If you believe the polling, the public isn't sweating school discipline issues too heavily. According to the PDK/Gallup poll — an annual survey of citizens' attitudes toward public schools — the American public may actually care less than ever. In 2011, only 6 percent felt that a "lack of discipline" was a real problem — and that's down from 11 percent in 2006 and 15 percent in 2001. More often, funding issues or teacher quality top such lists.
But if you ask the public directly about the issue of school discipline, the numbers are starkly different. In another 2011 survey from Rasmussen Reports, 68 percent of participants defined discipline in public schools as "too easy." In a separate query, 78 percent maintained that, compared to when they were in school, it's more difficult for teachers today to maintain discipline in the classroom.
It's also a topic that resonates on the political front lines. "Discipline is clearly a huge problem in the classroom," says Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. "Time and time again, teachers tell us that this is one of their top priorities."
Anyone with an Internet connection can find problem stories around the state. Students at Zachary High School, in the town of Zachary, were expelled for a sexually-oriented hazing incident. In Brusly, a student was recently suspended and kicked out of the honors club for criticizing a teacher on Facebook; the student is suing the school system. In Jefferson Parish, officials are under fire for having students arrested for "minor school disciplinary matters."
And so on and so forth. It's all in a day's work for professional educators. In fact, Louisiana's public schools expel students at five times the national rate, based on a report compiled by Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. Within the Recovery School District, the expulsion rate is 10 times higher.
But from a statewide perspective, 8,501 fewer students were expelled or suspended during the 2010-2011 school year as compared to 2005-2006. So while the Bayou State is trending above the national average, data sets issued by the state Department of Education show that Louisiana is also dishing out fewer expulsions and suspensions — combined — than ever before.
The end results — the payoff for this model — are difficult to quantify. There are cases where good-natured students are pushed out of the school system and head down dangerous paths that lead to incarceration; in other cases, some of the worse offenders are allowed to remain in the system, creating all sorts of challenges and distractions.
That said, the issue is noticeably absent from all of the major education reform agendas being proposed for the regular session that convenes March 12. Moreover, Gov. Bobby Jindal has only made passing mentions of discipline in his recent education speeches.
Like Appel, House Education Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, says he hasn't heard a peep about any major discipline-related bills that might crop up this year. "The concern is always there and there are certainly people out there working to come up with solutions," Carter says. "But I haven't heard about anything substantial being worked on for the session."
That means the ideas will have to come from outside the inner circles. Enter State Rep. Dee Richard of Thibodaux, a member of the House Education Committee who has no party affiliation. He has introduced House Bill 312 to "permit" — rather than require, as stated in existing law — local school systems to place suspended or expelled students in alternative education programs.
Richard says the only reason he filed the bill is because there's a lack of related discussion. "The governor has his package and I think it's a great start. But we have to take a look at discipline, too," Richard says. "That is the biggest problem we face in public schools. The idea that kids can be arrested for certain crimes and then the principals have to let them back in some cases needs to be fixed. The principals need more control over who is allowed to reenter their schools."
While suspensions and expulsions have decreased over the past five years in Louisiana, in-school suspensions represent the only category that has increased, from 80,500 in 2005-2006 to 83,700 in 2010-2011, the state Department of Education has found. In theory, Richard's proposed law would curb this figure by giving local school boards the option to place these students in alternative programs or send them home.
Many parents, who would then be responsible for child care during the workday, will surely find fault with this idea. "There's nothing easy about this. But we have to try," Richard says. "I understand that there should be exceptions in certain cases, and I'm going to look at that. But we can't allow students to disrupt our classrooms. Where do they belong? Do they belong at home? It's tough to say, but I am going to make sure we have that conversation during the regular session."
The concept is especially troubling to certain nonprofit groups like Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children. During the past year, FFLIC has been particularly active in the New Orleans area, hosting rallies, publishing reports and overseeing other outreach.
Executive Director Gina Womack argues that schools are using expulsions, arrests and alternative-school referrals as a way to rid their classrooms of what she calls "unwanted" children. Moreover, she says the increase in out-of-school disciplinary tactics and the increase in children being incarcerated in Louisiana shows a correlation that proves the existence of a "school-to-prison pipeline."
Womack adds that Louisiana both ranks near the bottom in high school graduation rates and has the highest incarceration rates in the United States. Groups like FFLIC are concerned that school discipline sometimes pushes the proverbial envelope too far.
For example, FFLIC points to data that shows each year more than 25 percent of Louisiana students are put out of school for "willful disobedience," which includes suspensions of students in elementary grades for very minor "infractions" like being out of uniform. In the 2009-2010 school year alone, there were more than 14,600 Louisiana students suspended for being habitually tardy or absent.
Supporters thought they had a solution last year when State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, passed legislation through the House and Senate to reduce suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions by encouraging schools and districts to use positive intervention tools and strategies, such as restorative justice and peer mediation.
Jindal, however, vetoed the bill. He said at the time that "nothing in current law prevents a school board from deciding to reduce the use of suspension or expulsion, speed up the expulsion hearing, or hold parent-teacher conferences in a timelier manner."
In 2003, a law known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act was implemented in an attempt to reduce juvenile incarceration. It has several mechanisms, including an in-school program that's reward-based. Even though the law has been on the books for nine years, in-school suspensions continue to rise, as viewed from a five-year perspective.
In 2008, state Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek queried the Parish Superintendents' Advisory Council on several pieces of discipline-related legislation. In return, parish superintendents expressed outrage and agreed that they didn't want the Legislature telling them how to handle discipline problems. It was a watershed moment as far as policy goes, and that independent spirit remains today.
It's among the reasons why school discipline is a third rail issue in politics. But this year, as Jindal pushes an aggressive education package to overhaul tenure and accountability, the formula is stickier than usual. The Jindal administration is taking on the teacher unions, and any signs of support for discipline legislation might take pressure off of teachers. "It shows that students and parents might be the problem, not teachers," says one official involved in the ongoing education negotiations. "They're not going to do that."
That means, at least for now, that Richard may end up having the only game in town. Appel, the top education leader in the Senate, says he's looking forward to hearing the debate over Richard's bill. But, to be sure, he hopes it won't be the only and final word on the issue. "I'll be interested in following it," Appel says. "And I'll be interested in knowing if there will be any other discipline bills introduced. I would certainly welcome them."
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can contact him at his website: www.jeremyalford.com.