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Many recent bills aim to reduce the number of student arrests and tickets by limiting interactions between students and law enforcement officers.

States Seek Changes in Public School Discipline Policies

By Andrew Barton | Aug. 3, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

As students across the nation return to school after quarantine from the COVID-19 pandemic, many are experiencing increased stress and behavioral issues. With this change in schooling and child care, student discipline has drawn increasing attention from lawmakers.

Across the country, legislators have proposed and enacted bills reforming the role of police officers and the criminal justice system in schools with the goal of reducing injury, trauma and financial hardship for students due to referrals to law enforcement for arrest and ticketing.

Many bills aim to reduce the number of student arrests and tickets by limiting interactions between students and law enforcement officers.

Colorado Senate Bill 182, sponsored by Representative Leslie Herod and Senator Janet Buckner, both Democrats, would have prohibited law enforcement officers from issuing tickets and arresting students in school unless a student’s actions posed an imminent threat to others. Instead, the bill called for the use of alternative approaches, such as positive behavioral supports and restorative justice practices where conflict is resolved and discipline is assigned outside of the criminal justice system.

The bill also had provisions requiring school boards to adopt policies to address the quality of student resource officers (SROs) and excessive or biased disciplinary practices.

Although the bill ultimately failed, it sparked debate statewide over appropriate student discipline and the role of law enforcement in public schools. Proponents of reform cite say that harsh disciplinary policies can push young people into the criminal justice system, amounting to a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Herod told NCSL that “Colorado needs to move the needle” in reducing the number of children involved with the criminal justice system. By highlighting the SRO programs that are working well and putting them into statute, Herod said, Senate Bill 182 sought to reduce the number of “excessive” punishments, especially for children of color and struggling students.

The disciplinary policies she referred to include in-school arrests, summons and fines in criminal court which often disproportionally affect minorities, according to an April 2020 publication of the National Academy of Sciences.

The bill failed to gain sufficient support partly due to concerns over its scope. Opponents, including teachers, school district leaders, parents and police officers, were concerned that, if the bill were enacted, they would no longer be able to intervene and prevent in-school crime.

“If we can’t get involved … it would have turned the schools into a breeding ground for crime,” Jason Presley, a member of the state police union, said. Despite withdrawing the bill this year, the sponsors intend to pursue student discipline reform in future legislative sessions.

More SROs in Schools, More Arrests

The evidence to suggest positive correlations between student interaction with law enforcement and student arrests and ticketing is tenuous, but some 2011 research does show that schools with SROs had arrest rates nearly five times higher than those without designated police officers. Ticketing and arrest of students for class disruptions, swearing, fighting and general misbehavior have been a common practice for large metropolitan school districts such as Denver, Chicago, and Houston.

In many states, students ticketed for disruption can face charges of a Class C misdemeanor and fines of up to $500, community service and court costs.

In the 2018-19 academic year in the Denver Public Schools system, 679 tickets were issued to students and 65 were arrested. Statewide, there were 5,962 student tickets and 682 arrests.

In the Chicago Public Schools system, 1,000 students were arrested in that school year.

In 2017, Texas had 16,151 court referrals issued to public school students and 7,399 arrests statewide.

Data from states including Indiana show racial disparities in student discipline practices, with Black students in particular more likely to face harsh discipline or to be referred to the criminal justice system. Research indicates that harsh punishment for young people does not necessarily achieve positive results and that diversion from the justice system can in some instances reduce reoffending more than traditional juvenile justice system processing.

State Actions

In response to the numbers of arrested and fined students, state legislatures have begun implementing student discipline reforms:

  • Indiana House Bill 1421, passed in 2018, mandated that school governing bodies work with parents to reduce the number of referrals to law enforcement and student arrests. The bill urged the study of positive student discipline and restorative justice practices in public schools.
  • Arkansas House Bill 1610, passed in 2021, highlighted the desire for reductions in the use of unnecessary or inappropriate restraints and the propensity for such disciplinary methods to cause injury and trauma. The bill reinforces the use of positive behavioral supports and requires public schools to make “every effort” to avoid restraints, isolation and abuse of students.
  • Massachusetts Senate Bill 2371, passed in 2018, established a statewide framework for diverting youths from the court system. Judges were given the authority, at their discretion, to divert young people from court prior to arraignment. This power had previously only been given to police and prosecutors.
  • Virginia Senate Bill 3, passed in 2020, prohibited the charging of students with criminal disorderly conduct at school by police officers.

Among introduced legislation, the bills proposing to reduce the number of police officers in schools or curb their ability to issue tickets and referrals to students have faced greater resistance than those that pursue other legislative avenues. Both Colorado House Bill 182 and Virginia Senate Bill 3 faced strong opposition on the grounds that reducing police powers would result in greater in-school crime.

Evidence Lacking

Critics of the practice of student ticketing and arrest claim that despite its widespread use, there is little evidence that ticketing has a positive effect on student behavior. They point to evidence that increasing exclusionary punishments such as expulsion and arrest for disciplinary issues seems to increase the criminality of school discipline, thus reducing positive outcomes in students.

The U.S. Department of Justice has questioned whether punitive disciplinary methods, when used by SROs, are effective in reducing crime, but has stated the value of SRO training programs focused on working with school staff and students in de-escalation. Many state reforms move in the direction of these restorative justice practices. While not all reform proposals are explicitly focused on reductions in the use of physical force, restraint, isolation and financial punishments, nearly all address the value of de-escalation, social and emotional skills development, and misbehavior prevention.       

Eye on Reforms

Despite the recent failure of Colorado’s bill, other states have successfully changed their school discipline policies. Indiana House Bill 1421, sponsored by Representative Robert Behning (R) and passed in 2018, sought to reduce the high rates of suspensions and expulsions and develop more positive methods of correcting student behavior. He noted in an interview with NCSL that “over 100,000 suspensions and over 3,000 expulsions” were on record for the year before the bill’s passage. With this data, Behning said he sought to help provide schools with resources on de-escalation techniques to “reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions and arrests.” The law is still relatively new, so data on its effects are limited, but Behning noted that reported arrests declined 17% during the year following the bill’s passage.

Virginia Senate Bill 3 was based on similar reform goals. Senator Jennifer McClellan (D), who sponsored the bill, sought to use previously gathered data on student tickets and referrals to craft legislation that would create “support structures” rather than “push [students] into the school-to-prison pipeline,” McClellan told NCSL. “The behavior that’s being criminalized is the beginning of behavior that needs treatment, not penalizing,” she said. As the bill has only been recently enacted, no data regarding its effect has been collected. McClellan’s hope is that the bill will have provided sufficient support to help students learn from bad behavior rather than being punished with excessive criminal discipline.

While many of these student discipline reform policies have only recently been passed and the effects have yet to be fully realized, many lawmakers expect to make inroads in student discipline reform in the coming years.

Andrew Barton is an intern in NCSL’s Education Program.

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