Grantee Spotlight

School Discipline Reform

Rockwell Fund, Inc. is concerned with the school-to-prison pipeline and the negative effects exclusionary discipline has on the children and families in our community. Exclusionary discipline is usually the first stop in the school-to-prison pipeline and is defined as the removal or exclusion of a student from his or her usual educational setting. The two most common exclusionary practices are suspension and expulsion from school. 

Our organization's evolution on the subject stems from our priority to invest in middle school dropout prevention. Through our efforts to learn more about the causes of dropout, it is now clear to us that exclusionary discipline is an undeniable driver of dropout and other negative outcomes in the lives of many youth in our community. It is also clear to us that exclusionary discipline is disproportionately applied to African American youth, and this disproportionate application helps explain and contributes to the over-incarceration of African Americans in our country and our community.    

The data on the subject is clear. A student suspended one time is 68% more likely to drop out of school than a student with no suspensions and 3 times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system in the next school year. In our region, African American students comprise 19% of enrolled students yet they account for 43% of discretionary removals from school. Discretionary removals are exclusionary events that are at the discretion of the school or district. There is also zero evidence that exclusionary discipline helps encourage positive behavior in schools. Rockwell Fund, Inc. shares the opinion of many researchers and advocates in this realm: exclusionary discipline is harmful to children and communities, and discipline policy needs to be reformed. 

Our organization spent over a year engaging stakeholders on this subject. We hosted a learning community and interfaced with dozens of experts on the subject. Our staff met with community leaders and community members affected by exclusionary discipline. We sat down with school leaders interested in reform and learned about how we could support them. 

Once we understood the direction we wanted to go regarding this problem, we reached out to other funders in the region in the hopes that these organizations would partner with us to tackle school discipline reform. The Simmons Foundation immediately stepped up and has been a powerful voice and partner in this effort. Our two foundations pooled funds and invited organizations to apply for joint funding to address school discipline reform in this region. Unfortunately, we received many more applications than we could fund; however, we were able to fund three exciting projects: 

  1. The System of Care at Spring Branch Independent School District (SBISD)
    In 2014, SBISD created the System of Care to improve the climate and culture around discipline in the district. The System of Care has aligned interventions to respond to the social emotional needs of students and to reform exclusionary discipline practices in the district. In just two years, the district realized a 21% decrease in exclusionary discipline, though the district has struggled in reducing racial disproportionality. Our foundations' investments in SBISD aims to help the district in tackling disproportionality. To strengthen the equity perspective in the district, leadership and staff will receive equity training and coaching from the National Equity Project, a national leader on the subject. Once trained, a diverse cohort of staff, administration, and community members will undertake updating the district's Code of Conduct to provide for a wider range of responses than suspension or expulsion. Our foundations are excited about the prospect of SBISD incorporating a focus on equity into its policy. We believe bold policy changes are needed to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

  2. The Social and Emotional Learning Department at Houston Independent School District (HISD)
    In the last two years, HISD may be Texas' leading example in the area of school discipline reform. Examples include ending all suspensions for students in grades prekindergarten through second. This change inspired state legislation that recently extended this ban to every district in the state. HISD is also revising its district alternative education program (DAEP), pursuant to which excluded youth are processed. Updates include increased scrutiny in reviewing referrals to the DAEP, screening youth for mental and behavioral health problems, redesigning the DAEP to be responsive to the needs of the youth and increasing the number of counselors. 

    HISD also reformed its policy related to school removals and substance use, moving toward an "education first" model. Rather than mandating removal for any instance of substance use on campus, HISD will allow students with first-time offenses to participate in a prevention model. The district will also screen each student for signs of substance use disorder. Students that show signs of a disorder are referred to treatment and other recovery supports. Our foundations' investments will help pay for these screenings, the "education first" curriculum, and staff costs associated with substance use counseling. HISD is the fourth largest urban district in the nation. Helping the district to be a leader on this subject could have a national impact.

  3. The Safe and Supportive Schools Collaborative
    Seven talented advocacy, legal, and service organizations have joined forces to address this issue locally. The collaborative seeks to promote and advocate for improved school discipline policy in the region. The collaborative will spend 6-12 months researching the subject and devising a step-by-step strategy to address the problem locally. Our foundations are supporting this effort by funding a consultant to guide the collaborative through the process and by providing small participation grants to the members of the collaborative. The power of a group of talented organizations focused on improving school discipline in the region will ensure this subject is considered by local leadership, hopefully leading to more positive policy changes.

We are excited to be a part of these three efforts. Change in school discipline policy is desperately needed. We hope our region, state, and country can recognize that school discipline, as it stands, is harmful to students and communities. We must confront the reality that exclusionary events too often put students on a path that leads them to juvenile justice involvement, dropout, and prison. Our foundations will continue to explore this issue and support solutions to the problem. We hope you will join us!