School discipline serves the important purpose of maintaining safe and orderly learning environments in our schools, but research shows that an emphasis on harsh, punitive practices, such as "zero tolerance" policies, does not improve school safety. Instead, student behavior and learning outcomes can be improved through the use of an evidence-based approach known as school-wide positive behavior support. Such an approach relies on teaching and reinforcing clear behavioral expectations, providing supports and interventions for students with challenging behaviors, and using alternatives to suspension or expulsion. Both students and society benefit when youth are not excluded from school, since such exclusion places students at greater risk of dropping out and engaging in crime and violence.
Through litigation and regulatory and legislative advocacy, ELC has worked diligently to establish the rights of students to have their individual needs, circumstances and intent considered in discipline proceedings; to have removal from school considered only as a last resort, after all reasonable intervention and prevention measures have failed to correct inappropriate behavior; and to have discipline policies and procedures established that are consistent on a statewide basis. Another priority for ELC has been to firmly establish the right to alternative education for the uncommon student whose dangerous or overly disruptive behavior requires his or her removal from a traditional public school. In ELC's groundbreaking case, P.H. v. Board of Education of Bergenfield, the New Jersey State Board of Education held, in separate opinions, that students expelled from school are entitled to an alternative education program until age 20, and that students suffer irreparable harm when their education is disrupted, necessitating the provision of alternative education.
ELC's discipline advocacy efforts contributed to New Jersey's adoption of statewide discipline regulations in 2005. Those regulations protect the due process rights of students in all disciplinary proceedings, emphasize the use of prevention and intervention before school removal, require the provision of educational services within five days of removal from school, and restrict the use of expulsion to students who commit a second expellable offense after receiving an alternative education program (N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7).
Advocacy in the area of school discipline has increasingly focused on halting what is known as the "school to prison pipeline." This pipeline is the result of combining overly harsh disciplinary action with an increasing reliance on police involvement in response to misbehavior in schools, thereby pushing some students out of school and into the juvenile justice system. It is of particular concern because of the disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions to discipline students of color. ELC participates in the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which uses the combined force of organizations throughout the nation to advocate for an end to school pushout; alternatives to zero tolerance, punishment and removal; and the right of every child to receive a quality education and to be treated with dignity and fairness.
In addition, ELC provides legal assistance to students in discipline cases and monitors implementation of New Jersey's discipline regulations. State regulations seek to limit the P.H. ruling by authorizing the permanent cessation of public education services to certain students who commit expellable offenses after receiving alternative education. However, the regulations do so by improperly asserting that a student can waive his or her constitutional right to an education through conduct alone and without considering less restrictive alternatives to the permanent cessation of education services. In ELC's opinion, expulsion is a disciplinary measure that is rarely, if ever, constitutional, so ELC encourages parents of students facing expulsion to contact our office for legal assistance.
ELC Publications on Student Discipline
For more, visit the Publications page.
NJ Regulations on Programs to Support Student Development (including Student Conduct, Intervention and Referral Services, Alternative Education)
"Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies" Advancement Project (2000)
"The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment" Russell Skiba, University of Nebraska (2000)
Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence
US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports
For more, visit the Resources page.
Board of Education of Bergenfield
The New Jersey State Board of Education held, in separate opinions, that students expelled from school are entitled to an alternative education program until age 20, and that students suffer irreparable harm when their education is disrupted, necessitating the provision of alternative education. [State Board Docket #60-00 and 27-01 (December 5, 2003)].
Additional P.H. Decisions
P.H. v. Board of Education of Bergenfield, State Board Docket # 60-00 and 27-01 (July 5, 2002)
P.H. v. Board of Education of Bergenfield, State Board Docket # 60-00 and 27-01 (October 3, 2001)
P.H. v. Board of Education of Bergenfield, State Board Docket # 60-00 and 27-01 (September 5, 2001)
Board of Education of Collingswood
ELC successfully challenged expulsion and gained reinstatement of a fifteen year old student who was expelled under Collingswood School District's policy of zero tolerance for bomb threats. The student in question, who had no history of disruptive or dangerous conduct in any setting, had changed a computer shutdown screen to read, "If you turn me off I will blow up." [State Board Docket #34-99 (July 5, 2000)]
ELC News Stories on Student Discipline
For a complete list of stories, visit the Student Discipline and Bullying section of the News Archives page.