School Discipline: Is developmental appropriateness required?
By: Kate Malcolm
Research on adolescent brain development over the past decade has indicated that many
adolescent behaviors that previously resulted in disciplinary action are actually normative, and
require a more flexible response than what is currently available. This has implications for both
school discipline and the juvenile justice system, particularly if one considers the disproportionate
number of students of color and individuals with mental health needs in each system. There is no
evidence to suggest that these populations misbehave or act violently at higher rates than their
peers to explain their greater involvement in the system, suggesting biased implementation of
disciplinary policies. School attendance is a significant protective factor against adolescent
delinquency. Roper v. Simmons established that juveniles are categorically different from adults,
and are less culpable based on their lack of education and development. This principle can be
extended beyond its application to capital punishment in that case. This article lays out different
approaches to effectively discipline students for misconduct, while also taking into consideration
their normal development and environmental factors.
I. THE PROBLEM
The school system is the largest feeder for youth into the juvenile justice system, with
nearly 70% of offenders disciplined for non-violent crimes. While the fundamental purpose of the
juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate youth, the juvenile justice system and schools alike have
become more punitive. The presence of police officers, usually referred to as school resource
officers (SRO), has increased since the 1990s. Since SROs have become more commonplace in
public schools, referrals to juvenile court have increased dramatically, particularly for minor
offenses that were traditionally handled at school, such as fights, disorderly conduct or disrupting
class. Overuse of out of school suspension for minor offenses, or referral to juvenile court, has
been linked to lower graduation rates and higher rates of subsequent criminality. Additionally, use
of SROs and other security technology is resource heavy. Reliance on the juvenile justice system
for discipline of minor offenses has not been shown to be cost effective.
Some argue that school disciplinary measures fail to adequately consider emerging data on
adolescent development. Current policies that are rooted in a zero-tolerance approach are largely
utilitarian, with the purpose to deter and incapacitate offenders. They were created to help schools
deter students from more serious crimes by cracking down on minor offenses, while also removing
troublemakers from school grounds to create a better learning environment for other students.
Since the inception of these policies, they are applied without regard to the circumstances of the
case or consideration of mitigating factors. Early zero-tolerance policies were enacted to address
issues of drugs and guns or other weapons in school; however, they were broadened to include
smoking or disruptions at school. Additionally, the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 mandated
transfer to the juvenile justice system if a student possessed a gun at school. This provision was
expanded in some states to include minor offenses like swearing, getting into fights, and skipping
school. There is a strong argument to be made for taking a hard line on guns, weapons, or drugs at
school. However, there is little evidence to show zero-tolerance actually reduces problem
behaviors in adolescents.