCDI)

Children, like adults, sometimes make mistakes. Students understand the power of their voice and also acknowledge they don’t always act appropriately. However, they expect adults to see them as valuable from the moment they arrive at school, and to support their path into adulthood especially when they make mistakes. Please join the Administration as we continue to Rethink Discipline, making sure every student not only has a high quality school to attend, but feel welcomed the moment they enter our doors, receiving our love at first sight.

Khalilah M. Harris is Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.


  1. We must encourage parents to make sure their students come to school ready to learn, we must ensure that our students believe and respect their education is their future to treasure learning and to respect authority and to advocate for themselves when others students are not letting them to learn in class consequences of another students not behaving or the other side a teacher it not teaching them as they deserve it.

  2. I am a teacher. I’ve been a teacher for 9 years. I have students that come to school and disrupt the class daily. They come to school everyday sick or not just to disrupt class. They are not interested in any part of school. Sometimes they disrupt to the point that I have to shut class down for 30 minutes at a time to get them under control. I also have students who come to school prepared to learn. They try to do their best everyday. They get frustrated daily when the same culprits try to disrupt the learning environment. It makes me angry that the parents, their first teachers, are not concerned about how their child is stopping others from learning.

  3. Disruptions in class are by all means significant to the non- disruptive students in the class. I have been a teacher for over 30 years and have seen all types of behaviors and it has been my observation that those non-disruptive students will sometimes feel that their learning environment is invaded. Many students will become frustrated and perhaps retaliate.

  4. This issue has been flying under the radar screen for too long. Raising public awareness is one way to hold schools more accountable for their practices. These actions need to take into account how trauma is responsible for some challenging behaviors of our youth. The pervasive and dangerous use of restraint and seclusion in public schools needs to stop. Positive Behavior Support training should be taught to all teachers to meet the traumatized child at the school door. Interventions and alternatives have to considered and implemented as a framework to reduce traumatizing practices.

  5. Teachers are there to teach. Students are there to learn.
    Disruptive behavior comes in all colors in the public school.
    It is my belief that administrators, law makers, and parents should teach school in a disruptive class for at least a month-every year- so they will understand and experience the classroom. I have heard this asked before. Law Makers state they do not have the experience as their excuse. Why can’t they try it as they did their first year in office?
    Many students are leaving college with a college degree in education. However, they have not been taught good classroom management. Many have completed their training in classrooms with teachers that do not have the discipline problem students. Then, when they get their own classroom- all on their own- they do not know what to do with problem children. I have seen novice teachers come and go because they have not been equipped to handle all that goes along with a real classroom. I asked a person about this and the reply was “If we show them what the real classroom is like, they will not want to become a teacher.”
    Team Work! Team Work! Team Work! Team Work from parents, teachers, law Makers and administrators- all for the good and success of our future generation. The schools need teacher with experience to get back to the basics. Then, leave them alone. They don’t need walk throughs and watching. They will do their job at school all day, every day- and after school. -ALL FOR THE GOOD OF THE STUDENTS. They CARE.

  6. Platitudes, just naive platitudes, are all that come out of the Department of Education. These thousands of “public servants” have not a clue about what’s going on in our schools. Can’t wait to see Obama and Arne Duncan thrown out at next election and educational responsibilities returned to the States. If you’re so concerned about disciplinary efforts being abused by school administrators, why don’t you send some of your “rescuers” out into the real world to show us how it’s done. Until then, there is sometimes no answer for all the other students who want to learn, other than removing the disrupters from the classroom. For the parents who can’t seem to understand this and send their out-of-control youngster to school for baby-sitting service, why don’t you come to school with them and keep them under control so everyone else can do what they came for-to learn and teach.

  7. Students of color are typically treated differently than their counter parts.
    And, these are not just elementary aged students.
    We should treat our students like we would treat our own (hopefully with care and consideration).
    Treat others as we would want to be treated, regardless of age.
    Teach the golden rules.
    These students are our future and we should keep this in mind as we mold their minds.
    Let’s think about how we recruit new teachers much like we do any other profession.
    Let’s work to honor the teaching profession.

    Let’s all celebrate “Day of the Teacher” and Day of the Student.’

    We all count.

    Josie Gutierrez

    • Josie,
      You are right on many levels. But, do you have that facts or absolute evidence about ethinicity? Have you ever spent time talking with poor white kids? I hear stories of mistreatment from all fronts. I also am well aware of the socio-economic realities that impact human behavior. Have you ever taught in a poor white school with kids from single parent homes? Regardless, we are expected to teach our kids how to behave in a center of learning. I will assume that you are an educator and spend every day in the field, facing this head on. My one concern is your comment “Treat others as we would want to be treated, regardless of age.” Therein lies the problem. You see if you are raised in a home where it is okay to treat people with disrespect, especially based upon race/ethnicity, or other demographic identifiers, then that is what you will do. It is a two way street. While one could say then, blacks should teach blacks and whites – whites, Hispanics – Hispanics, aren’t we forcing segregation? Aren’t we ignoring the problem. Have you ever walked through a mall or a shopping center and witnessed parents hitting their kids in the head and telling them to “shut their damned mouths?” These kids come to us. They are indoctrinated to be like their parents. Haven’t you witnessed the loud mouth disrespectful exchanges of people in public? How many times have you seen children with them? That is the problem. So to say to DO NOT treat people how we believe people should be treated, now we are getting somewhere. We do need to spend more time celebrating the good and stop letting the media and special interest groups turn us upside down over a few isolated cases. Despite how many incidents, WE all need to take responsibility. It begins at home and in our neighborhoods. We do need to spend more time focusing on empathy.

  8. Good article; important; I have a special needs great-granddaughter who
    frequently gets into trouble at school–they suspend her for the rest
    of the day, don’t work with her to find out what happened to set her
    off, just punish–it’s heartbreaking because now she’s beginning to
    hate school; she’s only 9–I fear what will become of her.

  9. This is an idea whose time has come:re-thinking discipline. It is important that schools, not only teachers, become more culturally aware, are familiar with their school community’s demographics, and know the families and caregivers whose children are in attendance. It is equally important to consider environmental influences upon behavior, and contextualize discipline decisions under that ‘whole child’ stance. There is a need to distinguish intent prior to attaching labels like ‘disruptive’ to students of color, in particular. Finally, disciplinary decisions that result in suspensions and removal from structured learning environments at school, should be discontinued as they disrupt learning. Save these as extreme measures that are framed by systems of care that ensure learning is uninterrupted and linked services are in place. Oh, and engage families in the decision making process.

      • It is not fair that some students can come to school and stop the learning of children that want to learn. Some students attend school with the objective to make school an environment that is wild and not disciplined like the environments they have at home. This makes it hard for teachers and students that wish to learn in a safe learning environment.

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